After I wrote and published my post yesterday, I found a prayer request from Ginny about her friend Sarah. Sadly, during the night, Sarah and her baby passed away. Please pray for her family: she leaves behind her husband and four young children.
A friend and I were talking about both Sarah and another family we know of, and she mentioned how she feels at a loss to help in those moments. In medical situations, we can’t all crowd into the waiting room and the family can only absorb so many meals (if they are even home to eat them). We want them to know that they are loved; we want to ease the burden. So what then? As I’ve walked both sides of this journey in the last five years, I thought I’d jot out here some thoughts.
Meals are wonderful. Don’t get me wrong. Two thoughts.
1) in the immediate aftermath of an emergency, meals aren’t super helpful. The immediate family is usually at the hospital; there’s no one home to receive the meals, prepare or freeze them. What might be helpful in the first 24-48 hours is providing food at the hospital for the family- maybe that means a gift card for local delivery, or money for the cafeteria, or (if you know the family well enough) a picnic/buffet type meal that can be brought to them that can sit unattended without cold or heat.
2) meals after the first 48 hours? Designate a point person to organize it and use a web-service that people can sign up electronically. It is so hard for the immediate family to deal with the logistics of this, regardless of the blessing it is- they’ve got a lot of details they are tracking and trying to field ten different phone calls from helpful friends about meals can be super-overwhelming.
For the family, beyond the meal:
Large families face significant challenges when emergency strikes. Large families with special needs children face even more challenges. Sometimes they have family members who can step into the breech and help care for the others, and sometimes they don’t have any help at all. Any size family faces a challenge. If it’s a child in emergency, one parent must always be present, leaving the other parent to juggle both the emergency and the other children. If you’re an intimate friend of the family, one of the first things you could do to help is to help them ascertain the child care situation. Particularly in a special needs situation, the family may need a specific caregiver to help the family. Help to support this care giver. We in large families are used to the logistics and needs of our family- a caregiver usually isn’t and will need rest and breaks too- help them find them.
The siblings in these situations are going through a lot of upheaval. It’s often been the case that kids get split up between two or three families. Try to coordinate those families together for a meal or playdate so that the siblings can spend some family time together even if mom and dad can’t be there. When there are a lot of unfamiliar things going on, having this time of familiarity will help ground them. It’s also hard on siblings when there is so much focus on the sick sibling. Especially in an extended medical issue, it means the other siblings’ needs get shifted to the back burner…check in with those needs.
The bread-winner in the family faces a challenge past about a week. Most people have enough vacation or sick time to cover about a week; beyond that it usually gets pretty dicey. Everyone is allowed to take FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) leave, but it is unpaid, non salary leave. In some companies, colleagues can actually donate sick time. This happened for us at James’ former job. More often, though, they cannot and once they meet a certain threshold, it becomes un-paid leave. Sometimes they can work limited schedules. Again, helping the family coordinate the logistics of this is always helpful- starting a fund to help support the family in a situation like this could be a possibility, but make sure there is a discussion with the family first.
Household needs fall by the wayside very quickly. I can’t tell you how many times I have been hugely blessed to run home from the hospital and find clean laundry waiting. Often a family member helps with this, but perhaps a youth group could donate an afternoon to go sweep and mop and run the vacuum? Don’t forget things like a lawn that needs to be mowed if it is more than a week. Particularly in an extended upheaval, car needs rise while attention to them falls- oil changes and the like- and lots of gas being burned going back and forth. We’ve been given gas cards before and every time it has happened I’ve turned into a weepy, blubbery mess, because invariably we’re about to run out of gas and there are so many needs vying for our attention that not having to worry about how we’re going to get back and forth to the hospital that week is a HUGE blessing.
For the caregiver and/or the patient:
- bring healthy, shelf-stable snacks and drinks. One, hospital food is crappy. It’s ridiculous, really, for people so unwell to have eat such horrible, icky food! How does that help them feel better? And, two, for the caregiver, the cafeteria isn’t much better and is SO expensive. Great things to include are fruits like oranges, bananas, etc with tough skins, granola bars, nuts, (anything shelf-stable, really, that won’t have to be immediately refrigerated), tuna fish and chicken in the can, etc. The better you know someone the better you’ll know what they’d like.
- care boxes for the patient and or care-giver. For young children, particularly those in isolation, bring stickers and crayons and other bed-friendly entertainments- remember, though, that children in isolation units have to have toys that can be cleaned and sterilized so soft, plush type toys wouldn’t be a good idea. For older patients or care-givers, the sky’s the limit. I had one friend keep me continuously supplied with good books that she knew I’d like when I was stuck in bed. Trust me, watching tv gets really old, really fast. My favorite gift lately as a caregiver was a box full of yarn to knit, tea, an assortment of chocolate (of course!), lip balm, and beeswax candles. (The candles couldn’t be burned in the hospital of course but they were used later.) You’ll know what best fits your friend.
-Keep in mind that highly-scented things are in-advisable in a hospital setting. I’ve always found it ironic that people send flowers to hospitals- allergies get worse when immune systems are depressed, and in my case, deadly- when I received flowers I had to send them home and they weren’t allowed in my room. Balloons are a much better choice for cheer- they last longer too. Bouquets of things like candy (or even socks! Feet get cold!), matchbox cars, all sorts of things are a fun alternative too.
I have so greatly appreciated all these things over the last few years from friends and family as they have supported us. Know that as a friend, even a simple card with a note of love or a comment on Facebook page is a huge morale booster. Sometimes it really is the simple things.