Do's and Don'ts when Caring for the Hurting

As a mom I’ve experienced quite a few emotional upheavals.  After Abbie was born and we moved back to the States I found myself thoroughly surprised to be in the midst of post-partum depression.  Within the year Abbie was diagnosed with a 40 db loss in one ear and would need a hearing aid.  I limped through the preschool years with as much joy as I could find and was eager to get to September of 2010 – the month that all three would finally be in school, Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd.  

It was a short-lived respite.  

On Friday, December 3rd 2010, Clara (our 1st grader) had a minor fall on the playground at school and by Friday evening we knew something was wrong.  I took her to a pediatrician Saturday morning where they determined she was bleeding internally and sent Clara via ambulance to Children’s Hospital.  The physicians all through she had a minor rupture in her spleen and with surgery and a short hospital stay she would be good as new.  

During her MRI to get a good look at the tear, Brian and I held her hands and chatted about the stickers and fun doctors.  Out of the corner of my eye I could see the radiologist calling more and more doctors in.  Each doctor looked increasingly serious.  They were pointing.  Talking in hushed tones.  I remember leaning in to Brian and whispering that I didn’t like the looks on their faces. 

My stomach started knotting.

Within 20 minutes of her MRI the ER doctor pulled us into a different ER room.  He pulled up the image of Clara’s abdomen and explained that her spleen was just fine.  He clarified that the large eggplant sized organ we could see on the MRI was a rapidly growing cancerous tumor that had completely overtaken her left kidney and was bleeding into her abdomen.  

I felt as if a wave had just crashed into me – pushing me down into undercurrents.  I was completely disoriented.  I sat in silence – barely able to hear the doctor telling us this was a treatable cancer and that she was in excellent care.  I started to sob quietly and didn’t stop for a good hour.  Brian cried with me for a while and then began making the awful phone calls to family.  He was a rock and I leaned heavily on him and his ability to make decisions and put on a calm demeanor for Clara.  He walked with Clara to her 2nd MRI and held her hand as they looked to see if the cancer had spread (it hadn’t).

It was a terrible new reality we had hardly any time to embrace.  Within 18 hours a fall on the playground, our beautiful 6 year old was diagnosed with a stage III Wilms Tumor.  Monday, three days later, she had a full nephrectomy to remove the tumor and kidney and, once recovered from the surgery, quickly began radiation and a 25-week chemotherapy regimen.

Today our Clara is doing well.  We have visits every six months to oncologists for complete scans and echo-cardiograms to see if the cancer has come back and to watch for those insidious long term side effects.  By the time she is done with elementary school we fully expect to hear the beautiful three letter acronym NED (no evidence of disease). 

At the hospital in MN there are little business cards at the check-in desk that say "I speak (insert foreign language).  Please find me a qualified interpreter." Then they say a bunch of stuff on the back in the native language that I can't read.  

I decided in the midst of Clara's chemo that I wanted to make my own little cards.  And then hand them to people who were SO sweet and well-meaning but would inadvertently say the wrong thing.  

Before I go any further, please don’t feel any shame if you’ve accidentally said the wrong thing or stuck your foot in your mouth.  I’ve done it even after going through Clara’s crisis!  Word-vomit happens, people.  If you need to apologize, please do.  But honestly, your comments were mostly likely swished in the emotion of the season.   Take a deep breath, pray for grace and forgiveness, and keep loving people the best you can.

Back to the interpretation cards.  Here are a few ideas I toyed with …

I have three amazing kids.  One of them has cancer.  Please be nice to me today.


Smile and be considerate

Pray for me and for my family
Remember my 2 other kids
Please Avoid:
Telling me I look tired.  
Asking me if she will survive.   
Remind me that God is sovereign.  I KNOW.
or …

I'm a mommy of Stephen, Clara, and Abbie.  Clara has cancer.  Please be kind to me.


Invite my kids to fun activities

Give me coffee in any form.  At any time.

Smile.  Pray.  Intentionally compliment us.

Steer Clear from:
Being alarmed if I cry or laugh or say something totally irrelevant to the conversation.
Asking me how God can let this happen.  
Commenting on the bags under the bags under my eyes.
Offering suggestion on ways to cure my daughter all naturally.

and then the more funny card …  

Tell me I remind you of someone. Favorite options: Claudia Schiffer, Jennifer Aniston, and Mother Teresa (character, not looks)

Offer your services if you know how to give professional pedicures or manicures. Massage also accepted.


Expect a thank-you card for gifts.

Tell me stories of your uncle who had cancer and who ended up with one eyeball, three toes, and a facial tic.
lastly …


Shovel the driveway, smile at us, love us

Listen to the Holy Spirit

It's difficult to:

Answer the question, “What can I do to help?”  
Help you answer “Why is this happening?”
Answer difficult long-term questions.

On the more serious side, there are a few helpful Do’s and Don'ts that I have found may serve as a guideline, beginning with the things to steer clear of:

1. Steer clear of expecting her to answer the question: “What can I do to help?”
One of the hardest things about helping people in crisis is that they are helpless to help you help them.    In big and small crisis's I have felt as if my brain is overloaded.  I became forgetful.  Simple things became very difficult.  Every thought and action I took was reactionary – there was no ability to plan beyond the moment.  

God has placed a wonderful way to react to crisis in us.  We become hyper-focused on the urgent, immediate concerns.  It works great for a few days.  After a few months, however, it gets REALLY old.  

I tell you this because it’s hard to be polite when you’re holding on for dear life.  It’s hard to answer the question “what can I do” because the answer is “you can fix Clara.”   The sole purpose for that time is to get through – everything else becomes secondary.  Please don’t be frustrated when someone you love simply can’t answer your questions, can’t return phone calls, can’t find a gracious way to say ‘no thank you.’  It’s not personal.  It’s stress.

So mentally put a “handle with care” label on your friends who are hurting.  You may even want to slick your back so that things will roll off a bit easier.  God’s grace will help you serve them as best you can.  

2. Avoid trying to answer the “why”
People love to have answers.  Pain and suffering naturally make us uncomfortable and cause us out own level of pain.  Answering the “why has this happened” question tends to make the comforter feel a little better, helps to ease their cognitive dissonance.  However,  the person in crisis is left worse than when nothing was said at all.

A close cousin to the “why” question is the theology 101 pat answers.  These are no-no’s.  The person in crisis is going through their own sacred and holy time with God – Psalm 34:18 says that “the Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Let Him be their answers, let Him help with the big questions.  Let Him be who He is.

3. Steer Clear of asking tough long term questions.  
Some well-meaning friends would start to think about how chemotherapy and radiation might impact her or how she would make it into the next grade at school.  Those are legit concerns, but it’s best to let others who have been assigned the task of dealing with those have the reigns.  It’s exhausting to constantly explain how the doctors are helping to alleviate side effects or how the teachers and tutors are managing her school work.  The better way to approach those concerns would be to find who is helping with a specific issue on your heart and offer help or ideas to that person.

One of the hardest long-terms questions dealt with Clara’s prognosis.  Once in Target an acquaintance asked me if I thought Clara would “make it.”  Clara had and still has an excellent chance at a long and fruitful life – but what if she didn’t?  I’m one of the lucky mommies that gets to say – they expect her to be fine.  I have held a mom who’s 6 year old was dying and in excruciating pain.  If she was asked that question it would have destroyed her.  If you are curious about a prognosis, ask a mutual friend.  Ask a doctor or even the internet.  But please don’t ask your friend.    

4.  Please don’t provide medical advice.
Every now and then a well intentioned friend would compare Clara’s cancer to their Uncle Fred’s – who lost his foot.  That’s just not helpful.  Along the same lines were the solutions that had not been FDA approved.  Again, not helpful.  

What does work is to drop off ideas with a small note.  We got Shaklee products, all-natural supplements, different kinds of water, calorie laden slushies, and many more things dropped at the door.  I was glad to have those and run them past Clara’s oncologist and nutritionist.  Anything that might work was great, we just needed it packaged up with instructions and no expectations.

Now lets move to the positive elements – the Do’s.  

1.  Pray

I remember calling my house for something after we had just discovered Clara’s cancer and already hearing 3 or 4 friends packing my clothes and meds, straightening up the clutter, crying and holding each other.

And they were praying.  

The praying was so incredibly important.  It was those prayers that kept our family afloat while we were all sea-sick from the storm.

2.  Start with the immediate needs.

I love the way my friends immediately set up ways for our meals, cleaning, and driveway to be cared for.  All those things would have been constantly weighing on me once I began to get my bearings.  

By the time Clara’s surgery came the word was pretty wide spread.  Her prayer and care team filled a third of the waiting area.  The women in our church began to divvy up what would need to be done from meals to cleaning to childcare.  

My mom had flown in from Texas and as she watched she gently told my friends that caring for my family would be a marathon – not a sprint.  

They quickly divided up leadership of 4 main categories -  food, cleaning, shoveling, and tutoring.

Tracie took over cleaning.  She was perfect for the role – her job is to manage volunteers at a Christian Camp.  She found church volunteers and set up schedules listing priority areas to keep clean.  The clean house was especially important during radiation and chemotherapy as Clara’s immune system was depleted.

Our friend and neighbor Jillian was our driveway watchdog.  She made sure we were clear for people dropping off meals and getting in and out of the house.  Jillian’s back door faces our back door and we basically share back yards.  One of the most beautiful pictures during Clara’s cancer was when her husband Marcus borrowed his in-laws snow blower and blew a path from his back door to ours.  

My friend Betsy took over meals and tutoring.  She asked me a few easy questions about what our family liked, allergies, etc.  Then she set up a website using lotsa helping hands.  The website made it easy for people to sign up to bring a meal and even had a place for people to write exactly what they were bringing so we didn’t end up with 3 lasagna’s in a week.  We put a thermos out on our front porch and since it was winter people could drop off meals any time during the day.  We asked people to please put the meal in the thermos and not ring the doorbell.  Our family was pretty raw and it was so hard to talk to people.  

Lotsa Helping Hands had a way to suggest different places to get us gift cards for restaurants or to purchase parking passes.  It was also possible to put childcare needs on the calendar but we chose not to because the list was going out to a wide audience and we were keeping the childcare under pretty specific guidelines.   

3.  Respond to those you recognize

God will put you in places and spaces to be arms and feet for those who have gone through things you can empathize with.  Who is it?  Does your heart quicken when you hear of a mom who has miscarried – again?  Or is it the mom who is desperately parenting that really strong willed kid?  Maybe it's the mom trudging through post-partum depression or the mom who is staying at home for the first time.  

Those are your people.  Those are the dear ones that God has given you a prompting that cannot be denied.  You are the front lines of support in their battle.  

Once when we were leaving Children's I saw a woman sobbing the parking garage.  I had never seen her – but I recognized her.  She was a mom with a child who was hurting.  My car was unable to leave the garage.  I pulled over, left the girls in the car, and held her.  

I need to tell you that she reached up and held onto me for dear life.  We talked and prayed and I have never seen her again.  But I am forever blessed to have had the opportunity to love on her.  

At our church one Sunday a woman gave her testimony.  She spoke of marrying her high school sweetheart and the children who quickly followed.  She sobbed and spoke about God's grace through her struggles.  And I recognized her.  I knew her.  And when all of her kids got the stomach flu that winter – I knew how to pray.  I knew what to take over and drop at the door.  And I am forever blessed for knowing them.  

Betsy was perfect as Clara’s tutor.  She is a stay at home mom who used to be a 2nd grade teacher in the school district we are in.  She also has been plagued by Lupus since she was 13 and has experiences chemo, surgeries, and has knocked on death's door.  Her level of understanding for what Clara was going through combined with her gift for teaching was one of the sweetest ways I have seen the body of Christ displayed.

4.  Listen to the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit usually provides unique insights into what your hurting friends need.  I've found that He usually moves your heart in ways that the Lord has already provided conviction, talent, or supply.  

I'll never forget the day I opened the mail and found a check that had been anonymously donated through our church.  It was for the amount of $500 – and the amount we currently owed in medical bills was $487.  

A music artist who has a mutual friend heard about Clara and asked permission to write a song with Clara.  Her ability to make poetry out of sorrow has brought tremendous healing to Clara (and me).  

An electrician heard our bathroom was mid remodel when cancer hit and showed up on a Saturday to finish what we had left half-done.  

Friends who valued marriage offered to watch the kids for a date night once per week. 

Neighbors plowed across the back lawn from their back door to ours.

A friend rallied parents of Clara's peers to do spring yard work in our neglected yard.

Sweet friends who were praying sent texts and emails of verses or written out prayers for Clara, for me, for my other kids.  

I could go on and on.  

Here's what I want you to know:  

Entering into another persons' suffering is a sacred thing.  

It is beautiful, lovely, and heart wrenching.  

You will see God in ways you never dreamed.  

He wants you there.  

He has already planned out good works for you to do, ways for you to serve.  Be encouraged that God wants to draw us together and towards Him.  He will use all suffering for His glory – and to be a part of that transformation from pain to praise is an amazing privilege.  

Grab it!  Don't miss out! 

When I’m pained by the deep impacts of cancer, I have to decide to look at the beauty that has sprung from our own cancer rainstorm.  Seeds that we didn’t know were planted in our family have started to sprout beautifully.  We’ve seen courage, grace, strength, and endurance.  We’ve seen support, faith, powerful prayers.  

I didn’t know that winter in 2011 that the Lord had already planned for new things to be blooming in our lives this year.  That He had put beautiful seeds in our family and friends that would pop up in grace and beauty.  His faithfulness is inspiring, no?

Jesus is faithful.  He will sow seeds never dreamed of in fields of suffering, and He will see them through to the harvest. 

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