Supporting People with Sick Family Members

Four empty hospital beds lined up

It can be difficult to know what to do for someone who has an ill or dying family member. As when confronted with death and grieving, people feel awkward and stiff, uncertain about how to conduct themselves in the face of what they think should be a private or personal matter. On some level, it is, but it is also a community one, and many humans seek contact and connections when they are dealing with huge and intense events in their lives — which is exactly when their community tends to shy away. While it’s hard to know what to do, and it’s not always easy, pushing through that shyness and discomfort can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

People are sometimes surprised when I write these sorts of servicey posts, asking what they have to do with the general tenor of this website. My glib answer, of course, is that it’s my own personal website, and I can put up whatever I like here. But that’s not the total answer. This is a social justice issue. Community is a social justice issue. One of the reasons we struggle so much, that systemic injustice persists, is that we are fragmented, out of touch with one another. Creating and building community, and ensuring it is strong, is one way we create a network of support for each other and ourselves so that we can resist inequality and injustice.

Those who do not think that building community is important may want to rethink that assumption. And community building includes the rough with the smooth, includes being there for people who are struggling with issues that may seem personal, but, again, affect the entire community. Having a sick family member is an emotional strain but also a physical, social, and financial one, and a friendly face can make the difference between pushing through and feeling disheartened and unable to keep going.

Not everyone with ill family members reaches out for support, and you cannot force it upon them; it’s important to ensure that people don’t feel suffocated or overwhelmed. Sometimes people providing support, consciously or unconsciously, are doing it more for themselves than for the people they are ostensibly helping, and it shows. It can turn into a power imbalance where people feel obliged to accept things they do not want, and to perform gratitude and appreciation, instead of actually feeling supported. This can be a hard line to walk when you’re aware that you might not even be straying over it; think about the kind of help you’re offering, and how it is being received.

Usually I recommend just asking people if they want help, and what kind of help they want. I think that’s the most direct way to offer assistance to people, ensuring that you don’t step on any toes and provide people with what they actually need. But it gets trickier when people may be feeling overwhelmed with events, situations they’ve never encountered before, new information, and emotional stress. Being descended upon by people asking what they can do to help can be too much, even when said offers are well meaning.

Which is why, in this instance, as in other personal crises, I offer an alternate suggestion: Offer concrete assistance, clearly defined but not limited. Lead with a few words about how you’re sorry about what someone is going through, and add that you’re happy to do anything you can to help. Some things people may find useful: Someone to care for pets/plants/etc at the house. Someone to organise rides if family members are flying in from other locales. Meal delivery or grocery buying so people don’t have to deal with it when they get home. Offers to sit with the patient to provide a respite so people can take a break. Someone to pick up clothes and other supplies and bring them to the hospital. Someone to serve as a point of contact and information clearinghouse for the rest of the family, so they don’t swarm the immediate family of the patient.

The needs of a given person and family are going to vary considerably. Chances are that you’ll know people well enough to get an idea of the type of help they might find most useful. Always leave your offer open-ended so people know that your assistance isn’t limited to these suggestions, but you didn’t want to leave them struggling for ideas; and make it clear that if there’s nothing you can do right now, you’re still around to offer support as warranted in the future. Maybe the family has their needs pretty covered in the short term. That doesn’t hold true in the long term.

If you have personal experience with a given condition, with death in a family, you can gently tell people that you’ve gone through similar events and you can offer advice based on your experiences, but don’t push. Sometimes people may be grateful that they have someone who bounce questions and ideas off of — how did this procedure go for you? Was your father more comfortable after they put him on this medication? What would you do in this situation? Are you glad you pursued this line of treatment? Be sure to always precede your comments with the caveat that the patient’s case isn’t exactly the same, and thus your experience won’t match up one to one.

The two most important things about offering assistance to people in need are these, though:

  1. Mean it. If you don’t mean it, don’t offer it. It’s okay to not be able to extend yourself at a given time. You can still say you’re sorry to hear that someone is having a rough time, and you’re not a monster for not having anything to offer.
  2. Mean it in the long term, too. Commonly people tend to get abandoned the longer a patient stays in the hospital, or the longer it takes for a terminal patient to pass away. This can be really hard and lonely, and often there’s no one left when a family needs support the most. Be sure to keep checking in with people, to make it clear that you’re there until whatever endpoint is reached.

Image: Four Beds, StudioTempura, Flickr