Once a family hears that their child has a life threatening diagnosis, everything in their world feels like it is spinning out of control. Try to imagine that you suddenly find yourself struggling to figure out how you will manage everything including your normal daily tasks which used to matter more than anything else and abruptly don't matter at all because ALL you care about or have the mental capacity for is making sure your child, who has just been diagnosed, stays alive and that your other family members are taken care of as well.
We were there, speechless in what was in front of us. But, something happened and then we weren't. We witnessed our friends, neighbors, church, community and strangers pull together in the most unbelievable way to carry the weight of this diagnosis with us. They met so many of our needs and it is because we have been on the receiving end of SO much grace by SO many people that I can speak first hand about this topic. For the past year and a half of treatment, trauma, lack of sleep, and feeling very disoriented, these people stepped in and were the hands and feet of Jesus to us. You see, they didn't come to us and say, "What do you need? Let us know if you need anything..." because at this point in time we had NO idea what we needed. We didn't know how we would keep it all together. Nor did we know what our day to day would look like and we were just trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other---navigate a new normal. What ultimately stood out in all of this was the mindfulness that seemed to collectively erupt in the heart of our community manifest through prayer, intent, and then was carried out by many. They just rose up and DID. When we thought our lives and dreams were put on pause, our community pressed play.
So with out further a do ....... here are the top 5 ways you could help a new family who has just received a childhood cancer diagnosis (or any type of challenging medical diagnosis):
1. SIT IN THEIR TRENCH/PRAY FOR THEM: (Two for the price of one here--) I'm an introvert. I wanted to mourn this diagnosis alone and weep when my babies slept. But I wasn't given much of that opportunity because the closest of our people showed up and sat with us in our suffering. It was in these moments, those that Emmy lit up and enjoyed the company and presence of familiar faces, that I realized it was just what she needed and seeing her joy was just what I needed. It helped pass the time in the hospital. It allowed myself or Tigh to step out of the room for a minute to grab a cup of coffee (a good cup of coffee was lifeblood for us), or go cry and not be in front of Emmy, or just have a mental break for space to process and contemplate all that had just changed in our world.
I also understand there is a time for personal space and some people really may not want additional company. So, my advice would be to really be sure you know this family close enough to linger. You do NOT want to overstep your boundaries so have a clear definition of what those are and be mindful of their state. Maybe the best way for you to sit in their trench with them, is to help start a page for people to be updated or contact other people in the community for them. These are a couple of ways to love them from afar, yet still be in the trench with them.
PRAYER -- it is so powerful. I have witnessed it. I have felt it. If you say, "We are praying for you." MEAN IT -- DO IT -- write it out and send it to the family and ask them as time progresses what their specific prayer needs are. There is power in prayer. Get as many folks on board to pray for this family and over the mountain they are facing.
2. DON'T FORGET SIBILINGS: Oh man this is one of the trickiest things. When a new diagnosis hits a person in the family, it doesn't just affect the impacted person, it effects the WHOLE family. On November 16, 2016, our family got diagnosed with cancer. Emmy's 3 siblings had their world turned upside down that day. Because of their age, they couldn't rationalize what was going on in Emmy's body and why she was getting far more attention than they were. All of the sudden, literally, everything is different. DO NOT forget them. Bring a package of toys for them to help pass their time (that they now find themselves sitting in the hospital with). Or blankets or a special stuffed animal that they can cuddle since usually a parent and sibling are now missing at night due to being in the hospital. Whatever their interests might be, find something that they would enjoy or take comfort in. They are warriors and heroes too as they learn to adapt, support, and love through this hard road ahead.
3. COZY BLANKETS & CARE PACKAGES: After diagnosis we spent 9 days in the hospital, followed by a few other hospital stays. (Many different Leukemia/Solid Tumor patients spend WAY more time in the hospital based on their type or risk level. We're grateful we had only an extra few nights compared to the months that other families may face.) A friend brought fuzzy blankets for both Emmy and either Tigh or myself (whoever was staying with her at the time). They became our go-to blankets that stayed in our hospital bags. Being able to curl up in a soft and warm blanket while you're stuck in a cold hospital room felt comforting. We also received the most thoughtful care packages filled with activities to pass the time for Emmy, jammies for her, as well as slippers, flip flops for the shower, CHAPSTICK (important for chemo patients--chapped lips can be a source for infection), and other little thoughtful things like good smelling shampoo and conditioner. I went in one night to take a shower in the hospital bathroom and my whole body felt like I had been hit by a truck. There was just something about a nice smell that helped melt some of the stress away on nights like that and helped the hospital bathroom feel a little gentler.
4. BRING HEALTHY FOOD: We have always been a family who tries to eat healthy and let's be honest, hospitals don't have good food (that's a whole other topic in itself). It was LIFE GIVING to receive fresh food, both in the hospital and for the amazing 8 MONTHS that we received meals on our front porch every few days. When you get a cancer diagnosis the reality that you are not in control of ANYTHING hits pretty hard. But if you're a person like me, where you need to feel you are doing at least one thing better to help the situation, you can help your family and your child who now has chemo pumping through their veins by feeding them good, healthy, and nutritious food. Swing by the grocery store and pick up fresh fruits (already cut) and juice to bring to the hospital. Ask what their favorite snacks are and bring them. Bring a healthy meal with enough for left overs that can be eaten at lunch. Consider a hot GOOD cup of coffee (or their drink of choice)... it works wonders after a long night and/or a healthy hearty breakfast to help sustain them through all the bumps that their day may hold.
5. CLEAN THEIR HOUSE/TAKE CARE OF YARD: (Ok I realize I'm jamming in two here again but I couldn't go without saying it.) One of the biggest gifts for our family was having our home professionally cleaned while Emmy was in intense treatment. A precious neighbor pulled together other neighbors to each sponsor a cleaning every other week to insure a clean home while Emmy's immune system was so suppressed. Not only was it so important for Emmy to be in a clean environment, it helped alleviate some of the pressure off of me to keep all the plates spinning while running back and forth downtown for ALL day appointments when the life is sucked right out of you as you watch your child suffer. Additionally, it sounds minute, consider helping in taking care of the family's yard. It is such a huge blessing. Like I mentioned in the beginning, after diagnosis we didn't care about anything else other than seeing our girl through and making sure our other 3 felt cared for and loved as well. The yard --- it could have grown into a jungle and that would have been fine by me. But it didn't because someone took care of it for us. If flower beds need freshening up, do it. I promise they will appreciate that being taken off their plate.
There were and are so many other ways we were loved and supported and continue to be through this journey, but we hope these tips give you and your community a good spring board to help anyone you might know going through a new medical crisis.
The bible verse that stuck out to us in the early phases of this journey was Isaiah 42:16 it says:
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them.
We KNOW our Army was a HUGE contributor to making this rough place a whole lot smoother by their acts of love, giving, support, and generosity and for that we are forever grateful. We have learned much by how well they love and only hope to one day be able to be as giving as all of them.