It's every parent's worst nightmare. Your child gets sick and you take them to the doctor, confident you'll be reassured that it's something that will quickly pass in a few days and with doses of antibiotics, and then you get the worst news you can imagine. For parents dealing with that reality, life becomes all about the next step, the next test, the next treatment that will make their child better.
It's tunnel-vision time, and if you are trying to support a loved one going through that impossible experience, it can be hard to know where to start. If you have a friend or family member whose life now includes hospital stays, hard decisions, and of course, lots of hope, here's how to help.
- Don't say "let me know what I can do," but instead give concrete offers for meals, childcare for other children, house cleaning, etc. Not only will most parents with a sick child not have time or energy to respond with a specific request, but asking for help may not come easily. Instead, say something like "I'm dropping off a dinner this week. What's the best day?"
- Check in regularly, and don't feel slighted if you don't get a regular response. Dealing with a sick child can be overwhelming physically and emotionally, meaning your friend might not have the time to respond to every call or text, but that doesn't mean she won't appreciate your efforts to reach out.
- Set up long-term help like a meal train or a babysitting schedule for siblings. Websites like Meal Train or Food Tidings let close ones sign up for individual nights to provide families' meals. If there are other siblings in the picture who need care, set up a schedule for people to help, not just for a week or two, but for as long as the treatment might last.
- Remember the diagnosis, research it, and ask questions when appropriate. Inform yourself instead of asking the parent to do that work for you. Make an effort to learn about what their child is going through and if you then still have questions, feel free to ask them when the moment's right.
- Don't forget a major procedure or test and always send a message of support. Even if it's a quick text, reminding your friend that you're still there and thinking about her family is always a good thing.
- Utilize and pass along group updates so that the parent doesn't have to give news individually. Many families with chronically sick children set up a one-stop shop for updates through a website like Caring Bridge. If your friend has one, go to it first when you want information, and if not, it's reasonable to suggest she start one as a way to share news and write about her own feelings, which can be cathartic.
- Bring food or supplies directly to the family, but don't plan on staying unless you're asked. Families going through trauma aren't in the position to invite you in for a glass of wine and some laughs. Instead, plan on a quick drop-off, but if you're asked to come in, remember you're there to listen and provide support.
- Don't pass along platitudes like "everything happens for a reason" or act like you can relate unless you actually can. It can be hard not to revert to clichés or to try to relate to the situation by sharing your own scariest moment with your kid, but resist the urge. Unless you've actually been through a similar experience that has provided you with worthy, shareable insights, just be supportive and listen.
- Don't talk about your recent family vacation or lovely holiday. No one who's stuck in the hospital or in and out of doctors' offices wants to hear about how much fun your kids had on the beach, so zip it. Also, if you know your friend and her child will be celebrating the next Valentine's Day or birthday from a hospital room, drop by some holiday cheer. It will make her child happy and therefore brighten your friend's day.
- Stay in it for the long haul. It's easy to be supportive for a week or two, but months later, many parents dealing with a child's chronic illness can feel alone. Be the friend who's always there, even if that simply means sending a weekly text or a monthly gift card for some great takeout. Your friend will appreciate and remember the loyalty.