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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Divine Mercy Shines through a Child’s Cancer
For 101 days, a little girl knew that God was calling her home.

Elise standing
Elise was diagnosed with cancer at age 11.

Denver, CO. There are times when God permits a family to experience powerful blessings through a very heavy cross. For the Coffey family, 11-year-old Elise’s battle with cancer was an experience of mercy that brought them all closer to God.

Elise’s mother, LeeAnn, joined Familia in 1998 when her children were 3, 5, 10, and 12. As she and the other mothers in her group got together every week to study the Catechism and the teachings of the Church, they also grew closer, sharing stories, ideas, lessons learned, and tender moments. But most of all, they grew in faith and fortitude.

“We are sinners,” says LeeAnn. “We fall, we get up, we fall, we get up. As a family, we needed and thirsted for more. Familia gave us the spiritual tools to allow faith to strengthen with an intense love. It helped lead us closer to our Lord and our Lady, and Catholicism became part of our lives.”

As the years went by, LeeAnn passed on the faith to her children. Each one grew in their own relationship with Jesus, and LeeAnn gradually learned to let go and let God work in their hearts.

“We only relied on faith.”

Elise was the youngest of the four children, a happy little girl who loved books, climbing trees, music, Tinkerbell, earrings, scooters, and helping her grandmother sort clothes and gifts for different missions and charities.

But in her 11th year, a troubling pattern appeared. After school every day, Elise was falling asleep on the couch, utterly exhausted. LeeAnn brought her in to see her pediatrician, who said she was fine. A few weeks passed and they found themselves at the emergency room in the hospital. There, the doctor told them, “It´s fatal. She´s dying. She´s full of cancer."

In her prayer, LeeAnn asked the Blessed Mother to present Elise and the diagnosis to Jesus. “We never asked for a miracle,” said LeeAnn. “We only relied on faith and asked for God’s will to be done.”

The family rallied around little Elise, keenly aware that the clock was ticking and that she had only a few months of life ahead of her. The cancer was rare and incurable, and there was no chance for survival. Elise went through two surgeries, unsuccessful chemotherapy treatments, countless MRI scans, tests, and medications.

During this time, she received the Eucharist frequently. “I believe the Eucharist’s true power sustained her
Elise flowers
Throughout her illness, she was not afraid because she knew she was not alone.
willingness to endure her suffering,” says LeeAnn. And the suffering was intense.

Her 74-pound body soon shrank down to 45 pounds. She lost her sight and her tiny face and body become unrecognizable even to her family. It seemed that she had aged a hundred years in a few months. All of her internal organs were ravaged by the disease, and she was spitting up cups of black blood for 8 days straight. As the disease took over more of her body, Elise became unable to hold her head up on her own. Yet in spite of all this, her spirit remained strong. She knew the Lord and carried her illness with dignity.

While lying in bed, Elise would spontaneously recite parts of the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Before each surgery, she would say, “This hand is to hold Jesus’ hand, and this hand is to hold Mary’s hand.” She was not afraid because she knew she was not alone.

When receiving the Eucharist, she would insist on receiving the whole host until she was no longer able to swallow. Then she would fervently receive a small crumb.

“Christ’s love embraced her,” says her mother. Several times, she spoke with little divine “visitors” who brought her conversation, comfort, and peace. In her prayer, she asked God for mercy and recognized his total goodness. Elise never once asked why she was dying. She somehow knew that her service to him on Earth was done.

For weeks, she would always make sure the little crucifix a seminarian had given her was in her hand or next to her.

While she could still speak, Elise said, “Mommy, Mommy, I need to stay a little while longer, and then I need to go.”

After 101 days of physical decline and spiritual preparation, Elise passed away on February 22, 2006.

A reminder of heaven

A mother’s role in her child’s sickness is sacred and irreplaceable. There were moments, says LeeAnn, when their eyes would meet and there was a sense of celebration, of breathing in God’s peace.

“As her mom,” says LeeAnn, “I was only in the palm of God’s hand. Everything else didn’t make any sense to me. But everything about Him did make perfect sense.” She handed over her daughter to the Lord, saying, “God, my child belonged to you first.”

Even today, after the consecration at Mass, she asks Our Lady to give Elise a kiss for her.

Elise with siblings
Elise with her brothers and sister.
Elise’s dad, shared in her faith. “I prayed to God to minimize the suffering and asked that God take her quickly. As a father, you think you are a protector. It’s beyond my power to do that. It’s God who is the almighty powerful Father, a father of mercy and love. He watches over us every day. And I hope that she watches over me, too, to give me a little help from heaven.”

For the children, accompanying Elise in her sickness was an experience of trusting in God. Her older brother Matt was 20 when Elise got sick. He looks back with a sense of wonder on what God did through his sister’s suffering.

“Eventually I came to an understanding that even when Elise was struggling with her disease, she knew what she was doing. She understood and talked about how it had brought so many people to pray not just for her, but to talk to God as well. It was just wonderful to hear about the impact that my little sister had on others.”

Her other brother, Nick, was 18 at the time. “When Elise was sick it was almost a long stretch of feeling numb. But I knew that no matter what happened, things would turn out okay.  I suppose it has created a reminder for me now to think of God more often and of what life will be like after death,” he said.

Linzy, her 13-year-old sister and inseparable companion, was tested and purified. “My soul ripped apart as I watched my best friend suffer. Elise, my whole world, was dying.  At first I was so hurt and confused at God’s plans, but being a solid Catholic I never ever lost touch.  I prayed vigorously every night, many times in tears, connecting with our Lord Jesus, even feeling His presence, and knowing that He heard,” she said.

“My mind clicked and one day I trusted in His Truth; He was calling her Home.  He calls all of us.  Even though it’s unimaginably painful to miss my sister, when I picture her in Heaven, in the presence of the Trinity, hand in hand with Mother Mary, it’s a magnificent comfort.  I can honestly say that at any moment if God chooses to take me, I’m willing.  Sure I’m a sinner, but in the end everyone dies.  God is that Happy Ending, without end,” she said.

LeeAnn remembers that in the split moment when Elise passed away, Linzy leaned over and said, “Are you flying yet, Leese?”

For LeeAnn, knowing that Elise has reached heaven brings tremendous peace. There are always memories around the house—the trampoline, her bike in the garage, a note or a picture—but knowing that Elise is with Jesus makes that cross easier to bear.

“Missing her is very hard, but thinking about God’s endless love delights my heart. It intensifies my love for Him. I will see Him. And someday I will also see my little Elise. Not in the same way as before, but in a new way, in the light of God, in Christ,” she says.

When asked what advice she would give other mothers with sick or healthy children, LeeAnn says the key is trust. Trust in Divine Mercy, and trust in God’s plan.

If you would like to contact LeeAnn Coffey or invite her to speak in your parish about her experiences and insights into teaching the faith to children, please send her an e-mail at

Find out more about how Familia can help your family grow in faith at



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