When a Friend's Child Is Very Ill
Melinda Wenner Bradley, of Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, was shocked by how one woman reacted when she told her that her toddler had cancer. "She said, 'Aren't you terrified?' right there in front of my older child," Bradley recalls. "What I wanted to say was, 'No, I don't have time to be terrified. And even if I was, I wouldn't want my kids to know.'" Now that her son's prognosis is good, she encounters people who talk about how relieved she must be that his illness is over. "I know they mean well," Bradley says. "But the reality is, cancer isn't ever over. He'll be undergoing tests every few months for years."
People are usually eager to help when a friend is dealing with a medical crisis. But unless offers of help are specific, they can be overwhelming. Since your pal will be spending a lot of time at doctors' appointments and the hospital, let her know exactly what you can do: pick up her other kids at school, deliver a hot meal for the family, or send an e-mail update to friends she doesn't have time to contact. She'll need emotional support as well, so tell her you're available if she wants to talk. And make sure she knows that your offer to help is not a one-time thing. "Be there for her on an ongoing basis," Douglas says. "It takes months -- even years -- for people to come to terms with a major event like a seriously ill child. Your friend will appreciate having your support over the long term."
- "Oh, I know someone who had something like that, and he's fine." Unless it was exactly like that, please don't share. Also, never talk about kids who had a similar diagnosis and didn't make it.
- "I hope it's not terminal." Not something your friend wants to contemplate right now. And if she does, let her bring it up.
- "Is it contagious?" You may be concerned about your own kids, but this question sounds selfish and insensitive.
- "I'm sorry to hear your son is in the hospital. I'd be happy to pick your daughter up from soccer practice so you'll have one less thing to worry about."
- "I've been thinking about you a lot. How are you doing?" Then make sure you really listen. There might not be anything more to say.
- "I can sit with you, do some online research -- whatever you need, I'll do it." Don't be afraid to throw out ideas. She might be too freaked out to think straight.