It's a fact of life that kids are going to get sick. There's ALWAYS some germ being spread at daycare, school, playgroup, sports activities or wherever children gather on a regular basis. Sometimes it's a simple cold, maybe the flu, or the dreaded stomach virus.
However, sometimes it's not so simple and the child's illness won't go away in 24-48 hours or a week. Sometimes kids get sick; really sick. It could be cancer or leukemia; it could be the worsening of an unknown or previously diagnosed congenital defect or genetic disorder. It could be a thousand different things, but with the same result. A child you love, maybe your own, is seriously ill and in need of life-saving treatment.
Here are some ways to help a friend or loved one whose child is seriously ill.
How to Cope If Your Child is Seriously Ill
Learning that your child is seriously ill is frightening - you may feel anxious, depressed, terrified, and overwhelmed. Here are some tips for coping if your child has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness:
Stay organized to lower the overall family stress. Find a care notebook or file folder to keep important documents together in one place.
Know your limits. You're not super-caregiver and you don't have to be. Take care of the essentials and don't be hard on yourself if you can't take care of everything else.
Be willing to take a time out and take a break for yourself. Caregiver burnout puts an added stress on everyone in the family and will do you no good in the end.
Keep private conversations private. Kids hear more than one might think. Make sure anything they overhear isn't something that may devastate them.
Remember to breathe. It sounds silly, but taking a few deep breaths can calm your frazzled mind and lower your stress level. There is NO doubt that this is going to be one of the most stressful times in your life. Take a few seconds to calm yourself - your child is counting on you. Find a safe outdoor space nearby where you can get some fresh air. A change of scenery, even if it's the parking lot, can help restore equilibrium.
It is so important to be hopeful. For you and your child both. Coping with a chronic illness can be discouraging and scary.
Get the facts about your child's diagnosis - ask your doctor specific questions and write down the answers. If it's overwhelming, have a friend or family member do so.
Stay involved and tell your child what is going on, according to their age level. If you don't tell them what to expect, children often imagine the worst.
Offer choices so that they feel more involved in their treatment. Some tasks and treatments are unavoidable, but others may have room for choices. Give them options whenever possible so the child feels as though he has some control over his environment.
Listen and be available to talk with your child about the problems they're facing. Ask them how they feel and listen to their answers. Help them find solutions to their problems.
Validate your child's feelings, allowing them to express their fears.
Plan out procedures because unexpected stress is more difficult to handle than anticipated stress. Some chronically ill children do better with days to prepare while others worry themselves sick. Know your child and maintain flexibility.
Remain flexible and recognize the limitations of yourself and of your child.
Be an advocate for your child. You are their voice. Use it.
Keep a running tally of questions for doctor's visits.
Maintain lines of communication between your doctor, your friends, and your loved ones. This is the time to let people in and let them help. They want to help.
Coordinate with your child's school.
Make time to have fun together as a family without focusing upon the illness. You may need to schedule this time in advance, but it will be important to do so to keep the family unit functioning.
Try to anticipate any physical changes. After a diagnosis is the time to learn more about the physical changes that may occur with the illness and its treatment. Ask your doctor about any changes you should anticipate, talk about them with your child, family and friends so they know what to expect. Pick up any books about your child's illness and items that may help ease the transition for your child.
Stay healthy - eat a healthy diet, exercise as best as you can, and get enough rest; this can help combat some of the stress.
Let people help you. Now is not the time to be proud and put up a strong front - let people in. They want to help. Encourage that. Come up with specific items or areas where you need assistance and ask your friends and loved ones to help with these things.
Make a wish list - some people like to help out by buying stuff.
Accept the help - ALL of it - even money and housecleaning!
Support your child's activities and friendships as much as possible. It's devastating for children to learn that they are, in fact, different, and even more so when the ill child begins to lose friends due to their illness.
Talk to other families whose children have the same diagnosis as your child. Seek out support groups on the Internet or find a local support group.
Figure out how to cope. Your coping mechanisms may not be the same as others, but there will be things that you can do to help you cope with your child's illness and treatment.
Create a website so that you can update everyone at once and you won't be (quite as) flooded with phone calls and emails - give work the website and ask your boss to communicate the info to your co-workers, otherwise you will get get a constant stream of people stopping by your desk when you return to work.
Check into insurance options (if you're in the US). You may feel trapped at a particular job, for fear that you will be denied new insurance. Find out any assistance your state may offer, check into the FMLA Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act - and if you qualify.
If you have other children, be present for them, too. Explain to them, as best you can, and at an age appropriate level, that their sibling is sick and needs more of your time, but that you love them, too. Enlist their help with small chores. Don't leave them out of the process - remember this is stressful for them, too.
How To Help A Friend Whose Child is Seriously Ill
If someone you know and love has a child who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, you might feel desperate and helpless - but you don't have to. Research has shown that extended family and friends play a tremendous role in helping children and their immediate families deal with a serious illness.
Here are some ways to help a friend or loved one whose child is facing a serious illness:
Listen, really listen, to your friend. It's important for people to tell their story - it helps with processing traumatic situations.
Offer hugs. Lots of them.
Send meals. Friends can sign up on takethemameal.com or signupgenius.com Remember that while they're in hospitals, the food they eat isn't so great. Try to plan for fresh foods, easy to heat up, easy to clean up and healthy meals.
Offer to babysit other children during appointments. Be available in the middle of the night for ER trips and other emergencies.
Pace yourself as a friend. We all want to help immediately, but in a long-term illness, help is going to be needed for months to come. Friends will get burned out easily so spread out the help so you can be strong for them. Remember they'll need you in a month, three months, six months, even next year.
Offer (don't just do it) to do things for them that require clearer thinking: contacting school or work, or other friends and family.
Offer to be a liaison between those who can't get out for a visit, such as an elderly relative or someone who is sick themselves.
Offer to get an email address for the child to keep e-greetings out of mom or dad's email. Offer to be the point person to gather mail (either at their house or set up a post office box if they want to keep their address private) and deliver it to them.
Be mindful of visiting. If you've been sick or feel like you're getting sick, stay away. If your kid's been sick, stay away. Wash your hands upon entering their home or hospital room without even being asked. Don't overstay your welcome. Often a 30 minute visit is plenty, unless you're helping clean, cook or watch the child while the parent takes care of other things. It is perfectly ok to have a visit planned and cancel at the last minute because someone feels sick. Your germs can make a compromised child VERY ill.
Help them set up a notebook to keep important medical information in. A hard copy of all the paperwork from discharges, diagnoses, medication changes should be kept in a spiral notebook and carried with them to all appointments or travels. If they're out of town and have to go to an ER or urgent care, they have all the information handy and treatment is easier and safer.
Research and summarize disease information available on support group websites. Having a print-out of the information for reference can be reassuring and helpful when questions arise after a doctor's visit.
Be calm and levelheaded. Your friend is likely in a tizzy and YOU being in a tizzy doesn't help. It's okay to be upset, but it helps them for you to be logical, orderly and levelheaded. It's calming to them and helps them see things that they may not see in all the hustle and bustle.
Offer to pick up medication at the pharmacy while you're out. If you're heading to the grocery store, call before and see if they need anything.
Gather folks to help clean and disinfect their home before they come home from the hospital, especially if there's been a transplant or surgery.
Offer to do an overnight stay and let them get some nighttime uninterrupted sleep. Sleeping in the day is fine, but there's nothing quite like a good 6 hour stretch in the night to make a parent refreshed.
Take their other children out for special time. Bowling, pizza, putt putt, a movie. Take the mom or dad out on their own for coffee or lunch. Or maybe even a night out on the town. Help them feel a little normalcy.
Coordinate car pools for the other kids if they have extra-curricular activities.
Offer to stay with the child who is ill so the parents can attend their other children's activities.
Make a gift bag of Lysol, Clorox, wipes, masks for the kid when in public, soaps, and hand sanitizer. In this kind of life, you HAVE to be über clean all the time. A cold to you could mean death to a child with compromised immunity.
Offer to help with the household chores or pet care.
Coordinate a visitor schedule with their other family and friends so not everyone is visiting all at once.
Be willing to just sit in the waiting room with your friend. Just having another person present can be a huge stress reliever.
If you're not local and want to help, gift cards are a great idea. Visa gift cards can be used almost anywhere and are a good choice if you're unsure of what stores, coffee shops, or gas stations are local to your friend. If the child has an electronic device, send a gift card to purchase apps or download music for it.
Greeting cards are one of the best things to send because they don't require a response. Cards are small and can be easily stored to read over & over again to remind the child how much they are loved. Make a keepsake box for them for the child or send craft supplies for the child to make one.
How NOT To Help A Friend Whose Child is Seriously Ill
As much as we mean well (and most people do), there are things that many people do to families with very sick children. Most of these are easy-to-avoid. Here are some things you shouldn't do to a family whose child is seriously ill.
Remember that your friendship and support really matters - it may be a lifeline for your loved one. So, if you say you're going to help, commit to it. Having someone back out when your child is sick can be more devastating than you can imagine.
Don't visit without checking first, even if it's something you've planned with them in advance. One rough night can lead to a day of exhaustion for everyone, and they might not be up to visitors.
Don't visit if you've recently been sick, feel like you may be getting sick, or your child has been sick. Your germs can make someone with a weakened immune system very ill.
Don't prolong the visit. Watch for cues from the parent or the child that it's time to wrap things up.
Don't say, "God won't give you more than you can handle." It implies that God had a role in the child becoming ill and may make your friend feel as though he or she is being punished.
Do not send latex balloons to the hospital. Many people are allergic to the latex in balloons, so they may not be allowed on the floor.
Avoid sending flowers. Sure, they're pretty, but the child won't care. Worse, if the child's immune system has been compromised, anything that could cause an allergic reaction or carries bacteria could be life-threatening.
Don't take it personally if your friend doesn't want to talk. The stress of being a caregiver is overwhelming.
Don't be afraid to reach out with thoughtful phone calls or e-mails, but remember the family is likely overwhelmed and may not be able to respond. Still, it's appreciated!!
Don't give medical advice. You're not a doctor and you're certainly not familiar enough with the child's illness to be making medical calls.
Don't tell them to "chin up" or "cheer up." They are entitled to their feelings, which may or may not be comfortable for you.
Don't tell horror stories and don't compare your friend's child to another who was seriously ill, too. It won't make anyone feel better.
Platitudes are bullshit. Don't use 'em. Don't say:
"I know JUST how you feel." (no, you don't.)
"I feel helpless." (Imagine how your friend feels)
"You need to talk about it." (your friend will talk when he or she is ready)
"Here! This is what you should do. I heard about it on Oprah." (who cares what Oprah said?)
"I don't know how you're managing it all. I'd die if it were me." (thoughtless!)
"Everything is going to be fine." (you do not know that)
"What's the life expectancy with that?" (morbid!)
Instead, try saying:
"Do you need to talk/feel like talking? I'm here to listen." (doesn't pressure them to talk right then, but the offer is there)
"How are you/child feeling today?" (since everyday is different)
If you have any other tips or tricks for helping a family cope with a child's serious illness, don't hesitate to email email@example.com.