By Rebecca Wulkan
My oldest son is 17. Then 14, and 10- and 6-year-old twins. While I don’t claim to be any kind of parenting expert, I’ve had enough experience now to know a thing or two.
My favourite learning over the years has been around Systems Theory. Family systems in particular.
Now before you cry boring, and run away, give this a chance.
In a system, we all affect each other. If you’ve ever woken up to a grumpy spouse or worked with a miserable co-worker, you know what it feels like to be affected by someone else’s mood. If you’re the one having a bad day, I guarantee that everyone around you is going to feel the brunt of it too. Whatever system we’re a part of, we’re all affected by each other.
So, what then happens in a house of seven people when the crap cancer diagnosis comes down the line? The system erupts; there is too much anxiety for the system to contain and we are at each other’s throats.
My first doctor phone call came in June 2020. He was the one to confirm that my biopsy was positive for cancer cells. My heart beat faster, my stomach flipped around and all I wanted to do was to curl up in a ball on my bed. But I had five kids to feed. Five kids to mother. Five kids whose lives wouldn’t be the same after I shared my bad news. Not only would I have to manage my own grief, but I would have help six others manage their own grief. And in the moment that I shared the news, our system changed.
Telling our kids that their mom had cancer sucked. My husband and I took turns fielding questions, but it was apparent that grief and fear had struck instantaneously. Over the next month, we tiptoed around each other. The kids weren’t totally comfortable with me, I wasn’t comfortable with myself and my husband was uncomfortable with just about everything. Fights were breaking out and patience ran thin. Our system was starting to malfunction.
As with any new diagnosis, doctor appointments, blood tests and scans become routine. I felt like I was taking off my shirt for anyone and everyone for those few weeks. And it was in one such appointment (my PET scan to be precise) that we discovered that my cancer had spread to my bones.
Over 2 days, I spent 4 hours on the phone with my oncologist during which time I asked her how to tell my kids that their mom is dying. Her answer, “Just tell them the truth.”
That family meeting didn’t go super well. I didn’t tell them that I was dying but I did tell them that I was no longer curable… just treatable… and that I’d have cancer for the rest of my life.
And as a mom, standing at the centre of the system, a pillar in our family, I had to wear my grief on my sleeve as I mopped up the tears of my kids. I had to become vulnerable and admit weakness to match their pain…and they hated me for it. They hated that I had become sick. They hated that I couldn’t fix myself. They hated the thought that one day I’d be gone.
It has been a tough few months. Awful really. There is trauma and PTSD in our household, and we struggle with anxiety in a soul-destroying way. But with time, something else has happened too, something with our family system. We’ve noticed that when one person shares a smile, the rest of us smile. When one of us laughs, we all laugh. When one person admits sadness, we gather around for a hug and a cry. As one shows vulnerability, the others show grace. And this is what’s turning our trauma and anxiety into something new and even life-giving. A family system that is working for the good of the family.
When I can be a mom that shows up calm and connected to my kids, I take back the steering wheel and drive our family back to smoother roads. When I let them see my sadness, I am offering them the opportunity to learn empathy. When I allow them to be angry, I am allowing them space to grieve.
Our family system is slowly becoming a system for nurturing and curiosity. A place for growth and exploration. A place for failure and grace and compassion. And as our fears subside, we are able to affect each other in beautiful, positive ways, building a system that is strong enough to withstand any storm.