How can we help a family with a sick parent?

In April 2018, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I never expected to hear a cancer diagnosis at 36 years old. I never expected to have to tell my two young children that their mom was seriously ill. I also never expected the amount of help and support we received from our friends, family, and church/school community. Our lives were thrown into a tailspin for six months as I went through chemotherapy and my husband took over kid and house duties. We would not have survived without the unbelievable outpouring of love and help.

Before I offer advice on supporting a family with a sick parent, I’d like to speak to the person who is ill (or in need of support): Figure out exactly what you need. The following suggestions were most helpful to me and our family, but that was because I carefully evaluated what I needed most and was able to make specific requests when people offered help. Don’t be afraid to say, “This is what we need right now,” when people ask what they can do for you.

That said, when someone you love is going through a tough time, here are some helpful ways to reach out.


I cannot put into words what an empowering comfort it was to know that I had people praying for me and my family during my diagnosis and treatment. When life took a surreal turn, we had so many believers on our side, storming His throne on our behalf. It was a huge comfort!

Ask your friend what to pray for specifically. Do they have tests or procedures coming up? Troubling side effects? Kids or spouse struggling with the life changes? A particular challenge you can bring to God? And then let them know you’re praying.

Be specific in your offers of help.

General offers of help (“Let us know if you need anything.”) were always appreciated, but the specific offers of help were much easier for me to accept. “I’m picking up your kids for a day at the zoo, what time works for you?” or “What day this week can I come and clean your bathroom?” It took all the thinking out of it for me. Walk the dog, hang with the kids, clean up the kitchen—little things that, yes, I could still do while sick, but it gave me a little bit of a break to focus on other activities instead.

Sign up for or coordinate a meal train.

My family was beyond blessed to be well-fed throughout my treatment. My good days were spent trying to conserve energy to be with my kids, so cooking/grocery shopping took a backseat. Talk to the person struggling in your life—has someone already set up a meal train? Would it be helpful for them to have meals delivered a couple times a week? If a home-cooked meal isn’t workable, a gift card to a restaurant or meal service is a wonderful alternative.

Send a card or a care package.

Getting mail is special at any time, in my opinion, but getting cards from friends and family near and far during treatment always lifted my spirits while I was sick. My favorites were the cards with terrible jokes (because I love a good dad-joke!), but I also received many beautiful cards of encouragement. Receiving a little care package was also uplifting. I had several days of resting in bed after each chemo and devoured dozens of books shared with me by friends during that time. Consider sending a small care package with a book, a treat, a special blanket they can snuggle under while they rest, or something special for their kids to play with while their parent recovers.

Spend time visiting or listening.

Often when people would ask what I needed, I would immediately answer, “Company!” I am used to being a very busy and social person. To be sidelined for months from my usual routine was incredibly lonely. I loved to have friends drop by for a visit. Be sure to keep it short if it seems like your friend needs to rest. Ask if they need a ride or company for appointments or procedures. Having friends along at my chemo appointments gave me something to look forward to about the appointment.

Whether you reach out in one or many ways, do something, even if it’s just sending a text letting the family know that you’re thinking of and praying for them. Being surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ is one of the beautiful benefits of struggling through hard times. God created us to need one another, so don’t be afraid to be the one who needs help or the one who offers it.

Kerry Ognenoff and her husband, Andy, have a 10-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son who attend school at St. John, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. They are members of Grace, Milwaukee.

To a new parent

Welcome to the adventure, friend! Parenting is hard and messy, and you’ll never be so tired in your life as you are with a newborn. But it is so worth it. I’d like to share my biggest takeaways from what I’ve experienced with my kids so far (ages six and nine), in hopes that they give you something to look forward to during your sleepless nights.

You will sleep again.

There is a reason that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture! I remember thinking after my daughter was born that I would be tired for the rest of my life. While my days of sleeping past 9 a.m. on Saturday are long gone, most nights pass peacefully. So power through that fatigue; it does get better.

There’s no such thing as a weak-willed toddler.

Have you ever tried to stuff an angry octopus into a pillowcase? Me neither. But I have a great idea of what it might be like after having to buckle angry toddlers into their car seats mid-meltdown. It’s hard when you’ve gone from having this baby who is dependent on you for everything to this little human with opinions of his own. And if those opinions don’t match yours, it’s frustrating that he can’t communicate with you about why. Patience and more patience will get you through.

This, too, shall pass.

It’s all a series of stages. Tantrums, sleepless nights, leaving church without actually hearing a word of the sermon due to a squirmy, active kiddo—none of these are forever. If you are stuck in the “random nudist in awkward places” stage of toddlerhood and just cannot keep pants on your child—don’t sweat it! All parents have been through this, and it does end eventually. (Probably.)

You and your kiddos were paired by God, and you are exactly the person they need.

God chose us to snuggle, feed, burp, console, teach, and love these specific little humans. He knew they needed us, and we needed them. I hold on to this when stages are particularly difficult (hello, impending teenage-hood!). I am, without a doubt, the right person for this job. Even if I don’t always feel like it. Even if sometimes I want to run screaming into the woods and embrace life as a hermit. I am meant to be their mom, and they are meant to be my kids. Trust in this when you find yourself questioning your parenting abilities. God knew what he was doing when he put you together. He loves you and your kiddos.

Kerry Ognenoff and her husband, Andy, have two young children—nine-year-old Anna and six-year-old Henry.

Teaching kids to work toward goals

I’ve never liked the term resolution. It has an ugly connotation in my mind of failed attempts at weight loss and unsustainable, temporary life changes. For several years now, my husband and I have spent New Year’s Eve setting goals rather than resolutions for the coming year. We record them on one of our phones and keep each other in check on achieving those goals. This process is meant to be fun more than anything—a chance to learn a new skill or shave a few minutes off a race time, but they can also be geared toward strengthening our faith life, both personally and as a family. 

Our kids are often a part of this process, more our daughter than our young son (who would rather just snitch leftover Christmas cookies while the grownups are distracted!). We encourage Anna to set goals for herself as well. Anything from learning a new skill to reading the Bible daily to training for a race. 

When I think of goals versus resolutions, one thing stands out to me. Resolutions tend to be an immediate, often dramatic change in behavior, while goals are achievable, eventual changes that can be measured. Teaching our kids to work toward goals will be a huge help to them as they grow in their personal and professional lives, and we’re (hopefully) showing them that it’s not a scary process to tackle. 

Setting goals for personal change can be a good thing, if we don’t allow it to become an idol for ourselves. I believe involving our kids in our tradition allows them to see their parents working toward—and often achieving—fun and reasonable accomplishments. It also allows them to see us struggle or fail occasionally. We can pray about our progress together. We can work together on spiritual goals like family devotion time or family service projects. Working toward and achieving goals as a family and supporting each other in our personal goals has been a wonderful bonding experience for our family—something we all look forward to each year. 

Staying focused on what matters

Christmas is my favorite time of year. I love the annual reminder that God loved us so much that he sent his son as a little baby to be with us here on earth and, eventually, to pay the price for our sins.

My daughter came home from school recently, horrified, having learned that some people refer to Christmas as X-mas. “Mom, they don’t even want to say Christmas. They take Christ out completely!”

Part of me was sad that my eight-year-old is becoming more familiar with the ways of the world, and part of me was so thankful that she was deeply troubled by something to which I’ve, sadly, become desensitized. Her reaction was a powerful reminder to me of the importance of teaching my kids to keep Christ in Christmas.

One of our favorite things to do as a family in preparation for Christmas is to decorate our home. We put up the tree, hang up wreaths, and look through last year’s Christmas cards.

But our favorite thing to set out together is our creche. Andy and I have a special set that was a gift from my parents on our first married Christmas. While I set out the shepherds, angel, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, our kids set up a toy nativity of their own. When Henry was two, he set quite the Christmas scene with Jesus in the manger and all his “guys” (Batman, Spiderman, even The Joker) coming to pay their respects to the newborn king.

Another favorite tradition is participating in and attending our church’s Advent By Candlelight service at the start of Advent. There is something so special about sitting next to my daughter and worshiping together, preparing our hearts to celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Each of the past few years, we have received a verse-a-day Advent calendar from that service, and we read it together as a family at breakfast. This, combined with working with my kids to memorize their speaking parts for the Christmas services, is a great start to our days during Advent. (I’m convinced Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is meant to be heard in children’s voices!)

Our family’s biggest blessings in helping to keep us focused on Christ at Christmas are the church and school to which we belong. Worshiping and learning together about the true meaning of Christmas on a daily basis keeps our hearts and minds focused on what matters through the busyness and many distractions of the Christmas season.

It’s okay to cry

In 2013, my dad unexpectedly passed away from complications of pneumonia. I hadn’t ever dealt with that level of extreme grief, and it hit me HARD.

Henry (18 months) had never met my dad but was old enough to notice that I was sad. Anna (5 years) knew my dad, and I dreaded telling her he was gone. To this day I am so thankful for the strong, comforting, supportive man I married. Andy took care of details I never would have thought of in my state of shock. He held my hand and did most of the talking when we told the kids.

We were honest and gave age-appropriate details. We told Anna that Grandpa Denny had died in the night. We wouldn’t see him on earth again. We told her that we were sad because we would miss him, and she would probably see me crying. And it was okay if she needed to cry, too. Anna’s first response was that it wasn’t fair—Henry hadn’t even gotten to meet him! (A sentiment I shared—they would have adored each other.) Then she asked if she could watch TV.

Later she needed to cry and had some questions. We hugged and cried together. We talked about good memories of my dad. I told her that even though we have the joy of knowing heaven is waiting for us, it’s okay for us to miss people who aren’t here on earth anymore.

We still talk about my dad often. Henry, who is now four, has grown up hearing stories about my dad, knowing he died and that I still miss him and feel sad sometimes. His favorite story is about my dad living on his sailboat—after all, pirates live on sailboats!

He asks me what would happen if Andy and I died. Who would take care of him? What if Anna died too? I think the knowledge that loved ones can die raises many scary questions for little ones. I try to address these concerns when they arise. Usually a simple answer is all it takes (we will always make sure you are taken care of; you would be very sad, but you will see her/us again in heaven), and then he moves on.

Sometimes we still cry. And I always tell them that it’s okay to do that.

We held a memorial service for my dad about a month after he passed away. We invited friends and family to share memories of him. A few people came up to speak. At last call to the microphone, Anna unexpectedly walked to the front of the room. I grabbed Andy’s hand, not knowing what she planned to say but admiring her bravery. Her speech left all of us reaching for tissues.

“My name is Anna. Denny was my grandpa, and I love him very much. I will miss him, but I know I’ll see him again in heaven.”

teaching kids

Teaching kids to manage money

A few years ago, our church offered a Christian financial planning program that focused on getting people in control of their money. The class changed everything money-related in our marriage (for the better!) and made us much more conscious of what habits we wanted to impart to our children.

We ordered a junior financial planning kit for our daughter, Anna. One of the main points in the junior program is that a weekly allowance is out because then kids learn that they get money for nothing. The program favors a chore/commission approach instead.

We created a chore chart for Anna with age-appropriate chores with associated commissions for each one. If she did the chore that day, she’d get paid, if not, then no money. At the end of the week, we’d tally up how much money she had earned and pay up. She sorted her weekly pay into three pouches. She used one to save, one for spending money, and one for giving. The giving envelope came with us weekly to church for the offering. Any time we went to the store, she could bring her spending money.

We have admittedly fallen away from following this as closely as we did in the beginning. But the principles we learned from that program have endured. I’ll offer the kids chores to do or to support a lemonade stand in the summer if they ask for spending money. They both love putting money in the offering tray on Sunday mornings, and gathering contributions for the offering has become part of getting ready for church in our house.

My rule for shopping with the kids is if they want something that isn’t on my list, they better have brought their spending money. And if they forgot, then we can bring it next time. This has worked surprisingly well at squashing a lot of the begging that occurs on our expeditions to Target

I feel like Andy and I have established a fairly good base of teaching our kids to manage their money, but there is still a lot we want them to learn. I want to teach them about budgeting and living within their means; to save strategically for future and potential emergencies; that credit cards are not the key to freedom I thought they were in college; and to give generously using their gifts from God to benefit others.

Honesty matters

When I was expecting our first child, a friend gave me some advice: Be honest with your kids. You can’t expect them to be honest with you if you’re not honest with them.

I’ve endeavored to stick to that principle, both because I want to model good habits for them, and because I think they deserve honesty from me.

But what about honesty with other people? Do my kids understand when a “little white lie” might be acceptable? Is a little white lie ever acceptable?

One afternoon I ventured to Target with both young kids in tow. We only needed three things so I didn’t bother with a cart—living on the edge! With full arms, I was trying to wrangle both kids into our car when a man pulled his car up behind mine, blocking me in, and asked me for gas money. I felt cornered and unsafe (whether those were his intentions or not). I told him that sorry, no, I had no cash.

As I was trying frantically to get my kids into their seats and get out of there, Anna asked, “Is that true, Mom? Do you really not have any money?”

It wasn’t true. I had five dollars floating around in my purse. But I wasn’t about to admit that to a strange man while cornered in a parking lot with my kids. I had to tell Anna that it wasn’t true. I had lied to that man. (And then we had a long talk about listening to your gut when a situation feels unsafe and where to go to find help in public.)

The words that come out of our mouths are important. The words that don’t come out of our mouths are equally important. I’m trying to teach my kids that honesty matters, but so do kindness and showing love to others. We don’t need to be 100 percent brutally honest with people. There are ways to be truthful without being hurtful.

I answered honestly when Anna asked if I was really the tooth fairy. I gave an age-appropriate, honest answer to the, “How is that baby comin’ outta there?” question that every mom dreads (in public, no less!). I teach the kids to practice phrases like, “That’s not my favorite,” when asked if they like something that they don’t. And we talk a lot about forgiveness and trying again when we inevitably make mistakes.

Overparenting or just parenting?

Are we overparenting our kids? This sounds like such a simple question, yet I’m struggling to put an answer into words. I’ve asked many friends who are also parents about this issue. Most were in agreement that, yes, to some degree, overparenting is common today. But I’m having a hard time putting my finger on what exactly overparenting is and whether it’s a good or bad thing that it seems to be the trend.

In my eyes, overparenting is being too overprotective, too helpful, too quick to jump in and do for my kids instead of letting them figure out their own problems. Basically, I see it as being so involved in my children’s business that they are deprived of the freedom to learn how to do things for themselves. Hover, smother . . . oh, brother.

Almost every mom I spoke with about this topic admitted to overparenting their kids at some point or in some circumstance. I over-involve myself in conflict management between my kids. The temptation is to keep my kids from having to face difficulties so I step in and solve their problems for them. Of course I want them to learn how to solve their own problems, but I tend to jump in a little too early to help them “work it out.” I’m working on that (especially since I’d like to hang up this referee whistle I seem to be sporting so often).

Other friends mentioned the fear of predators and constant bombardment of horrific news stories involving kids as a source for their overprotectiveness. What is the right age to let our kids play outside alone? Have we had the “tricky people” conversation enough that they’ll remember what to do if a situation arises? I don’t think there’s a universal right answer here. Since I’m the one who knows my kids best, it’s up to me to make those calls for them. That is both comforting and frightening.

Parenting is not the cakewalk I imagined it to be. Before I had kids, I was the world’s best mom. I knew exactly how my kids would behave and what they would NEVER do in public (are you rolling your eyes yet?). My child would never wear bunny slippers with a sundress in July (false) or use the safety scissors for anything other than cutting paper (false—the cat had a lovely spikey ’do after an impromptu visit to the toddler salon) and my kids would never, ever have a meltdown in public (FALSE, on more occassions than I can count). These tiny humans are blessed with BIG personalities from an early age. All of my “alwayses” and “nevers” went straight out the window when those personalities came into play. I learned to pick my battles and be flexible whenever possible.

So, are we overparenting our kids? Possibly, but I’m inclined to just call it parenting. It feels very judgmental to say we’re overparenting, when I really only know my situation. At this point, for my young kids, I have to weigh their safety (and that of others) against the benefits of letting them experiment with their freedom. Sometimes that means letting Henry climb the rope ladder at the playground without hovering underneath him with arms outstretched or trusting Anna to grab a gallon of milk while Henry and I wait by the cereal. I hope my kids look back as adults and see that I tried my best to give them freedom while keeping them safe, even if that meant being too in their business sometimes.

Sibling rivalry

Our son’s first night home from the hospital, then three-year-old Anna, truly thrilled to be a big sister, but exhausted from all the excitement, proclaimed angrily as she went off to bed, “EVERYTHING IS NOT FAIR!” I’ve spent the last two-and-a-half years trying to convince her that what she proclaimed that night was truth.

Nobody warned me that I’d need several training courses in refereeing to parent two children. My life has suddenly turned into constant repetition of the phrases “Work it out!”, “Get off of your sister!”, “Use your gentle hands!”, and “I love both of you very much, neither more than the other.” Though my kids adore each other—it’s truly a blessing how well they usually play together—neither of them likes to feel that the other is getting a larger share of attention, fun, or other good things.

Anna had a loose tooth. Henry pretended his teeth were loose. Anna got mad that Henry was trying to steal her thunder.

Henry and I went to the zoo on a sunny morning to get out and give him something to do, other than systematically destroy our house. Anna found out after she got home from school and got angry that she didn’t get to go along. Henry saw her reaction and proceeded to talk about nothing but lions for the remainder of the day, resulting in Anna seething not-so-silently throughout dinner.

Anna, as a first grader, gets to participate in fun activities like school, Lutheran Girl Pioneers, and birthday parties. Henry often has a hard time understanding that younger siblings are not always welcome at these events (nor should they be!) and that his time for these activities is coming.

Determining my role in their developing relationship has been tricky for me from the start. I want them both to be happy. Don’t all mothers wish that for their children? But happiness is not a constant, nor a guarantee. So I try to focus on teaching them to deal in healthy ways with the frustrations and disappointments that come with the many great blessings of having a sibling. There will be times that things aren’t equal. There will be situations that are unfair. But I want them each to have the stability of knowing they are loved, regardless of what is going on in the moment.

I want them to enjoy the same experiences and to know that I want to spend time with them both. I hope they grow from this playmate/enemy relationship into a close friendship like I now enjoy with my adult brother and sister. But there’s only one of me. And between trying to keep us all fed, in clean(ish) clothes, and somewhat entertained, balance is a BIT hard to achieve right now. Henry, as most two-year-olds are apt to do, requires a lot more of my attention than six-year-old Anna does. Some days she handles this well. Other days, I’m thankful she doesn’t have access to eBay to rid herself of her sweet but pesty brother on her own.

It’s normal and natural for siblings to fight and argue. My goal is to teach them that, while life isn’t always fair, they are, regardless of circumstances, loved immensely by God and their parents. My hope is that by loving them each for who they are, they will grow into adult siblings who can love and support each other. Maybe along the way the “stop looking at me!” fight will die out? A mom can dream. . . .

Living in the chaos

The alarm blares—letting us know the time has come to get coats and shoes on to get to school on time. The two-year-old just licked his sister and she, in return, knocked down his block tower (which clearly spells apocalypse in these parts). We are arguing and rushing, and only 30 percent of us are wearing pants enough to be deemed publicly acceptable. And the coffee is NOT READY. There is crying, whining, and yes, even yelling. We rush out the door, hurry into the car, and scurry off to school. This is nearly every weekday morning in our house.

In my clearer moments, the quiet times—usually when kids are sleeping or are on a rare trip to the store with dad—I can see that I let the chaos of the day-to-day overwhelm me and turn me into a mom I don’t want to be—the anxious, uptight, order-barking, stick-to-the-schedule grouch who doesn’t appreciate what amazing people my kids are and are becoming.

In those moments I promise myself that I’m not going to let the next chaotic moment get to me. I’m going to embrace the madness and learn to love that my kids would rather dance than put their shoes on. But in my very human way, I find myself making the same mistakes over and over.

I’m told I’ll miss these days, but while I’m living in the chaos, I find it hard to believe that I’ll miss the last-minute trips to the bathroom after everyone has been bundled in winter clothes or the four milk spills at breakfast while my son learns to use a big-boy cup. Maybe I won’t miss the mess and the craziness, but I will definitely miss the kids being small and watching them grow.