You’ve seen the social media posts: A good friend announces that a spouse or child has been in an accident or is seriously ill, and the family expects to be fully focused on their loved one’s recovery in the coming weeks or months.
These posts are often followed by dozens of heartfelt responses, promising prayers and good thoughts, with many “let me know if I can do anything” posts.
Often, the stricken family is still reeling from the news and has no idea what they need at that particular moment, much less what they’ll need a month or so down the road.
As a family friend or extended family member, you might want to step up and support them in any way possible, but you simply don’t know how, and you don’t want to seem intrusive.
Here are guidelines to help decide how to appropriately rally on behalf of friends and family experiencing a health crisis.
Assess Your Limitations and Volunteer Your Strengths
Take a moment to really think about whether or not you’re in a position to offer assistance, and in what capacity. While there are many ways you can support your loved ones, whether you’re near their location or across an ocean, don’t oversell your ability to help.
It’s perfectly fine to simply send a card or leave a message of encouragement if you are, for any reason, unable to do more; this is better than allowing your friends or family to believe they can rely on you when you won’t be available.
While you’re considering your limitations, also consider your strengths. Perhaps you are uncomfortable in hospital settings or providing help with a patient who needs assistance with basic functions, but you have time to prepare meals or do some light housework.
Be honest with yourself, and focus on ways in which you can ease the family’s stress. Read on for some useful suggestions for “support brigades”.
Suggest the Family Elect a “Support Coordinator”
Cindy, an illustrator in Philadelphia, remembers the overwhelm she and her family experienced when news spread of her husband Adam’s illness three years ago.
“When Adam got sick,” says Cindy about the week following her husband’s colon cancer diagnosis and surgery, “everyone said they wanted to help…but we were in major chaos, and didn’t know how to ask for what we needed. We knew we needed help, but we were so focused on processing the diagnosis, it was impossible to respond to everyone.”
Upon hearing about your friend’s predicament, call or send an e-mail (don’t post on a social media thread) to express your thoughts and your intention to be supportive. Offer one or two specific tasks you can perform.
Most important, ask if there’s anyone acting as a “support coordinator,” someone close to the family who will manage genuine offers of assistance. For some families, this may be the person who routinely organizes the family’s finances or coordinates with the estate planning attorney.
If you’re a close family member or friend, and you’re well-organized and able to field calls and e-mails on a daily basis, you may decide to offer to volunteer in this capacity.
By simply asking whether the family has designated someone for this role, you’re encouraging them to do so–something many families find extremely useful, especially during the first chaotic weeks following an injury or the onset of an illness. Common roles of the support coordinator/liaison include:
- Acting as the “ask” person for those families who have a difficult time requesting help
- Maintaining updates to peripheral friends and family on behalf of the family in crisis
- Organizing meals
- Organizing relief caregiving
Cindy and Adam received invaluable help from Adam’s sister, Lisa, who stepped into the role of support coordinator. Lisa was familiar with most of the couple’s close friends and family, easing her ability to keep them updated about Adam’s condition.
“We set up a special Facebook page, made Lisa the admin, and requested that everyone contact her there for updates until we got our legs back underneath us,” said Cindy, who added that Lisa, with the help of a close family friend, kept her and Adam’s home from sounding like an office switchboard. “Plus, after all the excitement died down but we still needed backup, Lisa helped rally the troops.”
Offer Specific Help
Whether or not you’re on the front lines of the family’s supporters, you’ll want to be specific about what you’re able to do. Make clear that you’re open to suggestions, but don’t be afraid to set boundaries. While your goal is to offer assistance to the primary caregivers so they don’t burn out, you have your own obligations and responsibilities.
If you want to be in it for the long haul, you too will need to pace yourself.
Caregivers are often so emotionally and physically exhausted, it’s difficult for them to come up with concrete roles for their supporters. By being clear and concise in your suggestions, yet flexible as appropriate, you will make it easier for your loved ones and their key supporters to be decisive in accepting your help. Here are examples of how to ask:
“I’m not sure what you need right now, but if it helps, I’d love to pick up the kids after school and take them to a movie Thursday afternoon, and bring them back after we get pizza”. (Make sure the parents put you and approved helpers on the school’s pick-up list!)
“I can come hang out with (the patient) while you get out for a couple hours on Saturday or Sunday; I’m free for any two hours after ten a.m.”
“If you e-mail me your grocery list, I can handle that for you tomorrow. You can write me a check when I arrive or just PayPal me.”
“I can come over Tuesday or Wednesday after work. I can help with housework, or if you want, or I can just sit there with you and listen.”
Useful Ideas for Caregiver Support
Dana, a physical therapist in San Francisco, suffered a childhood illness that required intensive long-term care. She spent three months in a coma, two of them at her parents’ house, aided by nurses and family.
“When I was ten. I had encephalitis, and my parents never wanted me left alone. My mom’s friends and Dad’s hockey team buddies each claimed an hour every week to read to me while my parents took breaks, spent time with my sister, or just dealt with everyday stuff.”
Dana had never met some of these people until after she recovered but now considers them her angels. “I don’t think my folks could have made it without them,” she said. “And everyone who helped said they felt bonded to our family because of it.”
Simple things can make an enormous difference in the lives of people who are trying to manage illness within the family. Following are suggestions for caregivers to request and supporters to offer to make difficult times more manageable.
- Walk the family dog
- Landscape cleanup and lawn mowing
- Spend time with the family kids
- Raise funds to assist with medical costs, accessibility modifications to the family home or domestic services
- Give gift certificates for meal delivery or take-out
- Offer to piggyback their errands with your own
- Offer to house or assist with out-of-town family and friends
- Listen. Hold space; don’t offer advice or try to “fix” their problems, or say everything will be okay. Just affirm that what they are going through is awful, and let them rant, cry or just think out loud.
Stick With It
The need for help often outlasts the initial wave of concern and support. Be sure to check in with your loved ones to evaluate how you can continue to help them as their specific needs evolve. Encourage other supporters to do the same when possible and appropriate.
Be Kind to Yourself
Your friends or family members are going through a difficult time, and as a compassionate, caring person, it affects you as well. At times, you may experience awkwardness as you interact with your loved ones in crisis.
This is natural, as you are experiencing a contextual shift in how you usually interact with them, and of course, witnessing friends and family in pain tends to elicit introspection about our own fragility. You may even feel guilt that your family is currently healthy. Again, these are all normal feelings.
If you are spending a lot of time supporting caregivers, you may need some support yourself. Manage emotional stress with the help of a counselor, if needed.
Get plenty of rest, maintain your nutritional goals, and exercise to relieve stress and stay physically healthy. By taking care of yourself, you are making sure you can be there for your loved ones.