In the early years of her practice, Dr. Diane Komp reported to the bedside of dying children out of duty. But one day the scene that followed changed her life. Just before seven-year-old Anna died, she mustered the strength to sit up in bed and cry: “The angels–they’re so beautiful! Mommy, can you see them? Do you hear their singing? I’ve never heard such beautiful singing!” Then she lay back on her pillow and died, reports Komp in her book Images of Grace (Zondervan).
Anna’s vision was the first of many such supernatural visitations that Dr. Komp witnessed at the bedside of dying children. Although Komp was an atheist at the time, the children’s dreams and visions forced her to reexamine the faith she had discarded while she was in medical school.
Surely dying children have no agenda, thought Komp, no reason to deceive me. They simply report what they see. They are, Komp reasoned, reliable witnesses.
That was more than thirty years ago. Today, thanks to progress in cancer treatments, fewer children die of cancer. But the miracle of children–and their families–finding peace with God has not diminished.
Diane Komp is known for her remarkable insights on life, insights she says she learned from the children she treats. “When I listen to kids I get much more sensible answers than when I listened to adults. So I listen to their stories, then write them down. I’m just the secretary,” says Komp, with a grin.
Elizabeth joined Dr. Komp, a pediatric oncologist at Yale University School of Medicine, over lamb curry at her favorite Indian restaurant, then later in her home in the woods of nearby Guilford, Connecticut, to talk about God, faith, hope, love and how God redeems the heartaches we all face as women.
ES: Most women can’t imagine a worse career than being a children’s cancer doctor. How do you cope with having to face seriously ill, even dying, children every day?
DK: Before I was a Christian I tried to maintain some emotional distance, but my strategy of remaining emotionally detached from my patients didn’t work. One of the bittersweet privileges of caring for children with cancer is you grow to love them and bask in that love returned. For me, treating cancer patients is like giving birth. You feel intense pain. In those moments of intense pain you have to remind yourself that there will be an outcome–that the pain won’t last forever. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel tells of an old saying: “It is better to have a horrible ending than to experience horror without ending.”
Having said that, I can still think of about a half dozen situations where the labor pains were so strong that you couldn’t believe that there was going to be a blessed event. Just two weeks ago we had a six-year-old boy who was dying and wanted to go home. But this kid had so many medical problems–going home was going to be a strategic nightmare. He had seizures that were not responding well to the medication, he was agitated, and his belly was filling up with fluid, causing distention and pain.
I met with his parents. They knew their son was dying. The dad mentioned an article he had read about doctors who pray–I was one of the doctors quoted in that article. So I said, “Well, why don’t we pray together?” I wasn’t sure what I should ask God to do. I was very uncomfortable.
Finally, I said, Lord, whatever healing you want to bring into this situation–do it. I prayed for the seizures, the agitation, and the fluid–asking God to bring these to a point where home care was an option. That afternoon the agitation stopped, the seizures got under control, and the fluid stopped building up.
Everybody–the neurosurgeons, neurologists, general surgeons, social workers–knew we were praying. They all saw the three problems come into control and stay in control. And the boy went home.
ES: How did you know how to pray?
DK: I didn’t really. I thought it was the most challenging home care case I’d ever seen. It seemed impossible. We knew he was dying. We weren’t expecting a miracle. It was one of those times where you knew the Holy Spirit was giving the words. No words were coming from me. Then there have been other times when I’ve been bold enough to say to a young doctor, “I can’t tell you what is going to happen, but I do promise that you will know the presence of God in this situation before it is over.” Without any idea of what was going to happen!
There was one situation where the patient was a Christian–a fifteen-year-old boy. His faithful companion was a young Jewish doctor. The doctor was aware of his patient’s faith because the kid had shared his faith. The doctor was very fond of this kid. The young doctor thought that this kid was going to have a triumphal death without any fear. As long as the doctor did his job taking care of the pain and the medical end, he thought that morally, spiritually, socially, everything–this was going to be a good death. The doctor was thrown for a total loop when this fifteen-year-old Christian boy told him he was afraid to die.
When the doctor tried to make arrangements for him to go home with hospice, the boy felt abandoned. He was afraid he was going to bleed to death. Rather than feeling, “Thank-you, that’s wonderful, I never realized I’d have a chance to go home”–he heard it as abandonment.
This young doctor came to talk to me. He said, “I don’t understand. He’s a Christian. When he dies, he’s going to be with Jesus.” So we went and talked to this kid. I asked him, “What is it you fear most about dying?” And he shared. It was what was going to happen to his mom. She was a single mom, a widow. He had an older brother who was a motorcycle creep. The sick kid was the “good kid,” her faithful companion. The older brother gave her nothing but trouble. He told me, “I don’t know what is going to happen to my mom.”
So I went to talk to his mom. I told her, “Your job is to tell him in very concrete terms, why you know you are going to be okay. Not just that you will be okay, but why you know that.” And she did that. And the peace of Christ came into that situation. His nose that wouldn’t stop bleeding, stopped bleeding. He died two days later and there was perfect peace. Both the young doctor and I were there at the death. His mother was in the bed with him, holding him in her arms, talking to him about his travel to Jesus. And this doctor listening in.
ES: What happened to this young Jewish doctor?
DK: Oh, he’s a work in progress. He is still watching for those holy moments, I think.
ES: Is God always there? Is he always present when a child is dying?
DK: I believe God is present. But that doesn’t mean that every child has supernatural visitations. I think God chooses when those holy moments happen in our presence. I think that the supernatural visitations I have witnessed have been a gift of God to me for my nurture. I can’t expect it, but I cherish the gift if it comes. Do you know that old hymn, Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart? One of the verses comes to mind whenever I think of this:
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasy
No sudden rending of the veil of clay
No angel visitant, no opening sky
But take the dimness of my soul away.
When parents ask me how I can get God to give their child a supernatural gift, I tell them that the real good news is that God gave Himself–for everyone to read and experience in the Bible. Nothing I’ve ever heard from the children is in conflict with what I’ve read in the Bible.
ES: So much of what you have said today–and written in your books–seems to say that good comes out of the deaths of these children. That having a child with cancer forces families to deal with their unfinished business. Is illness always redeeming?
DK: No, not always. Let’s take marriage for example. My observation is this–if the marriage of the parents already has problems, the death of their child will blow it out of the water. On the other hand, if a marriage has something really worthwhile about it, this will bring the couple closer together. Nobody treads water and stays in the same place.
ES: You’ve also said that parents of children with cancer face the ordeal the same way Abraham faced his journey up Mount Moriah–the journey he took intending to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
DK: Yes. Every family is a bit like Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. Old Testament theologian Phyllis Trible says that Abraham’s faith was challenged because of his idolatry of his son. Abraham had allowed Isaac to replace Yahweh as the primary object of his adoration. We all wrestle with this. God says to each of us: Thou shalt have not other gods before me! For some it is their child, for others their infertility. I wrestle with idolizing my manuscripts! God has asked me, Which do you love more, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or your book about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Some families whose children have cancer return from their journey up Mount Moriah with their children, others do not.
Every day I watch “Sarahs” lead their tearful children to the treatment room. These moms hope that the first Sarah’s good fortune will parallel their own. But not all do.
ES: You say that couples who face Mount Moriah initially try to bargain with God. They promise to be less materialistic, if only God will heal their child.
DK: Yes. The dads denounce their materialistic, workaholic ways. They promise they will put their families first. Then they realize that there is no bargain to be made. The women struggle with letting go. They can believe God can move mountains. They might believe God can cure cancer. But they can’t believe that if they let go of their children, God can take care of them. That is the toughest one. The parents often bear their child’s death as wounds. Parents are abandoned by their friends and people judge their bereavement. They see it in their eyes. We remove permission to talk about the loved one that has died. Every time I do a bereavement group in a secular setting, I ask people to share examples of stupid things that someone said that were supposed to be comforting. Ninety percent are theological in content. On the other hand, there is something in the parent-child relationship I wish could be there when an adult child sees his parent die or a wife sees her husband die. There is something in the beauty of reconciliation possibilities with children that isn’t always there with adults.
ES: Why is that?
DK: Children force us into confessing our own faults. They will cry, then we respond, “Oh, I’m sorry.” They don’t hide their hurt for years and then have it come busting out of the seams when Mom gets breast cancer or Dad gets Alzheimers. Children keep short slates.
ES: So they are not guilty nor do they make the people who take care of them feel guilty?
DK: That’s right. And they say thank you. I can’t tell you how many children have said to their parents in such heartfelt, but spontaneous ways, “Thank you for being my mother.”
A serious illness or death of a child has a tremendous impact. So many parents tell me, “Obviously I wouldn’t have wanted my child to die, but I wouldn’t want to go back to being the person I was before my child was sick.”