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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.

Pray!

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.