Many times friends and extended family members will feel helpless and not know how best to support someone they love who has a child diagnosed with cancer.
Recognize, first and foremost, that life has dramatically changed for your friend/family member. If you ask what they need, they may not be able to tell you because they may be still trying to adjust to their new reality and may not able to think of anything other than their ill child. All they really want is to wake up from this nightmare and have things back to normal.
For some, asking for help is very difficult – especially if they are very independent. If they do ask for something, and it is something you cannot provide, find someone who can. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help and if the first time they do, the person is unable or unwilling to offer assistance at that time, it can be very discouraging and lead to further feelings of isolation.
Think about what you would need. When a family is dealing with a child’s illness, the world doesn’t stop – although they might wish it would. The grass still grows, the snow still falls, bills need to be paid, kids need picked up from school, meals need to be prepared.
- Can you come and play with their child in the hospital so that mom/dad can get something to eat or a shower or even a short walk?
- Can you cut their grass, shovel snow, weed their garden?
- Can you help with siblings – give them a special night out, pick them up from school, or help with homework?
- Can you be a “go to” person – communicating with others about what is needed and wanted?
- Can you prepare several meals that can be frozen and used at a later time?
- Can you do laundry, help with housework, hire a service for them?
Listen to them. Sit with them during surgeries. Visit in the hospital if the are up for visitors and bring a movie for everyone to watch or bring a game to play.
Be sure to ask first. Sometimes it can be overwhelming with a steady stream of visitors. And sometimes, the child/parent may just not be up to visitors. Don’t take it personally if they do not want visitors and don’t be afraid to ask again.
Learn about precautions for visiting immune compromised children:
- Never come sick, not even a cold.
- If you are bringing the child’s friends, be sure they are healthy and have not been exposed to anything that might endanger the child with cancer.
Encourage them to join a support group for parents of children with cancer. As much as you want to understand, there are sometimes just no words to convey the experience. Understand that and still be willing to listen.
Offer suggestions on what you are able to do. If they decline, accept that. It may just be too much to think about at that time. Some families need time to adjust internally to their new world before knowing how to let others in. Wait a little while and offer again. Or offer something different. Repeat this pattern.Sometimes parents will decline help in the first six months and wish they had help later on – especially for treatments that last years.
These are just some ideas. Your friend or family member is under a lot of pressure. Don’t take it personally if they are not up to doing/being the same way they have always been before. They are still the same person, but their lives have dramatically changed along with their priorities. Your bad-hair-day may have elicited sympathy in the past but it pales in comparison to what they are experiencing now.
You know your friends/family. Keep being the same friend you have always been. Be more sensitive to their needs and set aside your own. Their world has been turned upside down. Childhood cancer treatments can last a long time. In the beginning there is a lot of support but many times that support fades away.
Be the friend that sticks around.