Interview with Letters to God Co-Director Patrick Doughtie

Letters to God is based on the story of Tyler Doughtie who died of cancer at 9.

Letters to God
It's rare to find a Christian film I can enthusiastically endorse, but I'm truly excited about Letters to God, in theaters nationwide on Friday, April 9, 2010. Image Courtesy of Possibility Pictures

How does a parent cope with the loss of a child? How do families fight the terrifying battle against cancer? Where do we find a path of hope through great sorrow and unimaginable pain? And how do you remember to love, and laugh, and live with the ones who are still living?

The co-writer of Letters to God knows the answers to these questions because he has lived through it. Patrick Doughtie, the film's co-director and co-screenwriter, lost his son Tyler after a valiant fight against a rare and aggressive type of brain cancer.

Letters to God is based on the true story of Tyler Doughtie. Patrick says his son was his inspiration in life. After Tyler's death in 2005, as Patrick reflected on the boy's upbeat mindset and invincible spirit, God gave him the determination to go on living, loving, and believing. Two years later he wrote the screenplay to Letters to God.

Like Patrick, many of us know too well the pain of loss. Maybe you're struggling right now with a disease that is threatening the life of your child or another family member. I had the privilege of talking to Patrick in an email interview, and I believe you'll find tremendous comfort and courage as you read these inspiring words from the father of the boy who gave life to this story.

I hope you'll see the movie, too. Patrick wants readers to know that Letters to God isn't a sad movie about a child with cancer. "It's a celebration of life," he said, "and an uplifting and inspirational movie about hope and faith!

I feel it has something to offer everyone, regardless of your faith or belief, because cancer doesn't care what you believe in or how much money you make. It'll come knocking at your door no matter who you are."

Advice for Parents

I asked Patrick what advice he would give to parents who have just heard the diagnosis, "Your child has cancer."

"As hard as it is to hear these words," he said, "it is more important at this time to stay strong for your child, stay hopeful, and focus."

Patrick recommends parents stay focused on the best possible treatment for their child. "So many cancers can be cured or at least put into remission if properly cared for by doctors with experience in their type of cancer," he explained.

Patrick also stressed the need to ask lots of questions. "Ask as many as you'd like and don't worry about how silly you may think they sound at the time."

Build a Network of Support

Networking with other families going through a similar struggle is something Patrick advocates as a solid source of support. "Social media these days, as compared to when we were going through it, is tremendous! So much more information is available at your finger tips ..." However, he warned, "Don't take everything as gospel! Most importantly, once you've found the right doctor and hospital to treat your child, find a church and submerse yourself in the family. Keep your faith. Your child can sense your weak moments.

Coping Through the Stress

In 2003, when Tyler was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, both Patrick and his wife, Heather, were devastated.

Heather, who is Tyler's step-mom, found out she was pregnant just two weeks before Tyler was diagnosed. Patrick recalled, "You can imagine, it wasn't a great pregnancy for her. She was left alone a lot while I was in Memphis, Tennessee, taking care of Ty. She had to keep everything together at home, along with our daughter, Savanah, who had just turned six."

Six months into the pregnancy, Heather experienced complications and was confined to bed rest for the last two months. "She was very upset also during this time because she couldn't be with us while Tyler was receiving treatments," said Patrick.

Separation added to the tension, as Patrick and Heather were only able to see each other for occasional weekend visits. "Bad for her," explained Patrick, "was that she caught much of my stress during this time.

Many of my emotional moments were released on her. I thank God every day that she's stuck by my side through all of this and continued to support me and be my rock!"

Nothing Left to Give

When parents battle cancer or other serious illnesses with a child, often one of the hardest things to do is to remember to give themselves to the loved ones who will go on living after the fight is over. Letters to God highlights the importance of this through the experiences of Tyler's teenage brother, Ben.

"The character of Ben is very real," said Patrick. "Many siblings tend to get forgotten during these times. I, myself, had forgotten that even though Tyler was going through his cancer treatments ... operations and more, that Savanah, and even Heather, my wife, needed my attention when I was entirely focused on Ty. This caused a lot of strain on all of our relationships. Savanah yearned for my attention when I came home, but I had nothing left. I was emotionally and physically drained like no other time in my life. Even the most difficult days laboring at a construction site couldn't compare to how drained I was when I would come home."

Patrick admits there were some days he'd rather forget—or change—if he could. "This is part of the reason why so many families are destroyed during times like these, and why it's so important to draw closer to God and lean on Him," he said. "I don't know where I would be or how I could have gotten through without faith."

The Family of God

During a family crisis, the body of Christ is intended to be a source of strength and support. Yet, the church's efforts to help the hurting, though usually well-intentioned, can oftentimes be sadly misguided. I asked Patrick about his experiences with the family of God, and what he considers the most important things we can do to help families who are fighting cancer.

"I feel that as a church, the best thing you can offer someone dealing with these types of trials is to listen," he said. "There really isn't anything you can say that is wrong.

Just say something."

According to Patrick, hurting families sometimes feel left out and ignored "because of how uncomfortable people must feel being around us." He continued, "My best advice to churches is to learn how to deal with families going though cancer, even follow-up care for grieving families. Create a cancer support group made up of cancer survivors and even counselors. Show love and support and not just money, though they probably need that as well, since families tend to go from two to one income, sometimes losing their homes and cars.

You'd be surprised just how much simply coordinating meal deliveries to the families can take off a lot of stress."

Coping Through the Grief

Some families are fortunate to beat the battle with cancer, but many are not. So, how do you deal with losing a child? How do you cope through the grief?

After Tyler died, Patrick faced the most difficult time of his life.

"Being Tyler's dad," he said, "there was a different kind of grief for me than my wife went through. She grieved and was hurt deeply by the loss, but nothing can compare to the loss of your own child. Through my depression, I turned my back on God, as I thought he had done the same to me by allowing Tyler to pass. I was mad, angry. I stopped going to church. As much as my wife begged me to continue going with the family, I just couldn't."

Patrick recalled feeling betrayed by God at the time. "I felt I had been obedient and done everything I was supposed to do as a believer, even praising him through some very difficult times.

But, I treated my family horribly." With regret he said, "This is another time I wish I could take back. I failed to realize that I wasn't the only one hurting. Savanah lost her best friend and big brother; Brendan lost his big brother and the chance to even know him, and my wife lost her step-son."

"I remember my pastor wanting to meet me for lunch, which I did, but was unaware that another church member would be there. This infuriated me," Patrick recounted. During the meeting, the pastor told Patrick that it was okay to be mad at God. "He also stated that if I didn't change, I would lose the rest of my family as well. This cut deep, but my honest reply was that I thought it would be the best thing for all of us. I realized later how incredibly stupid I had been, and that I didn't want to go through the pain of losing the rest of my family, and being completely alone."

"Almost two years after Tyler passed away, I began to feel God working on my heart. I actually felt guilty, to say the least, about how I had treated my family, and how I treated God," said Patrick.

A Gift and a Message

With time, Patrick began to reflect on some of the things he had learned from his son Tyler. He realized that God had entrusted him with a gift and a message. Until then, he had failed to act upon it. The message was about love, hope, and faithfulness to the Lord. It was about the importance of family, friends, and God.

"Nothing else really matters," he said. "At the end of the day what is left? A sorry job that doesn't pay well?

A crummy car and a house? Even if it were a BMW and a mansion, who cares? Nothing is as important as our relationship with God, and then our family and our love for one another."

"After two years, I got on my knees and asked forgiveness. I re-dedicated myself to the Lord. I told him I was his for the using, at his will, and that I would do his will until my last breath."

As Patrick prayed and asked the Lord to lead him in God's will, he said, "It was then that I felt it was time to write the story."

The Healing Process

Writing Letters to God has played a major role in Patrick's healing process. "Being a guy," he said, "most times it's difficult for us to express ourselves. I found solace in writing. It was my therapy. It's also allowed me, for the past five years, to think about Tyler every day while either writing, developing products, and even through the directing aspect." Patrick says his participation as co-director of the film has been a blessing: "... to be able to be on set, and have a say in what was happening, and to keep it real, had a very therapeutic aspect ..."

Making a Difference

Patrick's experiences with cancer and losing a child have changed his approach to life. "I am much more grateful for every day I have with my family," he said. "I feel completely blessed."

"I have a soft spot for children and families in similar shoes," he continued. "All I can think about is connecting, helping, and hopefully making some waves for awareness to get more funding for cancer research which might lead to a cure."

Almost everyone alive today knows someone with cancer. Perhaps that person is you. Maybe it's your child, your parent, or a sibling. Patrick hopes you'll go see Letters to God, and that it will make a difference in your life. Then, he prays it will inspire you to make a difference—perhaps in your own family, or in the life of someone else.