Book Review -The Color of Rain: How Two Families Found Faith, Hope, and Love in the Midst of Tragedy
I became acquainted with Michael & Gina Spehn’s cancer journey when I saw them interviewed on television, and knew I wanted to learn more details of their story. The Color of Rain is a real-life Brady Bunch story. When two childhood friends die of cancer six weeks apart, the shared experience of loss brings their grieving spouses together. After months of late-night phone calls, family dinners, and countless dreams and tears, this unlikely pair builds a trust, a love, and a shared life. Told from alternating points of view, The Color of Rain illuminates the stepping-stones of healing that lead to a joyful new beginning for Michael and Gina Spehn and their five children.
I knew this book was not going to be easy to read, but I knew there was joy on the other side of deep despair and tragedy. This story moved me emotionally in many different ways. With Gina’s story through her husband’s cancer journey and those last weeks, days and last breaths it brought back the many tough memories of my father’s battle and death from cancer almost 4 years ago. They both have done such a great job of powerfully describing the difficulties a caregiver/loved one and also a parent struggles with walking along side someone who is dying. They also at times give you a glimpse from the patient’s perspective. I really respect the honesty they share and also helpful tips for other families faced with a tough cancer or terminal illness. If you are interested in hearing about hope through a tough journey/ways to be a positive encourager/friend when it’s tough to know how to help someone going through a tough time/or practical ideas and real-life experience helping kids walk through grief – this book provides many life lessons and observations of what to possibly expect and suggestions that might be helpful.
The following are some highlights that I hope will be helpful to you or someone you care about. I am sure the Spehn’s would not want people to think that “they have all of the answers” but hope that somehow sharing their experiences would be helpful even in some small way.
In the fall of 2001, Matt Kell describes what felt like a marble in his leg – like a tiny tumor. Per his wife Gina Kell, “Matt was first diagnosed with cancer the week of our ten-year anniversary. For several months it felt like I was watching smoke billowing from the first tower on 9/11. A tragedy was occurring in our lives, but it seemed distant. I knew what I had to do, and like a rescue worker, I sprang into action to assist and save the life of my husband.” Leiomyosarcoma – the big scary word pronounced “lie-oh-my-oh-sarcoma” is a rare form of cancer that had already claimed the lives of Matt’s dad and several other members of the Kell family.
Perspective from a cancer patient – Matt Kell: “I’m now in the biggest test. What appears to be the end-of-life. Who will I touch? How will I be perceived? Do I really believe the promises? Can I experience peace and joy (not comfort!) in my trials to come? Can I reflect eternal life in the face of earthly mortality? I have been given a gift. If I can be a positive witness as a 34-year old, father of two young boys, husband of a vibrant young wife through cancer that would be in accordance with his will and be held as a credit to me.”
The kids’ perspective: observed by Gina:
Children might become distant or frustrated that their parent isn’t spending time with them/being their “normal parent”. Sometimes parents might think at age 3 or 4 kids shouldn’t be around a dying family member, that the children might be confused or scared, but it is a good idea to try and persuade them to say good bye and whatever they want to share with the person dying and it will probably be short and sweet, but from Gina’s experience it was good closure for her kids. Gina recalls the scene with Drew: “I told him you can come with me and say good-bye. It will be okay. I’ll be right there with you.” This would not be easy, but later, there would be no regret. Or would there? Was this the lasting image they would have of their dad? What was I doing to my children?”
Different ways people try to assist when others are faced with tough times:
“The Nike’s” don’t offer to give help, they just do it. They show up with a meal or come over and look around the house for something they can do. They take out the trash or water plants, or call from the grocery store to see if you need anything. They do, without asking, and they seem to know the lines not to cross. Family members, close friends or ballsy acquaintances usually fill this role.
The “thingtimes” offer to help with “anything, anytime.” But really, they aren’t sure what they can do or exactly when they should do it. Most people fall into this category. Some want you to call them, but most hope you won’t. For the ones who do, it’s best to keep these people in your back pocket for when you are really in a pinch.
The least intrusive helper is the “Snailer.” Opening the mailbox to find cards and notes of encouragement is of vital importance. The written word is the perfect form of support. It’s personal, safe, and far more meaningful than email. While incredibly comforting, the mail also can become a measure of the severity of your situation. Ask any mail carrier, too many cards in the mailbox can be a very bad sign.
The “Mirror People” are the ones who, every time they look at you, all they can see is themselves. Filled with good intentions but in the end needing more help than they actually give, they want to go right past your experiences and tell you about their own. You find yourself consoling them, and for an odd moment it feels good not to have the spotlight on you. Then you think again and realize how strange all of this is.
Ways to help/things that are meaningful to the grieving:
Meals, but not too many. Cards that include specific remembrances of the person who has died were extremely meaningful. (Men will generally find it more difficult to accept help).
When someone dies, people tend to focus on “how sad it is that they are gone”, “how you and your family will go on, how shocking it is. . .etc., but nobody asks you about the “love of your life” that you have lost. It’s like they are afraid to open this door, but the grieving person wants to talk about them.
Someone told Michael: “You are not just grieving for the loss of Cathy. You lost someone else that day. You lost yourself. The man and husband you were when she was alive. I suspect you liked that guy. When I lost Cathy I felt as though I had lost my context. I called myself the “husband” in the forest who fell.” If she wasn’t around anymore did I really matter anymore? I had lost my love, and without it, it seemed I had no life. I instinctively began to avoid friends and even some family. I resisted help and was often annoyed at the “support” of others.”
Moving forward in life with new relationships:
In explaining love that a child might have for a new “mom or dad” one day “The kids liked the idea of growing new hearts and filling them with love for someone else. They understood that if they loved someone new, that didn’t mean betraying their late parents.”
The next chapter for these families:
“Our families came together, not as replacements, but as redemption through our willingness to love and be loved. We were being emancipated from grief itself. This didn’t mean that grief ceased to exist in our lives. It meant grief could not hold us captive and rob us of our lives.”
New Day Foundation for Families was born:
Michael and Gina began The New Day Foundation for Families, located in Rochester, Michigan, a 501©(3) dedicated to bringing understanding and hope to the families of children who suffer the devastating loss of a parent to cancer. This foundation based in Detroit, Michigan, provides financial, emotional and spiritual resources for families with children who have lost a parent to cancer. www.michaelandgina.com
The Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation is here to create a more confident cancer journey for adults anytime, anywhere. For more information on resources like the New Day Foundation as well as guidance and support, fill out our one-on-one guidance form or call us at 877-467-1936. Start your more confident cancer journey today.
Blog post submitted by Jackie Russell, Office Coordinator at MPCF