From the Front Lines

When the Unthinkable Happens to You: 7 Things That Helped Me


Discovering Claire’s cancer was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. I had so many thoughts, one of which was, “Things like this don’t happen to me.” I’m sure others have had this thought when faced with an insurmountable challenge. If you are one of those people, or if you will be someday, here are a few things that I’ve learned:   

1.     Find gratitude for whatever makes it ‘enough’:

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.” - Melodie Beattie

Throughout Claire’s treatment, when I was feeling grateful, everything seemed to be better than it actually was. Instead of feeling angry about Claire’s disease, I felt grateful that we only lived 3 miles from one of the best children’s hospitals in the nation. Instead of feeling cramped when my mother-in-law, then sister, lived with us in 1200 square feet of space for a combined 12 weeks during those first 6 months, I felt grateful that they were both willing and able to serve us. Instead of being angry with God, I felt grateful that He trusted that I could endure the trial and become better. Gratitude made whatever I had at the time enough.

What can you find to be grateful for? Cling to it with all that you are, and ask in prayer for help to see any good thing.

2.     Let it go:

The idea that you have a normal life is over. At one point during the most intense parts of Claire’s treatment, I looked down at the kitchen floor. I was flabbergasted at what I saw. LAYERS of food caked the linoleum under the table. With a toddler and a baby, it was probably only 3 or 4 days worth (okay, maybe a week), but it was disgusting. Despite the gross factor, it had to be okay. I had been at the hospital everyday with Claire that week for rounds of chemo. I had to let go of any embarrassment I felt that the babysitter saw my house like that because . . . it didn’t matter. Not that week. I give you permission to stop cleaning your house, or whatever it is that falls to the bottom of your priority list.

3.     Ask for help:

If something really overwhelming has appeared in your life, then something else will have to give. It might be your normally clean house as was my case. It might be yard care, or car maintenance, or bill paying. When we initially came home with Claire from the hospital, Dustin and I both panicked that some germ lurking somewhere would make her sick enough to be hospitalized. This was a real concern. Claire’s immune system was completely gone. I worked up the courage to ask my visiting teachers to organize a cleaning group to come to my house to sanitize every single surface – door knobs, window tracks that might have harmful mold, every wall and ceiling, furniture, cabinets inside and out, etc. It was a big job that would have felt too overwhelming for me to tackle on my own in those front line days. A group of 6 or 7 women came and took the house by storm. It was amazing. Ask.

4.     Take Control:

I heard the words, “Let me know what I can do” many, many times in those first weeks and months. I usually didn’t have an answer for them. I knew that the offer was sincere, but I didn’t know how to ask for help. Dustin on the other hand was an expert. If someone said that to him, he always gave them an assignment right away. He asked for yard care, babysitting, dinners on clinic days, etc. If you asked, Dustin had something for you. Most often, I was the benefactor of his requests. I learned a great lesson from that. Although it doesn’t feel that helpful when someone says, “Let me know if I can help,” it can be, if you decide it is.

Make a list of things that someone else could do. Keep the list in your pocket. When someone asks what they can do to help, and they will because they don’t know what you need, pull out your list and give them an assignment.

5.     Accept your circumstances:

Denial helps no one, especially not you. One time, when Claire was hospitalized for neutropenia, we roomed with two teenage boys. One had a cancer that was requiring severe rounds of chemo and radiation to shrink the tumor. The other had an ongoing blood issue since childhood. He’d been hospitalized repeatedly since he was a toddler. It was easy to think we were more fortunate than they were – to downplay our own difficult circumstances. DO NOT DO THIS. Comparing gets you nowhere. Recognize your own difficulties and do what you can to make them better. Just because someone else seems to have it worse off than you, that doesn’t mean you don’t also feel overwhelmed, frustrated, pained, sad, angry, etc. Your feelings are legitimate. Be honest about them.

6.     Shrink Your To-do List:

Make your list like you normally would. Then read it once. Then throw it away. You don’t have to do any of those things. Maybe everyone knows of your difficulties so it’s easy to do this. Like when I would apologize to someone for not calling them back in a timely manner. Their response was almost always, “No worries. You’ve got a good reason.” They were of course referring to Claire’s Leukemia. In many ways, this made it easy for me to have lower expectations for myself. But, what if your difficulty is private, but just as consuming? You still need to learn to say, “No.” You can’t do the fundraiser. You can’t help with the wedding. You can’t volunteer for the Christmas play. No one needs to know why.

7.     Confide in a Friend:

For me, this was most often the Caring Bridge blog we wrote to keep friends and family informed. Just writing the words helped me to gauge where I was and how we were doing, but a thousand times better were the comments and emails that would come after we had posted an update. It was proof that someone cared. Someone was listening. Someone else was hoping and praying for us to succeed. Other times, it was confiding privately to a good friend. If your difficulty is not something you can share publicly, I encourage you to find one friend who can keep a secret. A friend who can listen and not judge. A friend who loves you.

Hint: If you are not currently ‘on the front lines,’ I encourage you to BE the friend for someone who is. Believe me, it will come back to bless you tenfold.

What has helped you when you are hunkered down in the midst of challenges? I’d love to know. 

See this post for advice for those of you who want to help someone who is currently on the front lines.


  1. I like to do something fun. Even if it's going to the park to swing on the swings. I have also found that when I am struggling with my own challenges, it helps me to help someone else. I have been struggling with a particular challenge for many months and I think about it every day. I went to Guatemala for a service trip back in July. I realized when I landed in LAX that I thought of my problem for the first time in 8 days. It was a little miracle for me! Pity parties are always a party of one; if I invite someone else to my party, it's no longer a pity party. So that's my advice: Do something nice for someone else. It never fails to lighten my burden.

    1. Theresa, I'm so glad you commented on this blog. I actually keep up with you through facebook, and I saw that you went to Guatemala. What an amazing experience! I like that you added these two ideas - doing something fun and doing something for someone else. I agree wholeheartedly with both. Thanks for adding them. Lots of love to you.

  2. Oh no! I feel terrible. I was one of those unhelpful "let me know if I can help" people. I don't think I did a whole lot for you beyond that...maybe a little care package bag for Claire. But that clearly wasn't what you really needed! I apologize.

    1. Oh, Cailean! This list is not meant to make anyone feel guilty for things they have or haven't done. It's a life-line for people who are right at this moment feeling like they are drowning. I remember very clearly your notes and your gift to Claire. Those were more helpful, and meaningful, than you can possibly know. BTW - did you know Dustin ran a Ragnar race with Colleen? We love her! She is fabulous. Love to you and your fam.

  3. Sally, throwing away my "to-do list" would probably cause me anxiety! I thrive off of them. :) Sad I will admit! But I do agree you need to recognize your limits and shrink the list. ♥

    1. I definitely don't recommend throwing away your to-do list unless you are actually ON the front lines. It's when you're there that you need to re-evaluate what you can handle at the moment. I used to love my to-do list. After more than two years without one, I'm having a hard time getting it together, though. Well, either that, or I'm pregnant! :)