Fifty-four families living with a child’s serious illness found comfort, support, information and inspiration at Chai Lifeline’s annual LH Financial Services Winter Retreat last weekend.
The annual Chai Lifeline event fosters both communication and connection among family members and between families who are related only by the dreaded circumstances of a child’s illness. They have nothing and everything in common, and the Retreat enables them to find common ground.
“I didn’t know anyone before I came. Now I feel like I have all these real friends,” remarked a first-time participant. Next to her a counselor, one of dozens who brought their special spirit to the weekend, lifted her young son in the air, eliciting giggles she said she hadn’t heard since he was diagnosed months before. The two headed off to the playroom, where they joined a passel of other children who “used to be sick” before their parents discovered Chai Lifeline’s infectious brand of counselor-generated fun.
“It’s not a good thing that so many families have children with cancer, but some very wonderful things happened as a result of us all being together in the same place,” wrote parent David Brand in his blog. “We had never been to a gathering where differences were irrelevant. That alone was wonderful.”
“The Retreat is all about communication and connection,” noted Rabbi Simcha Scholar, Chai Lifeline’s executive vice president. “Our goal is to provide a time and place for both.”
Psychologist David Pelcovitz focused on the importance of the two “C”s during his first address to the group following a sumptuous Shabbos meal. He described a study that asked people to estimate the steepness of a hill, then climb it. Those who stood at the hill with a friend not only saw the hill as more easily surmountable, but were less tired by the climb.
“Having someone with you makes all the difference,” he said. “That’s what this weekend is all about: creating a community that will stand with you.”
Sometimes communication is what’s needed to create a community, and the Chai Lifeline weekend gave families ample opportunity to building lasting friendships. Following Dr. Pelcovitz’s addresses on Friday night and Shabbos morning, parents split into groups of fathers and mothers. Chai Lifeline’s professional staff facilitated discussions that touched on the many challenges of parenting a very sick child. This year, groups included parents at each stage of their children’s illness, from those whose children have just been diagnosed to those whose children are years post-treatment.
“I think it’s helpful for people whose children are right in the thick of things to see that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” said a mother. “You feel hopeful that your child will be well again.”
“Learning that all the other families faced very similar challenges helped us understand that we’re not entirely insane. It was very comforting,” said Brand.
Retreat mixed spiritual highs with help for the mundane
The event included both inspiring divrei Torah and practical advice for living with illness. The Retreat’s Parent Panel, always a highlight of the event, featured for the first time grandparents and a sibling in addition to a parent. Seeking guidance for their own lives, parents were eager to query the panelists.
“Did you feel that you had to shoulder too much of the household burden when your sister was sick?” one mother asked the sister of a six-year-old.
“I never felt like I was doing too much,” she replied. As the young woman described her support system, which included a large family and active grandparents, the relief in the woman’s eyes was palpable. Clearly teen’s answer was a balm that comforted a mother also worried about the residual effects of one child’s illness on her others.
As Shabbos ended, the group gathered around Rabbi Scholar, who summed up the impact of the weekend with a poem by Jonathan Butts.
“When you are sad, I will dry your tears. When you are scared, I will comfort your fears. When you are worried, I will give you hope. When you are confused, I will help you cope,” he read.
A woman turned to her friend, her face serene after a weekend of comfort and support. “That’s Chai Lifeline,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”
(YWN Desk – NYC)