So you have a friend whose child was born with a serious, life-threatening heart condition. They’ve lived the past few years in and out of the hospital, they’re constantly busy with appointments, procedures and tests for their child, and you can tell that they are often run-down and stressed out. Do you find yourself thinking about them often, wondering how they’re doing but not knowing what you can say or do to help them? I have some pretty incredible friends in my life who have been with me through a lot of ups and downs in the past six years. Here are some examples of the things they have done for me in the past (and continue to do) that mean a lot to me – things which you can do for your friends who are raising a cardiac kid. Keep in mind that many of these could also apply to friends who are dealing with other medically fragile family members – like their parents, sibling or child – so if you have friends in that situation these tips would be helpful too.
- Be there. Listen to her when she expresses her joy about milestones reached, steps taken, teeth lost, or report cards issued. It’s likely that she treasures the little things in her child’s life because she might not have expected them to ever happen. If she’s venting about something, don’t feel you always have to find something brilliant to say; sometimes you just need to listen and let her express it. You may not always understand what she’s feeling, but she just needs you to lend her an open ear. Don’t forget to give her a warm hug if you think she may need it.
- Stay in touch. Call her, text her, email her, or come for a visit – not every single day, but enough to let her know you care. She needs to feel supported and loved and needs her friends to stay in her life. Don’t ‘not call’ her because you feel she’s probably too busy to chat. Reach out and call her – and if voicemail picks up, leave a message letting her know that you’re thinking of her.
- It’s ok to ask questions. When you don’t understand what she means by certain tests or procedures or medical jargon, just ask her. She wants her friends to understand what is going on in her child’s life and what he’s going through, so that you will know how to pray for her and her child. Don’t hesitate to ask her other questions like, “What do you need?” “What can I do to help?” And, “How can I pray for you and your child?”
- Offer help. If you know she’s had a busy week filled with appointments and therapies for her child, offer to make her family dinner, do some light housekeeping, or offer to babysit her other children. Offer to drive her to her appointment if you know that the drive to the city is stressing her out. Sometimes that one appointment can take all day long and suck the energy right out of her, so having someone offer to drive could be a huge stress-relief for her. If you think she might be run-down with the day-to-day caring of her child, offer help. Ask her to teach you how to operate the feeding pump, administer medications, or monitor oxygen levels so that down the road maybe you could watch her child for an hour or so, while she gets out and enjoys time to herself or time with her husband and other children.
- Offer support and encouragement when she expresses her feelings or anxious thoughts (and definitely don’t criticize them.) When she talks about fears of her child getting sick or dying, or when she worries because he’s been sleeping a really long time, don’t tell her that she worries way too much. She is raising a child with a life-threatening condition – there is going to be some anxiety that comes with that. Her fears are very real and shouldn’t need to be validated and they are likely there for a reason. It may be because of what her child’s surgeon frankly told her when she asked about the long-term prognosis of her child, or because her child has all kinds of other health concerns that stem from the heart condition and/or surgeries – vision problems, after-effects of a stroke, side effects from medications, or learning disabilities. It could also be that she’s thinking of the families who are no longer holding their child in their arms this Christmas but are mourning for their child who fought so hard. Whether it’s post-traumatic stress or anxiety about the future, try to understand that her anxious feelings are not going to disappear overnight, if they ever do at all. The harsh reality of CHD is that the farther away her child is from his last surgery, the closer he is to his next one.
- Don’t give up on her in her darkest hour. She may go through difficult times when she closes herself off from you and her other friends, hiding from the world and declining invitations to go out. Don’t give up on her. It may be tough to always be the one pulling her out of her shell, but she needs you. Other people might think it’s not worth all the hassle, but real friends don’t give up on her. So remember that she needs you to not give up.
- Invite her and/or her child to your party. When you’re hosting a social event at your house, don’t ‘not’ invite her because you think she won’t be able to come anyway. When you host a birthday party or other fun social gathering for your kids, don’t ‘not’ invite her child, thinking he probably won’t come anyway because he could get sick. It’s more hurtful for them ‘not’ to be invited, than it is to be invited and have to gracefully decline. Leave that decision up to them. They’ve been making tough decisions for their child his whole life; they can handle turning down an invitation if they need to. Invite them anyway; it’s the thought that counts.
- Don’t send your sick child over to their house. EVER. If you’ve ever seen a child with a breathing tube, fighting for his life in Intensive Care then this needs no further explanation. Families with a heart child have likely spent weeks or even months at a time in the hospital, and they like to stay home as much as possible where they can be together with their family. When you are healthy enough to visit their home with your children, hand-washing is very important too. The virus you could be carrying on your hands and bringing into her house can be disastrous for her sick child.
- Stop calling her a Superhero, or Superwoman, or SuperMom. While she might timidly smile when you say this, inside she is absolutely cringing because she knows it’s not she who’s the superhero, it’s her child. He’s the one who has dealt with all the poking and prodding and endless medical professionals in his face yet still finding reason to smile and be joyful when he wakes up each morning. Saying things like “I don’t know how you do it,” might seem like a nice compliment about her super powers, but saying this actually makes her realize her failings and remember how tough it really is sometimes. She doesn’t want to be reminded of how tough it is. If you insist on saying this to her, follow it up with a “How can I help make things easier for you?”
- Be sensitive and think about what you say before you say it. It can be very difficult when she’s spending the holidays in the hospital with her sick child and all you want to talk about is the awesome time you just had in Florida over Christmas. It’s hard for her to admit that while she and her family are split apart over the holidays and she and her child are seeing the same four walls of the hospital room day in and day out, the rest of the world keeps spinning and her friends are out having awesome family time. I’m sure she’d love to hear all about your trip once they’re home and settled again. Also, try not to say things like, “It really doesn’t look like there’s anything ‘wrong’ with him!” While this may be true and you might intend it as a compliment, we know that things can change in an instant. He may look really good today but tomorrow be lying in a hospital bed. Just because you can’t see anything ‘wrong’ with him it doesn’t mean his life is easy. Instead, you could say something like, “Wow, he looks great!”
I really wanted to keep my list simple and include only ten things. But #11 and #12 are really important too!
- Try really hard to remember important dates. If her child has an upcoming test like an ECHO, MRI, cardiac cath or surgery, try to remember those dates (particularly the ones involving intubation and general anesthetic – those ones are the most stressful.) There might be a lot of them to remember, but you could write them on your calendar so you don’t forget. On the night before or the morning of the big day, send her a quick text saying that you’re thinking of them and hoping all goes well. Remembering the important dates and letting her know you’re thinking of them will mean a lot.
- Be an organ donor. Wait, what? What does being an organ donor have to do with being a good friend? EVERYTHING. It means you’re listening to her when she talks about the importance of organ donation and the fact that her child will one day be a recipient. It means you hear her. You get it. So as soon as you’re done reading this list and before you exit this page, click on beadonor.ca and register you and your family members for organ donation. Your choice could one day save the life of 8 people and enhance the life of 75 others.
Melissa is a regular blogger for Cardiac Kids, to learn more about her click here.
Stay tuned this week for a post from Caitlin