A few weeks ago grieving father Andy Whelan posted a photo of his beloved four year old daughter Jessica in the midst of agony from the cancer that would soon take her life. Whelan posted the photo so that the world could appreciate the horror of childhood cancer and be motivated anew to fight it.
Like countless people around the world, when I first saw this photo a few weeks ago, I wept.
Jessica died this week and I wept again. Here is what her father wrote on the Facebook page that chronicled Jessica’s fight with neuroblastoma:
I feel both sadness and relief in informing you all that Jessica finally found peace at seven o’clock this morning. No longer does she suffer, no longer does she feel the pain of the physical constraints of her body.
Now my princess has grown her angel wings and has gone up to play with her friends and loved ones. She will now watch down over her little brother and ourselves until one day we are reunited again.
Last night she finally allowed me to hold her in my arms and we had a big cuddle as I told her how much I loved her. I told her again that it was okay for her to close her eyes and go to sleep and I kissed her forehead and her lips numerous times. It seems like this is what she needed to finally allow her to find comfort in her passing as within eight hours of this cuddle she finally took her final breath. She was a daddy’s girl from the start and even right up to the end. I feel like a massive part of me has just been torn away but I am so glad that I could give her that comfort in her final hours. She passed peacefully and calmly with not even a murmur.
Thank you to everyone of you who has shared and has been a part of our journey. I ask now for privacy for us and our family as we mourn the loss of our beautiful princess.
From a heartbroken daddy of the most amazing and beautiful girl.
The photo of Jessica is the latest entry in a gallery of human horrors that includes the Vietnam-era “Napalm Girl” (a screaming naked Vietnamese girl covered in napalm) and “The Vulture and the Little Girl” (a starving child with a vulture lurking in the background). Viewing these images takes a human toll. And that’s why I’ve decided to put Jessica’s photo at the bottom of this article so that those who choose not to view it need not be confronted by it.
The human cost of being an observer to human suffering is vividly illustrated in the story of photojournalist Kevin Carter. While he won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Vulture and the Little Girl” his role as a chronicler of such egregious human suffering took such a toll that within a year he had committed suicide. As he wrote in his suicide note,
“The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist…I am depressed…without phone…money for rent…money for child support…money for debts…money!!!…I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…”
But the emotional toll is not the only danger. Arguably a far greater danger is the cauterization of emotion. Gradually we become inured to the human suffering depicted until we can stroll through the gallery of horrors, shake our head in a brief display of pity, and then get on with our day as if nothing had changed.
The human suffering captured in images like Jessica’s pain, Napalm Girl, and the Vulture and the Little Girl should change us, and by extension the world in which we live. Viewing them imposes a moral obligation on the viewer to be changed. If we fail in this regard, then the image becomes our judge.
So how can we meet the moral obligations of viewing an image like Jessica’s suffering? How can we be faithful to her memory?
To begin with, we can resolve to redouble our efforts to reorient our priorities by reminding ourselves that life is not about any of the number of trivial pursuits that crowd our day. Rather, it is about cultivating meaningful relationships with our fellow human beings, beginning with our most intimate familial relations and extending out from there. (Of course, many of us believe it is also about cultivating a meaningful relationship with God. But let’s focus here on the ground of common agreement.)
Second, I believe we should meditate on genuine thankfulness for every opportunity we have to cultivate these relationships. Jacobean poet Ben Jonson (d. 1637) beautifully stated this sentiment when he wrote the poem “On My First Son” at the untimely passing of his beloved child:
Jonson’s profound words bring me back to the first point. Do I view my relationships with others as my “best piece of poetry”, or do I place my value and worth in projects and achievements that rust and fade?
Finally, we can commit ourselves to concrete efforts that minimize the suffering and evil endured by beloved children like Jessica. One of the most obvious points of departure would be a donation to a worthy charity. In my investigations I’ve found that one of the best is the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation which currently has a stellar four star and 100% rating on Charity Navigator. The NPCF spends 88% of funds raised on programs as opposed to administration and fundraising.
Donations are wonderful, but that is only one of a myriad of possibilities. The overarching demand from images like that of young Jessica is that we ensure they leave us and the world in which we live better than we were before we saw them.