Helping Families when a Child is in the Hospital
A few weeks ago I wrote about my friend whose daughter was sick, really sick. Today, that family is approaching four weeks in the PICU and they are facing several more weeks in the hospital. Fortunately for them, shortly after I wrote my last post about their situation, they were on a med-flight to bring their daughter home where she could receive the specialized care she needs. This has also enabled the family to be together, sort of. Mom and dad switch off, each one spending one night at home with their sons and the next in the hospital with their daughter. The lives of everyone in the family has been turned upside down, filled with anxiety, sleep deprivation, insurance and financial quagmires, leaves from work, and medical educations they never dreamed they’d need. And there are dozens upon dozens of people who want to help. Many who step right in and others who don’t know how to begin, but all well intended. Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons about how to be most helpful to a family when a child is in the hospital.
1. Visits: Generally, the best time to visit a parent and their child in the hospital is late afternoon and early evening. Mornings are when doctors do their rounds and midday is when the parents often either have time with each other and their sick child together, and/or are meeting with doctors, social workers, and others at the hospital who will help them through this. Later in the day can be calmer or lonely. But check before you just show up. Send a text that says something like: “I’d love to come see you today around 4:00. Let me know if there is something specific you need. And please be honest and let me know if this is not a good time.”
2. Food: Think comfort food balanced with healthy options. If you visit, bring a nice salad for mom or dad. Send fruit baskets and not just treats. If you’re planning to bring or send meals for the family at home (and this is a huge help), try as best you can to coordinate with others. As nice as it is, it’s not as helpful to receive 10 lasagnas in two days as it is to have a variety of meals that come spread over weeks and months (and remember, meals for the family at home will continue to be helpful long after the child is released from the hospital.) Also, think lunch and breakfast food in addition to dinners.
3. Creature comforts: Some great items to pack in a bag for the family in the hospital include: a light comforter and nice pillow they can use when sleeping overnight, toiletries (including toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and more), yoga pants, extra undergarments, cozy socks, magazines, breath mints, tissues, and snacks.
4. Sibling support: Depending on how close you are with the family and how familiar and comfortable the children are with you, there may be many ways you can help. If your schedule allows, can you drop off or pick up the non-hospitalized children to and from school or the school bus? Help in the afternoon with homework? Prepare lunches for school? Take them on a special outing on the weekend? This can be some of the most invaluable help. But make sure you are prepared to take care of any costs and logistics, including transportation, involved.
5. Help around the house: Shovel the family’s driveway and sidewalk, mow the lawn, water the plants. No need to ask. Do laundry, housecleaning, walk the dog, grocery shopping. But do ask first. If your relationship is appropriate, maybe you can help offer to help get bills paid, heating oil delivered, car inspections done if needed.
6. Help at work: If you’re a colleague, it’s simple. Don’t take over, but do step up. Let your boss and your colleague’s boss know that you’re willing to help cover for your friend’s absence in any way you can.
7. In general: Simply reach out and let the family know you are thinking of them. Even if you’re thousands of miles away or aren’t able to offer your time or don’t have the means to send food, or clothes or gifts, it’s still tremendously valuable to extend your best wishes. Offer thoughts, prayers, and good wishes. Regardless of whether or not the family is able to acknowledge your message, know that they appreciate it.
There is a wonderful piece on the Huffington Post right now featuring 10 Incredible Gifts for NICU families. Its has many more wonderful ideas and tips from a family that has been there and needed the help.