How to “Be There” for Families During a Child’s Illness
Having a seriously ill child is a devastating experience for families, including both parents and siblings. The sudden transformation of a healthy child to a critically ill or injured child often results in worry, grief and significant family distress. Families are often so overwhelmed that they forget to ask for help or they don’t know what to ask for. Friends and relatives are an important source of support during a child’s illness. It is important for friends to assist not only the parents, but the child and siblings as well.
All family members can provide support, even young children. It is important that critically ill children have contact with their friends. Information shared with children should be carefully considered and based on the age of the child. Preschool children understand what it means to get sick, but they may not understand the cause-and-effect nature of illness. For example, preschool children may believe that throwing up causes them to get sick and not the other way around. Early school-age children can describe reasons for illnesses, but the reasons may not be logical. Children this age often have “magical thinking” and may believe they cause an illness by thinking bad thoughts or hitting their friend or sibling. Older school-age children are more capable of understanding illnesses, but should not be expected to react as adults do. They may feel left out if they have to miss school or activities with their friends. Provide simple information to your children in language they can understand and answer questions as honestly as possible. Remember, if children do not receive age-appropriate answers to questions about an illness, they often create scary thoughts and images in their minds that can be worse than the actual illness.
- Always call the family first before making a home visit. Although visits are usually welcome, taking care of an ill child is draining and the child and the family may be exhausted and not always up to having company.
- The quality of support is more important than the number of visits to the family. One meaningful visit to the family is just as worthwhile (and sometimes more so) than a large number of visits. Don’t worry if you can’t do as much as some other people. The point is to be there for the family in your own way.
- It is OK if you can’t visit. Send a card or loving note to let the family know that you are thinking about them. Or send a plant that is ready to bloom so the family has something beautiful to look forward to.
NOTE: Don’t worry if you have made some of these statements! Families know when remarks are innocent and not meant to be hurtful.
- “Everything is going to be fine.” This comment minimizes the problem and says that the family’s fears are not legitimate. No one knows for sure how the illness will turn out.
- “I know just how you feel.” Most likely you don’t know how the family is feeling. It is better to say, “I really want to understand how you are feeling.”
- “It could be worse.” The family may not feel that way when they are worried about the well-being of a seriously ill or injured child.
- “You still have another healthy child.” Families are aware of their other children, but they want ALL their children to be healthy and happy.
- “It is all part of God’s plan.” Many religions don’t accept misfortune as part of God’s plan. It is best to avoid imposing your own religious beliefs on others.
- Don’t always feel you have to talk. Many families appreciate sitting silently with friends or relatives. Ask the friend or loved one if they want to talk and give a sympathetic ear.
- It is OK to show emotion. Follow the lead of the family and cry and laugh with them. Don’t become so upset, however, that the family feels that they need to take care of you instead of themselves.
- Respect the family’s privacy and don’t ask probing or too personal questions. Just be a good listener and let the family decide what they want to talk about.
- Accept that the family may want to talk about stressful events related to the illness over and over. It is the family member’s way of coming to grips with unpleasant events.
- Focus on the present. Don’t make your friend or relative retell the whole ordeal. Talk about what the family is going through now.
- Don’t try to solve the problem. Only give advice when you are asked.
- When a child is ill, it is important that they remain in contact with their friends. This is particularly true for school-age children. If your child is a friend of the ill child, encourage him or her to visit. Ill children are often homebound and welcome visits from their friends. Your child can also keep in touch by phone and writing notes and letters.
- Children (and adults) should treat the ill child as normally as possible. Ill children want to be like everyone else and still enjoy playing games or watching a movie together. Get on the child’s level and look them in the eyes.
- It is OK to bring a small gift to the ill child. Better yet, get a card and have the child’s friends write notes and bring it to the child.
- Don’t forget the siblings who may feel left out while the ill child is receiving all the attention. It is also OK to bring a small gift to the siblings. Ask your children to play games or participate in other activities with the siblings.
- Don’t wait until you are asked to help out. Families are often so stressed they don’t notice the refrigerator is empty or the laundry is piling up. Bring over groceries and ask if you can help out around the house, such as folding laundry. Chip in with other friends and get a gift certificate for a cleaning agency.
- Offer to take over the car pool for a while.
- Bring over meals to fill the freezer and refrigerator (include dishes that children will enjoy). Or purchase gift certificates to the family’s favorite grocery store.
- Offer to go to medical appointments (particularly if the parent is single). Sometimes offering to drive or be another set of ears during the medical visits can be a relief to the family.
- Help out with the siblings. Take the children out to the movies or another recreational activity. Help with homework. Or offer to take care of the siblings while the parents get out for a haircut or brief meal together.
When a friend or relative’s child has a serious illness or injury, it can be tough to know what to do or the right words to say. Simple words and actions can make a big difference to a family that is going through a tough time. It is true that families can get by with help from their friends. It is a gift to be able to lend a helping hand.
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