The co-writer of Letters to God knows the answers to these questions because he has lived through it. Patrick Doughtie, the film's co-director and co-screenwriter, lost his son Tyler after a valiant fight against a rare and aggressive type of brain cancer.
Letters to God is based on the true story of Tyler Doughtie. Patrick says his son was his inspiration in life. After Tyler's death in 2005, as Patrick reflected on the boy's upbeat mindset and invincible spirit, God gave him the determination to go on living, loving, and believing. Two years later he wrote the screenplay to Letters to God.
Like Patrick, many of us know too well the pain of loss. Maybe you're struggling right now with a disease that is threatening the life of your child or another family member. I had the privilege of talking to Patrick in an email interview, and I believe you'll find tremendous comfort and courage as you read these inspiring words from the father of the boy who gave life to this story.
I hope you'll see the movie, too. Patrick wants readers to know that Letters to God isn't a sad movie about a child with cancer. "It's a celebration of life," he said, "and an uplifting and inspirational movie about hope and faith! I feel it has something to offer everyone, regardless of your faith or belief, because cancer doesn't care what you believe in or how much money you make. It'll come knocking at your door no matter who you are."
Advice for ParentsI asked Patrick what advice he would give to parents who have just heard the diagnosis, "Your child has cancer."
"As hard as it is to hear these words," he said, "it is more important at this time to stay strong for your child, stay hopeful, and focus."
Patrick recommends parents stay focused on the best possible treatment for their child. "So many cancers can be cured or at least put into remission if properly cared for by doctors with experience in their type of cancer," he explained.
Patrick also stressed the need to ask lots of questions. "Ask as many as you'd like and don't worry about how silly you may think they sound at the time."
Build a Network of SupportNetworking with other families going through a similar struggle is something Patrick advocates as a solid source of support. "Social media these days, as compared to when we were going through it, is tremendous! So much more information is available at your finger tips ..." However, he warned, "Don't take everything as gospel! Most importantly, once you've found the right doctor and hospital to treat your child, find a church and submerse yourself in the family. Keep your faith. Your child can sense your weak moments.
Coping Through the StressIn 2003, when Tyler was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, both Patrick and his wife, Heather, were devastated. Heather, who is Tyler's step-mom, found out she was pregnant just two weeks before Tyler was diagnosed. Patrick recalled, "You can imagine, it wasn't a great pregnancy for her. She was left alone a lot while I was in Memphis, Tennessee, taking care of Ty. She had to keep everything together at home, along with our daughter, Savanah, who had just turned six."
Six months into the pregnancy, Heather experienced complications and was confined to bed rest for the last two months. "She was very upset also during this time because she couldn't be with us while Tyler was receiving treatments," said Patrick.
Separation added to the tension, as Patrick and Heather were only able to see each other for occasional weekend visits. "Bad for her," explained Patrick, "was that she caught much of my stress during this time. Many of my emotional moments were released on her. I thank God every day that she's stuck by my side through all of this and continued to support me and be my rock!"
Nothing Left to GiveWhen parents battle cancer or other serious illnesses with a child, often one of the hardest things to do is to remember to give themselves to the loved ones who will go on living after the fight is over. Letters to God highlights the importance of this through the experiences of Tyler's teenage brother, Ben.
"The character of Ben is very real," said Patrick. "Many siblings tend to get forgotten during these times. I, myself, had forgotten that even though Tyler was going through his cancer treatments ... operations and more, that Savanah, and even Heather, my wife, needed my attention when I was entirely focused on Ty. This caused a lot of strain on all of our relationships. Savanah yearned for my attention when I came home, but I had nothing left. I was emotionally and physically drained like no other time in my life. Even the most difficult days laboring at a construction site couldn't compare to how drained I was when I would come home."
Patrick admits there were some days he'd rather forgetor changeif he could. "This is part of the reason why so many families are destroyed during times like these, and why it's so important to draw closer to God and lean on Him," he said. "I don't know where I would be or how I could have gotten through without faith."
The Family of GodDuring a family crisis, the body of Christ is intended to be a source of strength and support. Yet, the church's efforts to help the hurting, though usually well-intentioned, can oftentimes be sadly misguided. I asked Patrick about his experiences with the family of God, and what he considers the most important things we can do to help families who are fighting cancer.
"I feel that as a church, the best thing you can offer someone dealing with these types of trials is to listen," he said. "There really isn't anything you can say that is wrong. Just say something."