This year, Creed Campbell would have celebrated his 14th birthday.
His mom, Stephanie, should’ve been struggling through teenage angst by now, the miscommunication that comes with being a teen parent, and the “Mom, you just don’t understand!” proclamations from behind a closed door.
She should have her group of girlfriends, also teen moms, who swap stories and laughter over half-filled glasses of wine during girls nights out.
Instead, Stephanie finds herself suspended in the odd space between grief and now, mourning the loss of her son, the once vibrant kid whose illness stripped him of so much.
It’s been seven years since his last words, “I love you, too.” It’s been seven years since Creed took his final breath in Stephanie’s arms.
Pluses and minuses
Born prematurely at 29 weeks, Creed spent the first 91 days of his life in the hospital. Upon his discharge, his parents thought the worst was behind them.
But the years to come were filled with countless middle-of-the-night ER visits, and 25 visits to Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta, all within Creed’s first five years of life. He had to re-learn how to eat, how to walk, and continued to have bouts of infection and sickness. Blood tests always came back normal.
The diagnosis didn’t come for five years: Monosomy 7, a chromosomal defect that affects the bone marrow and increases the risk for leukemia.
The outlook was grim, but at least they had answers. But these answers were met with tough decisions to be made — treatments that would possibly save Creed’s life, but take away his ability to one day have kids of his own. Medicines that would make him feel better now, but would cause serious problems later on.
“There was a plus or minus of every option presented to us,” Stephanie shared.
Aside from the summer of 2011, which Stephanie calls “the greatest summer of Creed’s life,” the toil on Creed’s body was just too great. He died April 2012 at the age of seven.
Walking this road together
Some days, Stephanie can make it through an entire day without crying. There are others when getting out of bed is impossible.
Looking back, one of the primary reasons she survived Creed’s illness and death was due to the support she received from her core group of friends. These were the friends she’d call in the middle of the night, the ones who would drop by the hospital just because. They did her laundry every day, mowed her lawn, brought her food, and everything in between.
“My therapist told me, ‘The greatest thing you can do is find a group of people who will commit to walking this road with you,’” Stephanie said.
How to support someone on their journey of grief
Chances are, you’ve got a friend or family member who is stumbling along their own personal journey of grief. In honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, here are five ways, according to Stephanie, to best support them during tough seasons:
1. Be present.
When someone is grieving, sometimes the very best thing you can do is simply be with them. You might not feel like your presence is enough, but it is. There’s no need to fill silences with words — having a person from the outside world often makes a person feel way better than any words ever could. Be their person, the one they can call when they’re having a down moment, or the person who will accompany them on a car ride to the hospital in the middle of the night. Just show up.
2. Don’t ask what you can do.
This seems counterintuitive to being supportive. But here’s the thing with asking, “What can I do to help?” or saying, “Let me know how I can help you”—it puts the responsibility back on the person you’re trying to help. They’re already so bogged down with sadness and decisions, they likely have no idea what they need in that moment, and your question gets added to the already-mounting stack of things to think about. Often, people will ask how they can help because saying it makes them feel better about their effort. Instead, a much better way to support your friend or family member is to…
3. Be proactive.
When someone is enduring a hard season in their lives, it’s best to tell them what you’re going to do instead of asking them what you should do (Note: There are few instances in life where this is okay). Bring a phone charger without asking. Drop dinner at the hospital front desk or on their doorstep. Cut their lawn (and keep it up). Bring a soft sweater because you know hospitals are notoriously chilly. There are no wrong answers here. If you’re truly at a loss, find a close friend or family member and ask them for suggestions.
4. Release your expectations.
When someone’s going through something, they may come off different. Maybe they seem more rude, maybe they’re using language you’re not used to hearing from them. All of this is part of the process. Show them grace and try not to take it personally—it likely has nothing at all to do with you and more about what they’re going through.
5. Love them well and keep doing it.
There’s something Stephanie calls “The Casserole Period.” It’s a time when people show up for about two weeks in support (usually in the form of a casserole) of their friend or loved one in need. But after that time period, the support usually wanes. The best thing you can do is keep showing up well after the shock wears off. Show up for them two months later. Be there for them a year from now. They’ll need all the support they can get.
To donate to CURE Childhood Cancer on behalf of Creed Campbell, you can click here.