The Most Heartbreaking and Beautiful Story You’ll Hear Today

I just spent the past hour looking through the Facebook page of Leif Greening-Hamlin and my eyes have this weird liquid-y feeling now…

This past March, two-year-old Leif was diagnosed with a rare kind of bone cancer, Ewing sarcoma. The chemotherapy that he went through made things much worse, leaving him with liver failure. The fact that he was born premature didn’t help matters… but Leif’s fighting through it and he’s making slow, steady, gradual progress.

Just look at some of these pictures (in chronological order) and try not to fall in love with this kid:

Leif in early June

Leif wearing a duck mask in late July

That last video is from a couple of weeks ago. Just a lovely, joyful child.

The reason I’m posting about him here is because a friend of mine, who heard about the family through a mutual friend, wrote to me about them. Leif’s parents, while not explicitly atheist, are simply not religious, a fact that stands out on their Facebook page.

What you see are their raw emotions and pictures and videos… what’s missing are appeals to God to fix the situation and requests for prayer. They know those things aren’t going to help. They’re placing their faith in Leif’s doctors, where it belongs. Sure, some commenters will say they’re praying for Leif, and the parents (Mary and Eric) acknowledge that and appreciate the sentiment without being combative about it, but they themselves aren’t joining in.

You know how some people say “There are no atheists in foxholes”?

Well, here they are, experiencing the worst thing any parent could go through, and God isn’t in their thoughts at all. That’s bravery for you. They know there’s no afterlife where they would ever see their son again, so they’re making the most of the time they have with him, hoping that it’ll be extended another hour, then another week, then another month, then more.

My friend, inspired by the family’s fight, wrote this:

The string of posts on the Facebook page are truly heartbreaking, but they also serve as an object lesson in facing the worst hardships the universe can throw at us without resorting to magical thinking… [also,] the advocacy and love that these parents have shown for their child throughout — coupled with Leif’s will to live and their trust in the doctors, science, and modern medicine, even when it fails — is something that should be modeled everywhere.

I couldn’t agree more. Just go to that Facebook page and look at how powerful the family’s love for each other is. If only we could all be that strong when going through something that difficult.

And through it all, they maintain a sense of dry humor, sarcastically mentioning a “call a bishop” button and joking about how their lives are ultra fun:

As you might guess, Eric and Mary haven’t been working through this ordeal and insurance isn’t going to cover all the unexpected expenses. If you’d like to help the family out, consider chipping in a few dollars.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Jeff Wieseman

    Wow. Thanks for sharing Hemant. My thoughts are with this family.

  • Sam G

    I sure hope that kid pulls through. There is a Ewing Sarcoma Survival page on Facebook. Sadly, I quit looking at it because of all the ‘goddy’ stuff. So, in some ways, it won’t help his parents. In other ways though, they talk about good Dr.’s, protocols, what is working etc., it can really help to see others in the same battle.

  • imjustasteph

    The first time I heard the ‘no atheists in foxholes’ line was from a woman who used it to explain to me that there are also ‘no atheists with sick children’, in reference to her own family’s suffering at the time. I was really confused, since I’d never heard the term before and was pretty certain that both exist.

    I wish this family all the best, and I wish this child the best, most competent doctors, and all the medical ‘miracles’ he can get.

  • Cindy

    Thanks for posting this, Hemant. I not only donated to Leif’s fund, but also discovered that they are less than 10 miles away from me and my family. We have reached out to them via “Leif’s Champions” to see if we can be of further help. Thanks again!

  • gg

    I agree it is a heartwarming story, but do you have the family’s permission to post the pictures? I get kind of creeped by children’s pictures used without parental permission.

  • Beau in Tulsa

    Man.. dang it, Hemant.. why do you do this to me…

    Anyone with children can’t help but tear up about this kind of stuff…
    I know what I must do.

    Thanks for letting us know.

  • Rich Wilson

    Considering all of these pictures are marked as ‘global’ on FB, I think the permission is at least implied.

  • Eric Hamlin

    Hi Hemant -

    This is Eric Hamlin, Leif’s dad. I was clued in to your post by my friend, Kurt Volkan (who may have been the person who brought us to your attention in the first place). Thanks very much for the kind thoughts. (And yes, it’s okay for you to use Leif’s pictures. We’ve had many debates about whether be more private about the whole thing, but we continue to let it all hang out).

    Actually, with regard to the religious posters on Leif’s page, my gorge does tend to rise occasionally. Although I consider myself a devout agnostic — willing to entertain and consider anybody’s beliefs, no matter how bananas — there were a couple of “Army of Jesus”-style commenters that I had to delete.

    Anyway, once again, thank you for your generous sentiment. It’s been a hard journey, and we’re not even halfway through. We need all the kindness we can get.


  • wmdkitty

    I’m childfree and I’m choking up.

  • LesterBallard

    I can generally handle things like this; I’ve dealt with the brutal loss of a child in my family. I can’t handle it when people start talking about god; god’s plan, god knows best, god works everything for his glory, what have you. If that is how they deal with life, just keep it personal.

    All I can say is my thoughts are with the Hamlin family.

  • crden

    When my child got quite ill, several theists told me it was proof that God exists and that he’s good. I wanted to punch them. I was just appalled, and still am. Although I’m fairly open about my lack of faith, I had not explicitly told these people about it and so they thought they were being nice, which made it worse.

    Eric, I wish you, Mary, and Leif the best. I really, really hope he pulls through this with flying colors and hope the doctors and nurses take wonderful care of him. I’m glad he has such loving parents helping him fight this battle!

  • Latraviata

    Oh dear, why do you proclaim your own ‘goodness’ here.
    Help is done in silence and discretion.

  • Latraviata

    Knowing about me being an atheist and one American fundie said after my younger son died, ‘this should teach you something’.

  • Edmond

    And support is shown for all to see.

  • Heidi McClure

    That’s horrible. I’m so sorry someone that that was an appropriate thing to say.

  • LesterBallard

    I think most of them think that way, but won’t be honest about it. Just like people think that poor people deserve to be poor, that it’s entirely their fault that they are poor.