Tom Canan looks across the baseball field and sees his son, Will, out in right field, smiling sweetly. He aches to toss a ball to his boy, to see him run and stretch out his glove to catch it. But it's been years — more than six heartbreaking years — since Tom and Will have played catch. Six years since Tom has been able to wrap his arm around his son's shoulders after a game. Six years since Will passed away, after bravely battling cancer for more than half of his short life.
What Tom sees across the baseball field now is Will's picture, his smiling face beaming down from the scoreboard erected in his honor at Miracle Field in northwest Rochester. The scoreboard is one of the ways Tom and his wife, Liz, are keeping Will's memory alive. "As hard as it is to lose a child, for the child to be forgotten makes it even worse," Tom tells us.
No one understands that better than other parents who have lost children. Each year, a group of them gathers together at the Mayo Clinic Children's Remembrance Ceremony to honor sons and daughters whose lives ended far too soon. Tom was one of the speakers at this year's event, sharing stories of Will, who will be forever 14, and the lessons learned through his illness and loss. "The world seems to march on mostly without you," he told the group, "some people wondering when you will be done grieving and get back to being your old self because they perceive you have grieved long enough, and you trying to tell them that your world has been irrevocably changed in ways they likely cannot ever perceive."
We asked Tom for his thoughts on how to support friends and loved ones enduring such an unfathomable loss. Reaching out on difficult days can be a balm, he told us. A child's birthday, the anniversary of their diagnosis, and that of their passing can be especially painful days for parents. Holidays can be difficult, too. Checking in "shows you remember the child and their impact, even more so as the years go by," Tom says. For families whose children are receiving treatment, a homemade meal is a welcome gift. During Will's many hospitalizations, "plenty of people told us to let us know if we needed anything," Tom says. "Other people just showed up at our door with a warm meal and the love that goes with it. They put their words into action, a wonderful, tangible gesture.”
Since Will’s passing, the Canans have channeled their love and grief into tangible gestures for others. Each summer they sponsor a trip to a Minnesota Twins game for families who are part of Brighter Tomorrows, an organization Liz co-founded to support families facing childhood cancer. (The couple also helped start Tomorrow's Chapter, a bereavement support group.) To mark Will's birthday, the Canans coordinate an annual Dr. Seuss book drive, collecting stories by one of Will's favorite authors and donating the books to children at the Mayo Clinic Children's Center and the Ronald McDonald House.
Reaching out to others and giving back "is the only way you can have any good come out of this," Tom tells us. "Our lives will never be the same now that our children have left us," he said at the remembrance ceremony. "But we are richer for the much too short time we got to spend with them and the many life lessons they taught us along the way. We will never forget them, ever."
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