Emma’s Haircut: Helping young children understand cancer

By Florence Gelo, DMin, NCPsyA

EmmasHaircutI have worked as a therapist for a psycho-oncology program for over a decade. It is both challenging and rewarding to enter the lives of women in crisis, to hear their stories, to listen to their fears or questions about mortality, and to experience their emotions and thoughts about the meaning of their lives. I am present during a time when the news of cancer has invariably changed their lives as they knew them.

There are many urgent questions and practical dilemmas faced by young mothers with cancer. But until I met 32 year old Emma, I had no idea what was involved in making sense of this experience for young children in order to provide them with emotional safety.  As the poet Chaim Stern writes:

It is a fearful thing
to love
what death can touch.

Emma was determined to help her young children cope with the realities of her cancer and treatment, and to help them understand the changes that would affect their daily routines. One of the most dreaded aspects of cancer treatment is hair loss. Emma’s 22 month old daughter, Alex, loved to stroke Emma’s hair. How could Emma tell her daughter that mommy would soon be bald?  How could she reassure her three year old, Peter, that his fierce and urgent hugs hadn’t pulled out her hair?  Emma asked her oncologist for advice, and the oncologist recommended she have a shaving party with the children and document the experience.

Emma eagerly embraced documenting her story through film, determined to help other young mothers facing the same circumstances. She invited me in as a filmmaker into her suddenly upside-down life.  Preparing for the film helped Emma and her husband to clarify their thinking about how best to help the children cope with their fears about her illness.

The resulting short film, Emma’s Haircut (12 min), offers a glimpse into the intimacies of a family creatively coping with cancer.  The film emphasizes that young children are always aware of illness in the family; daily routines are disrupted, and parents’ physical and emotional availability change. But even though young children often know more than their parents realize, they may misunderstand what is happening. The film emphasizes the critical role of communication among family members and creative participation in family coping.

Today, Emma reports that her family’s life has almost returned to normal, though the children occasionally bring up the issue of her cancer. The film has garnered widespread praise. Viewers most appreciate the genuine interactions portrayed in the film. One viewer observed:

 “This brief but potent film exquisitely places the viewer in a private ritual in which a family attempts to confront the ravages of cancer. By creating a ceremony involving the members, we witness their raw responses and emotion. Their feelings are authentic and powerfully moving. The viewer observes and experiences these precious and tender moments first hand. The film is truly a gem! It can be viewed over and over again to open for dialogue the complexities of emotion, love, attachment, fear and compassion.”

When coupled with a discussion group, Emma’s Haircut is a film with the power to teach, inspire and change.  A social work professor reports that she will use this video with her students to sensitize them to the needs of patients and their families who are fighting this all-too-common disease.

Although Emma’s family, a white middle class household in the northeastern United States, reflects only one small segment of the diverse population of young mothers with cancer, I hope this effort will encourage other families and filmmakers to document similar stories.

Gelo HeadshotFlorence Gelo, D.Min, NCPsyA  is Associate Professor in the Department of Family, Community and Preventive Medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine and the Director, of the Humanities Scholar’s Program. Emma’s Haircut is her second film. She previously produced and directed The HeART of Empathy: Using the Visual Arts in Medical Education, winner of the 2009 Family Medicine Through the Visual Arts Award.