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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Friend In Need

Those of you who know me outside of this crazy blogosphere know that our next-door neighbors, the Ashes, continue to struggle greatly because mom Rosie is very ill. I'm not very eloquent when I write about this situation, probably because I've been in a spiritual valley for some time.

Just so you know, I believe everything I believed before; it's simply that I'm struggling with the practical side of walking in my faith. It's been a tough three years, what with our current long adoption wait, the Tongginator's special challenges, the Husband's near death experience last Thanksgiving, and so many other difficulties that piled up these past three years, including house guests coming to stay for six months and, most recently, the Termite Home Invasion.

I often feel quite whiny for pointing out these things, especially knowing that I am so very blessed to live as a child of God, in this country, surrounded by so many people and things that I take for granted. I should better remember that God places difficulties in our lives to help us grow... and that always, always there is someone out there struggling with more than you can imagine.

I never felt this lesson so deeply as I did the week between this past Christmas and New Years. Two days after Christmas, the Husband and I learned that Rosie's breast cancer returned to her liver and lungs after a short period of remission. She's still so young at 45 and, although she's more than a decade older than me, she's been married to Ring only six years and has five-year-old twins (Pocket and Posies). There are few situations worse than watching a family with young children suffer through a serious illness. It's made all the more difficult because this same family struggled so much when their twins arrived prematurely at only 25 weeks (birth weights at 1 pound, 6 ounces and 1 pound, 9 ounces).

As a friend and neighbor, and one who currently falls short on my personal faith walk, I'm basically bumbling along, trying to show this family the love of Christ during such a difficult time. I don't know that I'm getting it right, but I believe that Jesus is smiling down on me anyway because He knows I'm trying despite my current failings.

I realize this is not a funny nor particularly uplifting post, but I do feel it's valuable. Here are a dozen practical tips I've found work for me when a friend or neighbor becomes seriously ill:

1. First, the "duh" task every believer knows, even a currently sketchy one like me ... Pray! Pray for healing, strength and whatever else the Holy Spirit places on your heart.

2. Ask the family if they would like you to spread the word or remain mum. Some people may wish to maintain their privacy for as long as possible. Others may want someone else to take over the task of sharing the situation. Ring absolutely dreaded having to retell the news over and over, so he asked me to spread the word through the neighborhood and at the children's school.

3. Once people learn of the situation, they want to help, but since everyone is afraid to say or do the wrong thing, no one wants to help right away. Instead, they want others to tell them how they can help. The family is in shock, so they probably won't be able to articulate their needs, at least not during the first few weeks. That's when you need to step in and begin organizing. The family probably needs:
  • one person to organize meals;
  • one person to help the family identify and meet their childcare needs;
  • one person to organize others to help with errands, driving to and from medical appointments, and school carpooling;
  • and one person to help organize volunteers willing to perform small household tasks.
Find four volunteers who will act as points of contact for these four areas. (It's a ton of work, so don't allow one person to try and do it all - spread out the responsibilities.)

4. Create index cards with contact information for the four points of contact, as well as their specific areas of responsibility. (I printed out labels containing the necessary information and slapped them onto the cards.) With the family's permission, pass out these cards to neighbors, friends, church members, parents at school, anyone and everyone who asks "how can I help?" Also provide these cards to the family, so that if someone approaches them in public, they can respond with, "It's wonderful you want to help. Here are a few people you can contact to see what might work best for you."

5. After the first week or two, back off from organizing so that the family feels more in control of the situation. Still, you should continue to act as a liaison between the family and the support network by regularly asking how things are going, if their needs are being accurately communicated and met ... stuff of that nature.

6. When you visit or call, be an "emotional sponge." This means listening with your heart, soaking up whatever it is she has to say. You don't have to fill in every quiet moment with words. Sometimes listening is all you really need to do. When you can't visit, call or send a note.

7. Volunteer where you can, without overextending yourself. Despite how selfish this sounds, remember that your family's needs must come first. Always turn to God before offering help: He may have someone else in mind for the job!

8. When you visit with the family, take their lead when it comes to conversation topics. Sometimes they may want to talk about the situation, and sometimes they just want to experience normalcy. Don't forget to simply shoot the breeze about the kids, your week at work, or something funny that happened the other day. Don't be afraid to laugh with them!

9. Go to the library and ask a librarian for book recommendations about coping with a serious and/or terminal illness. Check out a few books or, if your budget allows, purchase them so that no one worries about late fees. Pass these books along to the non-ill spouse. These resources will be much appreciated, believe me, and oftentimes the family feels too overwhelmed and emotional to take the steps to obtain them.

10. Don't forget to support the spouse during the crisis. They struggle as much as the ill parent, albeit in different ways, and often get neglected amid the chaos.

11. Don't lower your standards of behavior for their children. It does the family no favors to change your operating style "because their mom is sick." The children WILL probably need more hugs, and more chances to laugh and cry, but don't also provide them with more opportunities to throw temper tantrums or talk with a sassy mouth. Children who have a seriously ill parent feel scared a lot of the time, and a lack of boundaries only increases their fear level. Plus, if they grow completely wild due to lack of discipline, it creates more work for their already overburdened parents.

12. If and when it becomes obvious that the illness is terminal, you should prayerfully consider taking a deep breath, and then asking the non-ill spouse if they would like help documenting some memories for the children. Our friends theBlueFairy and FieldMouse gave us this to pass along to Ring, but there are lots of inexpensive ways to help in this area.

These ideas continue to Work For Me during a very difficult time. What works for you?


Laura said...

This was a wonderful post. Great of you to share these things while you are right in the middle of dealing with them. God bless you as you minister to this family.

FrazzMom said...

Great and practical tips. I have learned through experience that 'What can I do to help?' is too open ended for a family in crisis... Offering to do specific tasks, however, can be a huge help.

Jen @ JenuineJen said...

This is a very well thought out post with wonderful advice. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Having been in both the receiving end (when my grandmother was suffering from breast cancer) and the giving end (when the father in a dear family we know was diagnosed with cancer) of similar situations, your advise is spot-on!

Thanks again for sharing!

:: Suzanne :: said...

Great post. We were very grateful for LotsaHelpingHands after my Dad was paralyzed by a tree-cutting accident winter before last. It took the burden out of organizing.

Mama Russell said...

Those are all very good ideas. I will be praying for you and your family as well as Rosie.

Aimee Kieffer, aka "Momzoo" said...

Thank you so much for sharing that. It was a very thoughtful, meaningful thing to share.

Bless you!

Erin K. said...

Wow - this is great. I think you are doing much more than just "bumbling along." :-D Your neighbors are blessed to have such a wonderful and giving (and administratively gifted) friend!!

jen said...

You've done an amazing job of putting together a great list here! Thank you for sharing it!

discombobulated said...

Thanks for sharing. Now instead of feeling helpless, we can actually do something rather than just say the tired and meaningless, "I'm here if you need me".
You're all in my prayers.

Dawn said...

What great advice for a very difficult situation. Everyone should have this information.