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If Cancer Was A Fish picture book is meant to help kids cope with tragedy
If Cancer Was A Fish picture book is meant to help kids cope with tragedy - photo by Peter Rosen

If cancer was a fish, Tiffany Berg Coughran and her five kids would definitely throw it back.

That’s the visual Coughran conjured up several years ago when her husband, Paul Berg, was diagnosed with oral cancer.

It became a short story, illustrated with clip art, that she wrote for her nieces and nephews and later shared with her own children.

“The thing that was so hard in our home is that it was so quiet at that time,” Coughran said. “The kids weren’t really talking anymore, and it was very somber around our house and I really wanted them to be able to share what was going on. I was afraid because they weren’t talking.”

“When we heard it was terminal I just shut everything out because I didn’t believe he would ever be gone,” said her daughter, Hayley Hardy. “Even after he passed I didn’t believe it. I just told myself he was on vacation. He’d come back.”

“(Mom) was always trying to get us to talk about it because she knew that’s what we needed.”

After Paul Berg died in 2009, Coughran published the book, “If Cancer Was A Fish, I’d Throw It Back.” In the story, a boy imagines cancer is a fish and throws it back, imagines cancer is a spider and smashes it, and imagines cancer is calling on the phone and ignores the call.

The message, she says, is that children, faced with catastrophic illness, are allowed to get upset and express their emotions.

“We tell them ‘You need to be nice. You need to be a nice person. It's not OK to hate people. It’s not OK to be angry’ and really when it comes to cancer I think it's OK to be angry,” she says. “The goal of the book is to just say it's OK. On any given day you could be feeling a variety of things and you're still OK.”