Parents Help Each Other Through Illness at Chai Lifeline Winter Retreat
“Now I Know that I’m Normal:”It was the end of a long Shabbos, one that had been filled with the sharing of information and emotion, when a Chassidic woman turned to a new friend and said, “I’m so glad that I came this weekend. Now I know that I’m normal.”
The exchange took place at Chai Lifeline’s annual Winter Retreat, a unique event that brings together families battling pediatric illness with mental health professionals and inspirational rabbinic figures. Its goal is to enable families to find chizuk in multiple ways: by sharing experiences with each other in the therapist-facilitated support groups, through the inspirational addresses of the Retreat’s esteemed scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Ephraim Eliyahu Shapiro, and by welcoming new friends into their lives during the leisurely meals and social activities of the weekend.
“Families who have to live with illness are living their own worst nightmare,” remarked Rabbi Simcha Scholar before the weekend began. “At the Retreat, they discover that the nightmare is not as terrifying if they can share it with friends. As they connect, they find they are not only being helped, but are helping as well.”
Rabbi Shapiro, morah d’asrah of Congregation Shaaray Tefilah in North Miami Beach, FL, reinforced the notion of mutual support when he spoke to the 75 families who had gathered before ma’ariv on Friday night.
“When the sun and the moon were created, they were both equal. Stars were created to give support to the moon only when it was diminished. That’s why Jews are compared to stars. Our job is give support to those who need it,” he stated. “Why is the heart on the left side of the body? The right is usually the more important side, so why is the heart on the left?” Answering his own question, he said, “Because when I look at you, my heart is on your right side. My heart belongs to you.”
That peer support was evident as families talked animatedly during the leisurely Shabbos dinner. Conversations quickly progressed from questions of geography and friends in common to hospitals, procedures, and ways of coping with the stress and uncertainty of illness. A mix of families in various stages cemented bonds
As in previous years, participants included several families whose children had finished treatment. When formerly-ill children begin a new phase of their lives, parents are often filled with a mixture of optimism and concern. Dr. Daniel Armstrong, a renowned psychologist who specializes in families of post-treatment children, led workshops for these parents. His reflections, comments, and perceptions helped guide parents who find themselves in a new netherworld, and gave them a framework for coping with some of the “what ifs” and “maybes” of their new lives.
The comments of a young woman who had been treated for cancer as a young girl, delivered during the “parents’ panel” on Friday evening, were cause for optimism. As she described the years of treatment and her current life as a wife, mother, and business owner, the excitement in the room was palpable. “Look at the possibilities,” parents seemed to say to one another. Many had tears in their eyes as she concluded, “Cancer doesn’t define me. It is just one of the experiences that made me who I am today.”
The cumulative effect of structured support through therapist-facilitated groups, inspirational keynotes and time with other parents had its intended effect. “I learned that everything I do and feel is normal,” the Chassidic mother said as she looked for her son. The relief in her tone and body language was evident. “Through Chai Lifeline, I’ve found a world of support, like a Big Brother for my boys, and activities for my girls. But this was wonderful. I felt like I belonged.” Though her son was young, she still wanted him to experience Camp Simcha. “It would be good for him to be in a place where he feels normal, too.