Many years ago, I worked for a hospice, providing home health care for people at the end of life. Some of my patients were children, and as you might imagine, having a seriously ill child is one of the most difficult things a parent can ever experience. Friends and family members wanted to help but often weren’t sure what to do. Over time, I put together a list of things people can do to help a friend or family member with a sick child. Of course, all families are different and will have different needs and preferences, so all of these things will not be helpful to, or appreciated by, everyone. However, these are some things that many of the families I worked with found most helpful.
Offer to bring dinner for the entire family one evening. Ask about any dietary restrictions before planning the menu; obviously it’s not helpful if you bring food they don’t like or can’t eat. Bring food in containers that you don’t need to get back, and include paper plates, plastic utensils and paper napkins so there will be no dishes to wash afterward. If you’re not into cooking, that’s all right; sometimes I would just pick up some sandwiches at a local deli.
Offer to help with a specific task. Parents with seriously ill children are often overwhelmed with work, but some people find it difficult to ask for help. If you say, “Please let me know if I can help with anything,” they may not know what to ask for. Instead, ask if it would be all right if you come over on Saturday to mow the lawn or if you could pick up some groceries for them when you do your shopping this afternoon. If it’s Christmas time, you might ask if you could help decorate a tree, but make sure to promise to come over after the holiday to take the tree down, as well.
Provide a gift basket for the sick child, including activities the child can do without parental assistance. Select coloring books and crayons, activity books, stories, handheld games or puzzles, and other items that will entertain a bored child, one that isn’t able to be very active. Select activities the child can do without help from a parent so the parent can have a little break. If you’re not sure what items to put in the basket, ask the parents; remember that seriously ill children may have certain limitations due to their illness. If there are other children in the family, consider giving them their own gift baskets so they don’t feel left out.
Offer to take other children in the family out for the day to do something fun. Siblings of sick children often get less attention than the sick children, not because their parents don’t love them but because sick children require so much care and attention. I think one of the best things I ever did was take a 12-year-old boy out to dinner and to a local carnival while his nine-year-old sister was in the hospital dying. He’d been spending all his time at home with his grandmother while his parents were at the hospital with his sister and he was thrilled to get to go to the carnival. His parents were also happy to know he was getting the chance to have fun and be a child for the night.
Give practical gifts. Sure, everyone likes flowers and homemade cookies. But parents of a seriously ill child are probably overwhelmed with work and burdened by medical expenses. Consider more practical gifts, like a plastic laundry basket filled with paper plates, plastic or Styrofoam cups, plastic silverware and other time-saving disposable kitchen wares; a plastic caddy stocked with bubblegum flavored toothpaste, a toothbrush, baby shampoo, soap, bubble bath, a bottle of detangling spray for freshly-washed hair and a hairbrush for a child; or a decorative basket filled with instant coffee, herbal tea, hot chocolate and a variety of breakfast bars or protein bars for quick snacks or breakfasts on the go. I remember one December when a single mother told me, with tears in her eyes, how she was not even going to have enough money to make a stocking for her three-year-old daughter that Christmas because the cost of all her prescription medications was so great. I spent less than $20 at Dollar General and filled a stocking with crayons, bubbles, stickers and small toys, and I’ll never forget the look on that mother’s face when I gave her the stocking the next day.