7 Ways to Be a Friend to a Family Struggling with Chronic Illness
Chronic illness is life changing. It affects more than just the child who has been diagnosed; it impacts the entire family. An act of kindness to a chronically-ill child, such as giving them a cuddly teddy bear, is a gift to parents as well. Basically, any time you reach out in love to someone’s child, it overflows into the lives of the parents, letting them know that someone cares, and that they are not alone.
The words “What can I do to help?” can easily flow off the tongue, but families sometimes have a hard time articulating their needs. Because they are overwhelmed or feel like a burden on others, they are often hesitant to ask for something. Therefore, instead of waiting to be asked by the family, be proactive. Be understanding that these families are often short on time and unable to keep up with daily life. Much of this is due to trying to meet the child’s medical needs while fighting exhaustion, in addition to being in a state of shock or trauma.
Below is a short article that can act as a guide for those who wish to help. If you are a part of a family with a chronically-ill child, you may want to share this article with your friends and loved ones.
Here are a few things you can do to proactively help a family deal with chronic illness.
1. Help watch the sick child’s siblings.
What to say: “Can I pick up your other kids and take them to my home to play for a few hours?”
Chronically-ill children often have siblings who miss out on various activities when parents are with the sick child, or parents are worried about what they will do with the other children when they have to be with their sick child at the hospital. You can step in and make a difference by taking the child’s siblings to do something fun or offering to watch the other children when the chronically-ill child goes in for check ups or extended hospital stays.
2. Be present as a listener, on the phone or in person.
What to say: “I just wanted to let you know that I’m here to listen and simply be present in an open and nonjudgmental way. I promise not to offer any words of advice or give my opinion unless you ask for it.”
There is no good or helpful explanation as to why chronic illness has touched the life of this family, so don’t try and provide well-meaning platitudes that may likely bring more pain into a situation. Most people can’t understand a specific suffering unless they have lived it. Instead of saying, “I know how you feel,” which you likely don’t if you haven’t been in the exact same situation, simply keep your words few, and do something nice.
Even if you feel like you don’t know what to say, pick up the phone and call, and tell the family that you’re thinking of them and that you are available to listen should they feel like talking. It’s better to call or show up and visit in the hospital than to not say anything at all.
3. Provide a lighthearted distraction.
What to say: “I want to bring you something small to help pass the time.”
Bring some form of entertainment to distract the parent and child from the long waits or hours of long treatments in the hospital. This could be a practical gift that the child could interact with, perhaps a puzzle, game or some materials to make a craft. This could also be something to include the parents, like a laptop with a few DVDs that would be entertaining for both the parent and child. It could be a book that the parent might enjoy, or you could buy them a credit for an Audible book (allowing the parent to choose something to listen to while waiting in the hospital).
Sometimes the best lighthearted distraction is some wine, chocolate, and small talk. This allows the parents to get their minds on other things going on outside, without constantly dwelling on what’s happening with the health of their child.
4. Offer to bring something from their home or something practical that they cannot get to at the moment (such as a store or restaurant).
What to say: “I’d like to come and visit you in the hospital, and I’d like to bring something with me. Can I pick up ____ for you on my way there?”
Offer to pick up something they may want from their home that they may have forgotten in a rush to the hospital (maybe one of the child’s favorite blankets or a specific item for the parent).
Ask if you can bring coffee, an iced tea or a favorite salad or sandwich from a place they like. If you do this, make sure to bring extra napkins, cutlery and a way to wrap the food if they are in the middle of something and can’t have it right away.
5. Offer to sit with the child to give the parents a break.
What to say: “I’d be happy to sit and stay with your child and watch or play with them for a few hours so you can go and get a shower, get something to eat or run any errands you might need to do.”
If you know the family and child fairly well, the parents may be willing to take you up on the offer to sit with their child for a bit. Many times, parents have to sit in uncomfortable chairs throughout the night as their child is staying in the hospital. A simple offer to be there so they can go and get a hot shower and change of clothes can mean the world to them.
6. Help the family adjust to being home when they get back from a long hospital stay.
What to say: “Today is my shopping day. Can I pick up a few groceries and drop them off at your home?”
When a family returns home from the hospital or has been in and out of the hospital frequently, they’re often behind on the simple things people do to maintain their lifestyles, like grocery shopping. Offer to pick up a few bags of groceries, making sure to check about any dietary preferences.
You could also offer to come to their house and help with cleaning (or laundry, gardening, pets, etc.).
Another option is to simply pick up the phone and say “I’d like to bring a meal in the next few days. What day is best and what are your dietary preferences?”
7. Bring the family a “Bears For Hope” teddy bear.
What to say to the child: “Here is a special cuddle buddy who can stay with you and help you while you are in the hospital or for when you get home and need to return for a check-up. She/he needs lots of hugs and a special name that you need to pick for her/him.”
What to say to the parent: “I’ve been learning about the role of play therapy for chronically-ill children and how it helps ease the trauma of the hospital and other doctor visits. I’d like to give this teddy bear to be with your child throughout their medical journey.”
Donate a special play therapy teddy bear from Bears for Hope or volunteer with us to visit a child in the hospital or a special needs school. Families in the hospital won’t forget a special visit with our unique gift that addresses an often overlooked and unmet need of children during their care.