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.

Encouraging our daughters to be strong women of faith

When my father caught wind of my plan to “witness” to our neighbors, he sat me down for a discussion. He was happy to hear that I wanted to witness my faith, but he wanted me to examine my methods. As earnest as only an eight-year-old pastor’s daughter can be, I had launched into a listing of errors in Catholic dogma. My father gently but sternly informed me that this was not witnessing; rather, it was arguing. He in no way wished to squash my desire to share the Word, but he wanted to direct my thoughts and words toward a more loving sharing of my faith. How wise of God to put this headstrong girl into a faith-filled, Bible-based, evangelism-minded family.

My own strong-willed daughters are strong women of faith and starting to raise daughters of their own. Looking back, I have come face-to-face with an undeniable conclusion. I did little. God did much.

God gifted me with a Christian husband who entered the ministry as our children were starting school. Not all WELS churches have schools, but at each church we served, we had one. Even in our first small parish on the East Coast, our children attended a WELS one-room school. The amazing woman of faith who taught our children there has continued to be an example to our children and now our grandchildren.

Our daughters have had some incredible role models in each church we attended. They noticed some; we noticed others. We talked about them. They were living textbooks. In one large urban congregation, there were a number of single mothers. They were charged with the religious education in their homes. It was truly humbling to see the sacrificial efforts they made to ensure their children knew their Savior.

If you don’t have a Lutheran elementary school, take advantage of what your congregation does have to offer. Supplement religious education with age-appropriate materials available through Northwestern Publishing House. Take time to emphasize the many women of faith in the Bible. Point out the Marys, Marthas, and Hannahs in your own congregation.

Give your daughter the tools to lovingly defend her faith. Have conversations about controversial and uncomfortable topics and apply God’s Word to them. Help your daughter stand strong in the face of today’s moral ambiguity. Sometimes God’s Word is very clear on a topic. On others it may be a matter of opinion, taste, or even tradition. Try to discern which is which and pick your battles accordingly. When you raise strong women of faith, they may very well have strong opinions. Exercise caution when you find yourself on the other side of the fence in matters of adiaphora, that is, things not directed by Scripture.

The most important thing I can recommend is prayer. I have had many conversations with God about the trials peculiar to girls and women in our society. My prayer is that we encourage the women around us in faith so that they might lift each other up. I have seen this trait carried on with my daughters as they make applications of their faith in their daily lives. They are strong supporters of other women and their walks with God. We women need to do this for each other and our daughters.

Mary Clemons lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband, Sam. They have three children and seven grandchildren.

“Where do your kids go to school?”

“Where do your kids go to school?”

This common question always catches me off guard. It shouldn’t, of course, but it does. I answer—with some pride, but mainly apprehension—that we homeschool our kids. Thankfully, most reactions involve admiration and praise followed with general inquiry. However, some reactions have involved judgment, concern, and overall disapproval.

Homeschooling has definitely been a lifestyle change for our family. The journey arriving here certainly wasn’t a part of our parenting plan for our children, even though I have always felt that teaching is my vocation.

I was a public school teacher in the inner city of Milwaukee, Wis., for six years. During that time my husband and I had two children. I worked full time and returned back to school for my masters and an additional teaching license in bilingual education. I was pregnant with our third child when we decided that I would relinquish all my teaching credentials and become a full-time stay-at-home mom. What a blessing!

During that time, my oldest attended a small WELS preschool. This was all new to us and exciting. We had projects, snack calendars, special gym shoes, and a Thomas the Train backpack.

After that year, we moved to a suburb outside of Milwaukee. We found a new church and school, and it quickly became our lifestyle to serve there. My son was thriving, and we received countless praises about his character and love for Jesus and all things in nature. We were pleased with his academic progress and social, spiritual, and physical development.

Our second child started school, our fourth child was born, and our family life started to feel overwhelming. Everything felt rushed and hurried—a result of the choices we had made together, but something had to give.

We started to see signs that our son was struggling in third grade. It can all be summed up into time management and personal responsibility. No one likes to feel rushed and hurried. He confessed feeling this way all the time in school. We worked with his teachers and got to the heart of the matter and discovered that his learning styles weren’t conducive for a typical classroom setting. The teachers were gracious in modifying their lesson assignments for him and provided me with resources and suggestions to better meet his needs.

I spent the rest of that semester exploring all options. We had our son’s vision and hearing tested and met with professionals to offer any insight into his wonderful world of learning and retaining information. We tested his reading comprehension and learned he was reading just below grade level. Finally we decided to pull him at the end of the semester from his WELS grade school, and we began our homeschooling journey.

As we discovered, each homeschooling family is different. We decided to fully involve our son in this decision so he could have ownership and personal responsibility for his schooling. We told him this was going to be the semester we try it out and see if it’s a good fit for our family. And that’s exactly what we did. We used that semester to identify areas of weaknesses and strengths. We poured into his personal interests. We read a ton of books based on his choice of topics, wrote in journals, explored our community, visited several museums, enjoyed nature, made messes doing science and art projects, watched historical documentaries, and occasionally worked on math work books. We finished the school year, and during the summer he informed us that he wanted to continue homeschooling, so we decided to keep going.

We enrolled both our daughters at our church’s school that year—second grade and half-day 4K. I purchased an entire grade-level Christian curriculum, joined a Christian co-op homeschooling group, and began fully homeschooling our then fourth-grade son. He and I worked tirelessly around the baby’s nap schedule and carpool pick-ups. We managed extra-curricular activities and became involved in our co-op. There I met several homeschooling families from all different backgrounds. It was refreshing to be among such diverse company. I was always encouraged and supported, and every family had their own unique story and experience that led them to homeschooling. I was in awe of the spiritual gifts and talents of these parents, all of whom shared a similar sentiment and belief that the schooling of our children is not a one-size-fits-all specific program. What works for your family may not necessarily work for ours, and that’s okay.

That was my first full year of all-in homeschooling. The most exhausting part was the baby. The one-on-one with my son was rewarding and enjoyable. During that year my eldest daughter continually inquired about staying home with her brother to be homeschooled. Although hesitant at first—I didn’t feel ready to add another student to my classroom and she seemed to be thriving at school both academically and socially—we decided to bring her home as well at the beginning of the next school year. I turned my dining room into a classroom and fully committed to this homeschooling lifestyle. It was an absolute joy seeing my children learn together and grow closer to one another.

The benefits of homeschooling have significantly outweighed the challenges for us. We immediately eliminated the busyness, rushing, and hurrying. Our family has grown closer together and developed a collaborative and comfortable learning environment that fosters exploration and discovery and appeals to each child’s interests. We provide balanced amounts of structured and unstructured activities. We give our children a flexible routine that enables them to take responsibility in finishing their own tasks. We provide a comfortable learning environment free from judgment and comparison, focused instead on encouragement and inspiration.

We regularly go on field trips. We go sledding and ice skating for recess during the winter. We have a reading club on the trampoline on warm days. We even have poetry reading family nights with recitations and performances. Our homeschool lifestyle is unique to our family because it caters to our needs and interests while building on the fundamental skills and knowledge for personal growth and progression in all areas of development.

Of course there are drawbacks to homeschooling. First off, you are the school. You are the educator, principal, secretary, guidance counselor, recess supervisor, art and music teacher, gym teacher, etc. It’s a lot of additional responsibility on top of the demands of parenting.

Also, it is a tremendous amount of pressure to provide a well-rounded education for your children. Homeschool parents can’t call a substitute teacher. We often feel inadequate and insecure. We see the neighbor kids getting on the bus, and we are envious. We see pictures on Facebook about school programs and spirit week dress-up days, and we feel excluded. We sit among family, friends, and neighbors who boast about their children’s school achievements, and we are overwhelmed with doubt that we may have made a mistake choosing to homeschool our children. We look at state standards and wonder if we did enough at the end of each year. We see social awkwardness with our children and feel responsible for not providing enough social interaction among peers. The list goes on.

The homeschooling family needs community support. We need encouragement and love from our family, friends, and neighbors. We need to feel accepted, cherished, and included in our church so we may continue to grow in faith. When you meet a homeschooling family, acknowledge and encourage them. Above all, pray for them. The homeschool family needs prayer of wisdom, discernment, and perseverance. Show love and kindness to these families. And when you ask, “Where do your kids go to school?” to a new family and find out that they homeschool, make sure to follow up with, “That’s wonderful! Tell me about your homeschool.”

Sarah Haeuser and her husband, Frank, have four children and live in Merton, Wis.

Put God’s love in action

I’m going to let you in on a little secret—church is something that the parents of kids with special needs dread. We are an exhausted group of people, and making it to church on Sunday is hard in big ways. It is also hard for our kids, many of whose needs result in difficult and loud behaviors during church that draw lots of unwanted attention. They’re not trying to be disruptive or naughty; often their bodies and brains can’t process the sights, sounds, and structure of a service.

But we remember Christ’s words, “Let the little children come to me” in Matthew, and we understand the importance of bringing our kids to Jesus’ feet to hear about his love and forgiveness. Sometimes we are also motivated by our desperation to see other adults during the week that aren’t our kids’ therapists. Sometimes we even dare to hope that we will be able to distract our kids long enough to make it through singing just one of our favorite hymns.

It’s hard work—physically and emotionally—for us and for our children. Here are some things for the church to think through when it comes to being the hands and feet of Jesus so that families can receive rest from the one who welcomes those who are “weary and burdened.”

Special needs present themselves in different ways. Children may have autism, PTSD, Sensory Processing Disorder, or ADHD—all diagnoses that don’t affect a child’s physical appearance. However, these are very real and challenging things to live with, and they affect a child’s brain and behavior in deep, lifelong ways. Treat the children and their families in your congregation with the kindness and gentleness Paul speaks of in Galatians. There may be more to a child’s behavior that you simply do not know about.

Provide opportunities for Dad, Mom, and siblings to worship and learn. This can be as simple as providing a staffed nursery or special helper in the pews to give families aid and respite so that everyone is given a chance to learn, pray, and sing during worship.

Be advocates for struggling families. They’re probably used to stares or unkind comments in the grocery store, doctor’s office, or park. Let your church be a place where these families are supported and encouraged. If you see others making them feel unwelcome or unwanted, reach out to encourage the hurting family—and remind others that God calls us to carry each other’s burdens in love. Notice the times when their child is behaving well or having a successful day. Tell them about the amazing qualities you see in their child.

Equip your Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and other youth programs to accommodate participation from children with special needs. Make sure that the parents of these children feel welcome and safe dropping their child off by enlisting the help of their child’s therapists to make sure that you have a team in place to make the environment safe and successful. Most therapists are thrilled to help you make your program a better place for a hurting child. No one should be excluded from opportunities to learn about Jesus and enjoy fellowship with peers.

Children with special needs call for special care. And it brings special blessings for those of us who care for them. We get to see these children held tightly in the arms of Jesus and know—we had the joy of helping make it happen. Help your congregation experience this joyful blessing. Put God’s love in action.

Carly Seifert and her husband, Joel, live in Bozeman, Mont. Joel is the pastor of Shining Mountains Lutheran Church. In addition to teaching piano, Carly is a freelance writer. She and Joel have two children—Ella, who is seven, and Benjamin, who is three.

Teaching children how to respond to those with special needs

“Why does he have that chair?”

“What’s wrong with him?”

These are questions that children often ask about my son, Liam. Sometimes they ask me directly. Sometimes they ask their parents. Sometimes they yell the questions to any listening ears. Many children stop in their tracks to stare. For our family every grocery store trip, library visit, church event, or walk in the neighborhood brings us into contact with people who have questions.

People notice Liam’s chair. They notice that he cannot talk. They hear him make loud noises. They see that his body moves very differently than most. I understand their curiosity. Liam is different, and people just want to understand.

Children are honest and open in their curiosity. I appreciate that they ask questions. Certainly there are days when I want to avoid stares and questions. I want to blend in with the crowd. Yet I know that it is a great service to Liam when we use every teachable moment. If people can become comfortable with Liam and can learn to interact with him appropriately, all of our lives will be richer.

Children’s questions are often intercepted by chagrined parents. The parents apologize and pull their curious children away from Liam without allowing us to say hello or answer their questions. This leaves everyone feeling awkward.

Ironically, when I am out with only my daughters and we meet individuals with special needs, I have trouble knowing how to behave. It is so difficult! The social cues are confusing, any assumptions that I have made are usually wrong, and I overthink every word that I say. Being Liam’s mom has helped me to really think about these situations and how we can all respond better. I have found following these guidelines to be helpful as I introduce my children to someone new who has special needs:

  1. Remember that people with disabilities are people first. The disability is certainly a part of them, but it isn’t who they are. They have feelings, ideas, wishes, and hopes just like you do. I explain this to my children, and we talk about what each of my children likes, thinks, hopes, and wishes. We talk about how every person is similar in these ways even if he cannot communicate this or if she looks or moves differently.
  2. Start by smiling and saying hello. Even if your child started the interaction with a loud question, parents of children with disabilities understand that this happens. We are human. Our kids are too. Don’t lose this teachable moment because of your own embarrassment. A smile and a kind hello are so much friendlier than pulling your child away from us. Most days, we will even take a minute to explain the wheelchair to your child or to introduce Liam.
  3. Acknowledge Liam, not just his family. Liam won’t answer you. He may not even look at you, but say hello to him. Look at him. Use your regular voice. You don’t need to talk extra loudly. He is a school-aged kid, so baby talk is unnecessary. I will help you out by interpreting his response. Liam is so valuable and worthwhile, and your hello to him helps both him and me see that you know this.
  4. An “I’m not sure” is better than a wrong or made up answer. This is always the truth with kids, and it certainly applies to answering their questions about special needs. While “God made him that way” is certainly true of Liam’s inability to talk and walk, it oversimplifies Liam’s differences. It doesn’t answer the child’s questions. It is not true of why he is in a wheelchair (which is usually what kids want to know). Liam wasn’t born with a wheelchair. For a small child, an age appropriate response that might be better would be to explain that Liam’s brain doesn’t send the right messages and so his body never learned to walk or talk the way that most children do.
  5. If you and your child are talking with Liam, tell your child a few things that are similar about him and Liam. “Do you like books? Liam loves to listen to books.” This helps your child to see Liam as a little boy. Conversations like this are a great way to become Liam’s new friend. They also help your child understand that Liam is similar to him in so many ways.
  6. Examine your own responses. When I interact with others who have special needs, I am always worried about doing or saying the wrong thing. My kids pick up on this no matter how kind my words are. The easiest way I’ve found to overcome my own fears has been to get to know real people with special needs. Every single person is different, and my comfort with differences grows as I get used to being with all sorts of people.
  7. Reassure your child. Recently a girl told my daughter, “Your brother is just creepy.” What people don’t understand feels scary to them. It may seem obvious, but children need to be reassured that children like Liam are not scary. They are actually very much like every other child. They like to play. They want to have friends. They want to be loved. Explain to your child that children can be born disabled or become disabled from an accident. You cannot catch disability from another child. Being friends with them is perfectly safe.
  8. Do not reward or congratulate your child for being friends with another child who has special needs. Being a friend to someone with special needs is not a charitable act or an act of kindness. It is a mutually beneficial relationship and should be treated as such. Typical peers often learn and grow through such friendships in huge ways.

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). Helping your child lovingly interact with others is a natural part of Christian parenting. In his explanation to the 8th commandment Luther says that we are to “take [our neighbor’s] words and actions in the kindest possible way.” If each of us strives to approach situations with this attitude, we can truly become comfortable with interactions involving all kinds of people. As you encounter children with special needs, imagine how you would feel and how you would want to be treated.

Just as your child and my Liam have many things in common, so do you and I. We are parents doing our best to nurture and love the children that the Lord has entrusted to us—probably more alike than different.

Wendy Heyn’s second child, Liam, was born with a rare genetic neurodevelopmental disorder known as MECP2 duplication syndrome.

Advice from Liam’s big sister, Sophia

Sophia Heyn is a creative 10-year-old who enjoys reading historical fiction and acting out the scenarios that she learns about from Laura Ingalls Wilder, the American Girl series, and other beloved books. Because her father was born and raised in Germany, she has traveled to Europe many times, and this gives her a different perspective on the world. Perhaps having a brother with a genetic disorder that causes severe cognitive and physical disabilities has also contributed to the mature way that she carries herself.

I sat down with Sophia over a cup of hot chocolate to hear her perspective on how other children should treat her brother.

Q: What do you like to do with Liam?

Sophia: I play Thomas [the Tank Engine] with him and help him get a drink. He likes me to set up his Thomas cards so that he can wreck them.

Q: When someone meets Liam for the first time, what kind of questions do they ask?

Sophia: Some people ask, “What’s wrong with him?”

Q: How do you answer when people ask that?

Sophia: I tell them that he has a disability and his brain doesn’t work the same way that ours does. I like when they ask questions. Some people just stare, but I think it’s better to ask questions.

Q: How does it make you feel when people stare or treat Liam differently?

Sophia: I don’t like it.

Q: What would you like to say when that happens?

Sophia: It’s okay if you have questions.

Sophia encourages people of all ages to talk with her family about Liam. Her love for her brother shines through as she talks about him, as does her sense of protection for him. Like most big sisters, Sophia wants children to be kind to her brother. As you help your children learn how to respond to those with special needs, consider sharing Sophia’s thoughts with them.

Nicole Balza