Collateral Damage and Returning to Calm Waters


Collateral Damage and Returning to Calm Waters

Collateral damage is damage to things that are incidental to the intended target.  It is frequently used as a military term where it can refer to the incidental destruction of civilian property and non-combatant casualties. ~ Wikipedia

It is clear there are many motivations to cause someone to write, to share, to express, and sometimes to vent.  I was tempted to vent today.  Upon reflection I shall not.  Not because it mightn't be cathartic. Because venting is not particularly useful in this case. This case is about the insidious impact of cancer and it's continuing ability to throw curves and the occasional knuckleball.

My story today revolves around the notion of collateral damage and it has specific reference to my sons and is even more directly centered on Gabriel, our five-year old.

Regular readers will know that when Katie was diagnosed Gabriel had only recently turned four while Sammy was just approaching two.  If we are grateful for anything related to this it is that Sammy was too young to comprehend that an asteroid had just hit his house and the next couple of years would be spent in recovery and rebuilding.

Gabriel on the other hand has been a sensitive soul since birth.  He's a lovely boy with big brown eyes and a thriving curiosity about all that surrounds him.  A student at Clanmore Montessori, he was being taught to explore, touch, feel, and sense all that he came in contact with and his teachers had done (continue to do) a wonderful job in forming his mind.

The formation of a child's mind is a hugely complex undertaking and one we're learning more about every day.  We are fervent disciples of Dr. Dan Siegel's book The Whole Brain Child and it was a passage within it that partially gave rise to this posting.

"In fact, even though entire libraries have been written discussing mental illness, mental health is rarely defined.  Dan has pioneered a definition of mental health that researchers and therapists around the world are now beginning to use.  It's based on the concept of integration and involves an understanding of the complex dynamics surrounding relationships and the brain.  A simple way to express it, though, is to describe mental health as our ability to remain in a 'river of well-being.'

"Imagine a peaceful river running through the countryside.  That's your river of well-being.  Whenever you're in the water, peacefully floating along in your canoe, you feel like you're generally in a good relationship with the world around you.  You have a clear understanding of yourself, other people, and your life.  You can be flexible and adjust when situations change.  You're stable and at peace.

"Sometimes, though, as you float along, you veer too close to one of the river's two banks.  This causes different problems, depending on which bank you approach.  One bank represents chaos, where you feel out of control.  Instead of floating in the peaceful river, you are caught up in the pull of tumultuous rapids, and confusion and turmoil rule the day.  You need to move away from the bank of chaos and get back into the gentle flow of the river.

"But don't go too far, because the other bank presents its own dangers.  It's the bank of rigidity, which is the opposite of chaos."*

It is difficult for me to contemplate the notion of mental health when thinking about my children.  One has a perspective of them as being total innocents just beginning a wonderful journey through a sparkling life where little can intrude upon their sense of wonder apart from the occasional scuffed knee or earache.  Until I began to think of my boys as little people, not just tiny toys, none of this made sense.

Then I realized that Gabriel had been floating along pretty comfortably until his Mommy and Daddy moved from Toronto to Oakville when he was still an infant.  Then Mommy and Daddy introduced to him another human, a brother, a sibling, a rival - something that quite often smelled bad and made a lot of noise at inconvenient times and seemed to get an awful lot of attention.  Then Mommy and Daddy decided to move him and, by the way, bring along that little smelly, noisy thing to another new house.

And then...

Mommy got sick.

His canoe now was well and truly bumping along the banks of chaos and what made it even worse was that his Daddy may not even have noticed because Daddy was preoccupied with the fact that...

Mommy was sick.

For grown-ups the onslaught of a cancer diagnosis is overwhelming.  Can you begin to imagine the impact upon a little boy, very aware of his environment trying to understand that something very different was going on in his family but being incapable of fully absorbing, expressing, and understanding?  Can you imagine, when it is so important for all of us to feel felt, what this little boy was struggling with and doing so all the while enveloped in a cloud of big-person words and clearly confused parents who were behaving very oddly and not at all in the way to which he had become accustomed?

Can you then begin to imagine what happens to the parents when they begin to witness behavioural changes in their little angel?  What's going on?  Is this just a phase?  Surely he's not succumbing to the same fears and uncertainties that we are just learning to manage?  After all, he's just a little boy.  He can't understand what cancer is and what it might potentially mean and really, we've been ever so careful to gently inform him in ways that we thought to be open yet non-threatening to his welfare - both physical and emotional.

I am here to tell you folks, your kids get it.

I am here to tell you Dads, your sons and daughters know what's happening.

I am here to tell you caresharers that your caregiving activities just got bigger and even more complex.

And, I hope I am here telling you this before you wake up one morning and realize that there has been collateral damage in your home.

Wrap your children in whatever approach you decide to take.  Keep them informed or shelter them.  Try to teach them about chemo sharks or keep these discussions to late-night parental conversation.  Whatever you choose be consistent.

We chose to bring our children into the fold and to share, as best we could, what was happening at all stages.  We believe that they are intelligent and won't succumb to parental anxiety.  While that may have been wrong at the very least we stuck to our guns and didn't try to blow smoke.

If Gabriel has become anxious about talk of doctors and hospital visits, that is our accountability.  It is further our accountability to help him find his way through this by helping him continue to grow his whole brain.

That is our vow.  We cannot undo what has been done but we can certainly bring an even more mindful approach to ensuring that the collateral damage caused by this horrid disease does not disable our kids' emotional connection to the ups and downs of life.

With perseverance and commitment we will find a way to bring Sam and Gabe back to the middle of the river and provide them with the smoothest ride possible while still helping them acknowledge the realities of life and living.

*Copyright 2011 by Mind Your Brain, Inc., and Bryson Creative Productions Inc.

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Don,\r\n\r\nI admire you for the way that you handle caring for your wife and children.That was an excellent post.


Thanks G-J.


Hi Don--Wow--you've nailed this one: Collateral damage. I think you're right--it's not about pretending life can't be difficult. It's about acknowledging life will present challenges and upsets and difficulties and demonstrating good coping strategies to keep going. Because we can't stop in the middle of the river. \r\n\r\nAbout six weeks ago, I had a guest on my talk show discuss how caregiving affected her childhood: Her mother had a major strike the summer before she entered her senior year of high school. What helped her most was watching how her father coped. He didn't avoid, pretend or hide. He coped and that helped her cope, too. (Here's the show recap and replay if you'd like to listen:\r\n\r\n(Just thought of this: I had another guest join me talk about the affect of her mom's cancer during her childhood; you can read recaps and listen to replays here: