Do you know the best ways to help a friend whose child is facing a medical crisis?
My thanks to Kerry Sheeran, Author of The Marathon, a powerful memoir about their daughter’s journey and struggle for life, for this guest post.
It’s not always to know what to do or what to say or how to be genuinely helpful to help a friend whose child is facing a medical crisis, but Kerry’s post guides us through her top ten pieces of advice, from someone who’s been there.
I also think these tips are applicable and great to keep in mind for helping a friend who is sick herself.
Top Ten Ways to Help a Friend Whose Child is Facing a Medical Crisis
Guest Post by Kerry Sheeran
Watching a family member or friend suffer through the illness or hospitalization of their child can leave a person feeling utterly helpless. It can be hard to determine when and how to offer your support. Where is the line between being too pushy and not the least bit supportive? How can you be the person your friend needs during a difficult time in their lives? I have some experience in this department, having been on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of help during the course of five years, eight major surgeries and countless hospitalizations of my six-year-old.
What I learned during those difficult times has served me well when my own friends have found themselves in similar situations, and so I want to share them with Mother’s Circle readers. Without further adieu, I’m pleased to present you with the top ten most important ways to help a friend whose child is facing a medical crisis:
10. DON’T ASK, DO TELL:
Don’t ask your friend: “How can I help you?” Sounds ridiculous, right? I mean, your heart is in the right place – but you need to use your head on this one. This is your friend, after all. You should be able to anticipate his or her needs to a certain extent. Think about it before you ask, then propose a way you might be able to step in. Is it garbage night? Is one of their other kids on a travel soccer team? Is their business suffering as a result of their absence?
Figure out what might be the most efficient way to lighten their load, and propose it to them in a matter-of-fact way. “I’ll take Danny to and from his soccer game on Sunday, okay?” “Can I make those deposits for you so that payroll stays on track?” “I’d like to take your garbage out and bring your mail in while you’re at the hospital.” “I’d like to clean and disinfect your house so that it’s all ready for Katie when she gets home.”
Your friend will appreciate the thoughtfulness behind your good deed, given the state of mind he or she is probably in. The last thing a parent of a sick child has time to do is brainstorm ways for you to help them. Not to mention, many people have a difficult time asking for help in the first place. So eliminate that part of the equation by tweaking your offer from “What can I do?” to “Here’s what I plan to do – is it okay with you?” Guaranteed they will be eager to accept a well thought out offer to help.
9. OPEN YOUR EARS:
Resist the urge to talk and constantly advise when your friend is unloading to you. Unless they specifically call seeking advice, be the friend and confidant your were called to be. Processing the magnitude of a child’s poor health is extremely hard for a parent. Talking through it can be helpful in many ways. Sometimes just saying something out loud is a way for a parent to accept a recent diagnosis, a bad turn or an all around crappy day for their child. Listen to your friend when they are sharing their story with you.
Don’t tell them about someone else you know with a similar saga. Such stories can’t possibly help to alleviate your friend’s sadness or stress. Just open your ears and hear what they have to say.
A good listener is always genuinely appreciated.
8. ASK BEFORE YOU VISIT:
Always check with your friend before “surprising” their child with a visit. Whether it’s at the hospital or their home, it may or may not be exactly what the doctor ordered. Sometimes visitors can brighten an otherwise dreary day. It can be the happy distraction that a friend or child needs. But other times it may do more harm then good. Timing is everything – so be sure your visit is at a time that works for everyone. Often tests or surgery can wear a patient out, making sleep their #1 priority.
Make sure you’re coming on a day he or she is up for visiting. And 30 – 40 minutes is more than sufficient. Also, ONLY visit if you are in good health. The last thing a compromised immune system needs is another virus to fight off. Your germs aren’t welcome in the company of a child who is trying to recover, so leave them and yourself at home until you are better. The child’s health is ALWAYS more important than a visitor “showing face.” Be sure to weigh what is best for the parents and child before executing your travel plans.
7. FOOD IS LOVE:
Who doesn’t love a home-cooked meal? Not many people, that’s who. Unless you are told otherwise, fire up your stove-tops and throw some cookies in the oven. Everyone needs to eat. But nobody has time to cook when they are helping their child through an illness and/or hospital stay. And, by the way – in case you’ve never heard: HOSPITAL FOOD STINKS. There, I said it. It may be tolerable for a few days, but once you hit the week-mark – it all starts tasting the same.
Cooking for your friend (or even their child) is a wonderful way to show how much you care. It does, however, require some coordination with other friends. Start a “food chain” and space out food deliveries so that your friend isn’t getting bombarded with three meals in one night, and none for seven days straight. Talk amongst yourselves when it comes to the menu. Elect one person to be the point person to run questions by regarding food allergies and delivery times. Don’t ask your friend questions like: “What would you like me to make you?” Again, that’s putting them in the position of asking a favor of you. Coordinate with the point-person and pour your heart into your meal. Your “eaters” will taste your support and dedication in every delicious bite.
6. HELP THEM TO ADVOCATE FOR THEIR CHILD:
Patient Advocacy is an extremely important role for any parent with a child in crisis. It requires questions, research, lots of notes and a clear grasp of the medical situation at hand. The problem is, many times a parent can become debilitated by their own emotions, thereby leaving facts, figures and health records on the back burner.
Suggest they bring a notebook to every appointment or ask them if they’d like your assistance. Maybe you could be a note-taker for them? Perhaps you are a doctor, nurse – or just a very organized friend with a knack for details. Offer to put together a binder with sections labeled: Calendar, Hospital Records, Diagnoses, Questions, Medications, Research and Treatments. Jot down a list of questions for them to ask their childs’s physicians or nurses, and mark important dates on their calendar.
Be their brains, temporarily, and get them on track for success with their child’s care, while being sure to respect boundaries and maintain privacy. It’s one of the best gifts you can give a friend whose mind is probably spinning out of control as it is.
5. KEEP THEIR OTHER KIDS OCCUPIED AND HAPPY:
Part of the stress of having a sick child to care for is a parent’s inability to give their focus and attention to their other children. The physical and emotional distance from their “healthy” children, while unavoidable, can invite emotions of guilt and sadness from the parents, and jealousy and resentment from the kids. Help lighten this additional burden on your friend by stepping up and using the art of distraction with their offspring.
If your family is going bowling, invite your friends’ kids along. Set up play-time or sleep-overs. Make them feel special and loved. Talk to them. Ask them how they are doing. As stressful as it may be for your friend, this is a child’s sibling who is sick. It’s just as scary – if not more – for a young one to witness their brother or sister in failing health. Couple that with absent parents, and a kid can feel downright sad. Encourage them to talk about their feelings and offer to bring them to visit their sick sibling whenever they can. Feed them, hug them and tie their shoes. Be a “stand-in” mom or dad. Your friend will appreciate this kind of help more then you could ever know.
4. KEEP YOUR ANXIETY TO YOURSELF:
Repeat after me: It’s not about YOU. Don’t say things like: “I don’t know how you’re holding it together…I’d be a total mess!” or “I’m so worried about you, this is too much to take!” or “I feel helpless.” It’s hard enough for your friend to manage his or her own worries and fears. It’s not fair to pile yours on top of them.
Be a positive force, while staying realistic about the child’s condition. It’s not a good idea to suggest things like: “Everything’s going to be fine,” or “God only gives you as much as you can handle.” The simple fact is that your friend will be forced to handle whatever comes his or her way. The alternative would be crawling up into a ball and hiding from their worst fears – and that is precisely what you should be trying to steer them away from doing.
Encourage your friend to stay strong and take care of him/herself. It’s your job to hold them up when they feel weak. A sick child will benefit in many ways from a parent who is keeping it together.
3. SEND GIFT CARDS THAT PAY FOR COFFEE, GAS OR PARKING:
Flowers and balloons are a nice gesture, but a lot of hospitals don’t encourage either (because of latex and pollen allergies). Maybe this is my über-practical side talking (I’ve been guilty of worse), but if you really want to brighten your friend’s day, pick up the tab for a day of parking, gas or coffee. The daily expenses associated with having a child in the hospital can really add up. Hospital bills alone can send some families into a lifetime of debt. Treating your friend to something as simple as a cup of coffee sends the message that you understand their burdens and wish for them to have some relief – if only for a few minutes. It’s a thoughtful little gesture that shows you are thinking about them.
2. KEEP THEIR CHILD IN YOUR PRAYERS:
It’s a simple thing that means so much. Do not dismiss the almighty effect of positive thoughts, good vibes and prayers. It’s the least (and, perhaps, the most) you can do for your friend and their child.
1. REACH OUT WITH THOUGHTFUL PHONE CALLS, EMAILS AND CARDS:
Don’t ever assume you are bothering someone by letting them know how much you care for them and their child. They may not be able to return your calls or write back (and DON’T take it personally if they don’t) – but they will feel your love and support in every word you write or speak. If they can answer the phone, they will. Some people like to talk and some do not. This is their decision to make.
Whether your friend is holding vigil at their child’s hospital bed, or care-giving at home, they are most likely extremely overwhelmed with responsibility. Give your friend a pass on social etiquette and simply know that your thoughtfulness is appreciated. I’ve never met one parent who has said: “Gee, I’m so glad nobody called or wrote while my kid was in intensive care.”
Never EVER underestimate the power of love and compassion.
About the Author:
Kerry Sheeran, author of The Marathon, a gut-wrenching memoir based on the gripping ride of a mother and father forced to seek answers to life’s biggest questions as their child fights to survive. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each book benefits prenatal and neonatal research and care at Boston Children’s Hospital. Available on Amazon.com and in local stores. For more information visit www.kerrysheeran.com.
©Kerry Sheeran 2014, Ocean State Press