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Nov18ThuSalvationists from Newfoundland and Labrador talk about living in the shadow of illness and grief. November 18, 2021 by Giselle Randall
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(Above) Kathleen and Darren Thompson hold a picture of their son, Andrew, who passed away at 18 after a long struggle with an undiagnosed illness
It started the summer when Andrew was 12. He had a fever that wouldn’t go down and spent a week at the children’s hospital in St. John’s, N.L., where doctors discovered his white blood cell count was low. Several months later, after they had moved to Ontario, he had a nosebleed on the bus home from school.
“We couldn’t get it to stop,” recalls his father, Darren Thompson. Their local hospital sent them to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto right away.
“That was the start of a five-year journey going back and forth to Sick Kids for weekly transfusions,” says Darren. “Sometimes we’d be there a few hours, sometimes he’d stay overnight. Every trip was an unknown.”
Andrew’s illness overshadowed his adolescence, but at 18, he was looking forward, talking about getting his GED—it had been difficult for him to attend school regularly—and starting to plan his future.
“He was just a boy trying to get his life back,” says Darren.
Searching for an Answer
Throughout Andrew’s teenage years, doctors struggled to pinpoint the underlying cause of his symptoms. At first, he was diagnosed with immune thrombocytopenia, a blood disorder characterized by a shortage of platelets—the cells that help stop bleeding. But over time, they realized it was more complicated than that.
“It was an autoimmune disease, but they didn’t know what kind,” says his mother, Kathleen Thompson. “Each time a different blood group was affected, and so they kept chasing, trying to figure out what was going on.”
As a preventive measure, Andrew had regular transfusions of gamma globulin, which decreases the immune system’s ability to attack itself, and was also put on high doses of a steroid, to control some of his symptoms.
Darren and Kathleen had to watch for fevers, as well as petechiae (clusters of small red or purple spots on the skin) around his wrists and ankles. Andrew also had nodules in his lungs that couldn’t be explained. Hospital staff called his lung X-ray “the snowstorm X-ray” because it was white instead of black.
His illness affected the whole family, including his younger siblings, Leslie and Kyle, who struggled to live a normal life while their parents juggled work, medical appointments and hospital visits, and tried to help Andrew with his feelings of fear and anxiety.
“Why Is He Going Through This?”
In March 2010, after blood work, Andrew was admitted to St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont.
“We didn’t know what we were dealing with,” says Darren. “They would start treating what they thought it was, but after a couple of days travelling down that road, they would back away and say, ‘No, it’s not this, we’ve got to change our strategy.’ ”
About six weeks later, Andrew was diagnosed with leukemia and transferred to McMaster Hospital in Hamilton.
“This is good,” Andrew responded. “Now they will be able to treat it.”
But within a couple of days, the medical team advised that Andrew did not have leukemia, and the search for answers started again. When he was moved to the critical care unit (CCU) a week later, Kathleen was told he was very, very sick. She voiced the most difficult question any mother could ask.
“Are you saying that Andrew could die?” She asked if their close family should be coming to Ontario from out of province. The doctor replied that it was probably a good idea.
Andrew was having trouble breathing, and his major organs were starting to shut down. When they put him on kidney dialysis, his heart stopped. He went on life support at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 9.
“It was supposed to give his body a break—to help him stabilize,” says Kathleen. “The doctor said he used up all the tools in his toolbox.”
“We said, ‘We love you,’ thinking that we’d see him again,” adds Darren. “We knew things were serious, but we didn’t realize he was terminally ill.”
“I didn’t think it was fair. It was very hard to understand why he was taken from us.”
As Andrew fought for his life in the CCU, Darren stepped outside for a moment, overwhelmed. He raised his fist to punch the concrete wall. Major Wilbert Abbott, their corps officer at the time, grabbed his hand.
“That’s not going to do you any good, Darren,” he said.
“Why is this happening?” Darren cried out. “Why is he going through this?”
“We don’t know why,” Major Abbott replied. “And when the time comes to find out why, it won’t matter.”
It’s the question at the heart of suffering, one that the Bible answers with another mystery— a God who came to be with us, who understands and shares our suffering, who is present with us in our pain. All through Andrew’s illness, Majors Bertha and Wilbert Abbott were present, a constant source of encouragement. And they were there when he passed away later that night.
The Pain of Grief
After Andrew’s death, they had to come to terms with being a family of four instead of five. “We were forced to join a club we didn’t sign up for,” Leslie says.
Darren slowly sank into depression.
“I was bitter and angry,” he says. “I didn’t think it was fair. It was very hard to understand why he was taken from us.”
At work, driving a city bus, he had flashbacks of Andrew in the hospital, draped in a white sheet. On days off, he would drive aimlessly, not caring where he ended up.
“Things started to eat away at me, to destroy everything that felt normal,” he says. “I was struggling to make it through the day.”
Darren and Kathleen both grew up in The Salvation Army, but now Darren started to question his faith. “Did I really believe? Or was I just in the Army because my parents were?”
When Leslie and Kyle started to ask if he was OK, he felt even worse—that he was failing as a husband and father. The thought crept in that it might be easier if he wasn’t around.
One evening, home by himself, he realized that the pill bottle on the counter was looking tempting. “When Kathleen came home,” he recalls, “I said, ‘You’ve got to take me to the hospital. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt myself.’ ”
After spending several days at a residential facility that offers specialized mental-health care, Darren returned home, more stable, but still heartbroken.
“That was the start of not wanting to attend church anymore,” he says. “It felt hypocritical to go and sing and pray. I was thinking, God, you might be there, but you took my son. So, I started to stay home. And one week turned into two and then three. Next thing we knew, it was a few years.”
But as time passed, Darren realized he was ready to return—especially after moving back to Newfoundland and Labrador last year, where they both grew up. Kathleen took a teaching position in Labrador City, and they started attending the Army corps.
“I was hesitant at first, but after we started going, we made friends and got involved,” says Darren. “I came to the point where I realized that I need God to get through. And he’s letting me know in small ways that he’s taking care of me. A couple of weeks ago, it was like the words of one chorus were chosen just for me. It felt like he was beside me.”
For Kathleen, faith has been a steady companion throughout her grief. A vision of Andrew walking toward the open arms of the Father has brought comfort. “Deep down, I always knew that Andrew was from God, and he was God’s,” she says. “I know he’s OK, where he is. I just have to deal with being OK where I am, without him.”
Over the years, they have intentionally tried to cherish their memories of Andrew, to laugh together as a family. “We’ve really fought through a lot of our grief with humour, and remembering the fun times,” says Kathleen.
Andrew was bright, compassionate and stubborn. He loved video games, rainy days and cheesy fries from Taco Bell. He was enrolled in a music program at a school of the arts. He loved Swiss Chalet, so they go every year on his birthday. He gave good hugs.
“I still hurt—that’s not going to go away,” says Darren. “But Kathleen has said many times that she would rather have had Andrew for 18 years than to not have had him at all. That’s been hitting home. We had 18 great years. Wonderful years.”
They are sharing their story in the hope that it might help someone else. “Maybe in talking about what we’ve gone through, and the difficulty we’ve had since Andrew’s been gone, it will help another family who’s lost a child, and doesn’t know where to turn,” say Darren and Kathleen. “Maybe our story is something that someone needs to hear.”
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