Warrick Wood’s son, Frankie, passed away from brain cancer when he was just three years old. Nothing can take away the pain of that loss, but running and what he’s learned as a sports psychologist have helped Warrick to deal with his grief.

He shares his experience in the hope that it will help not only those who have lost a loved one, but also the friends and family who want to support them, but may not know how to do so. He and his wife, Michelle, have also established a charity, Frankie to the Rescue, to support families who have a child with a terminal illness.

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The name “Frankie to the Rescue” came about because he “just loved anything rescue-related,” his father says. “Loved Fireman Sam, PAW Patrol. And he was just such a kind, cheeky, sweet, little boy, but really loved watching rescue shows. And it’s so hard now to think about all of the things that he may have gone on to do, that he won’t get to do now. So part of this work, it’s thinking about Frankie still doing some good, almost. Like everything we’re doing, it’s just him doing it. We wouldn’t be doing it without him.”

Frankie to the Rescue supports families with a child receiving palliative care by providing things like parking vouchers for the hospital, meal delivery vouchers, and gifts for the children themselves and for their family members. During the last weeks of Frankie’s life, Warrick says, “We had this really kind of comforting, amazing support from palliative care here in New Zealand and what we found is that throughout that time there’s nothing that helps; you’re just in survival mode and you’re trying to do right by your person, by Frankie, and look after him. But the kindness that people showed us does provide just a little bit of comfort. And so that’s what we wanted to do.”

As much as people want to provide comfort when a friend suffers a devastating loss, they often don’t know what to do or say. As a result, they sometimes avoid talking about it at all. Warrick observes that “for many people, there is a concern about making you upset or making you cry. And the reality is that we probably cried within the last hour and we will again soon, and at least our experience is that we’re trying to hold it in a lot of the time. And so when someone provides a thoughtful question like, ‘Would you like to talk about Frankie or are there any memories you’d like to share or tell me a little bit about him?’, it almost gives you permission to say his name and talk about him. And we find one of the things that makes it a little bit worse is not talking about him. And it’s really difficult to get into anything else before we at least acknowledge you know who he was and what it means to us.” 

Talking about loss doesn’t come easily, and that ability is something that Warrick and Michelle are trying to teach their daughter, Scarlett. “We often don’t spend a lot of time talking about feelings or emotions and even developing the vocabulary around things like mental health. And so we’re definitely trying to create that kind of space for Scarlett, where she knows that it’s okay to be sad and it’s okay to be happy…and has that psychological safety just to share whatever it is that she’s feeling in those moments and knowing that we can hold quite conflicting emotions at the same time, as well.”

For Warrick, it helps to try to stay in the present moment, not dwell on the past or think about the future without Frankie. Running has been a way for him to do that. “Running definitely gives me that outlet, it’s almost like an informal mindfulness exercise where you can focus on your breathing and your cadence and how you’re feeling. That’s certainly really, really helpful, just as a kind of forcing function to be present. And I’m not much of a religious or spiritual person, but I feel really connected to the environment when I’m running, as well. “

Warrick is also part of a running club, whose members “have been amazing with support and allowing me to talk about Frankie and feel a real sense of belonging.” He’s found that giving people the opportunity to talk about what they’re going through is “a really profound gift… Everyone has their own unique preferences. Some people won’t like to talk and some will. And for me it’s about giving people the space or the opportunity to do so if they, if they wish. And sometimes talking to someone that they don’t know as well can be a little bit more comfortable, as opposed to talking to a really close friend or talking to a sibling. I find that I talk to some running friends about things that I may not talk to parents or siblings about.” 

Overall, he says, “I feel so grateful to be able to run.” He’s found it to be cathartic in and of itself, but also, he says, “We’ve all got that psychological need to feel a sense of growth and competence and development, so that’s been really helpful for me and I think it will be going forward, as well. Just continuing to try to run smarter and run faster and become healthier, essentially become a better runner. And so having it as a really positive focus in my life is something I deeply value.”

resources:

Thank you to Allbirds and Running for Real for sponsoring this episode.

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