How To Serve Those Who Are Suffering (Part I)

So, since this whole heavy-duty suffering business is new to me, there are some things I am learning about how to minister to those who are in the midst of a life crisis. I've decided I'm going to keep a bit of a running list, and then when I have a few items, I will post them...hoping that it will be helpful to others. I'm actually feeling a bit ashamed about how I thought I was ministering to people before...I really had no clue. I feel as if I need to go back and apologize to everyone because I was so terrible at it. But until you have walked through something like this, it is difficult to know what to say or do for someone who has been unwillingly jolted into a significant life change. I certainly cannot speak for everyone, as I'm sure people receive this type of love differently (depending on their "love language")...this is simply our perspective. I'm certain that it changes somewhat depending on the type of suffering too...a death, a serious illness, a loss of mobility...each case probably has specific needs. We have only been at this for a few months, so this list is in no way exhaustive. It is just some initial things we've noticed and I will add to it periodically as I learn more:

1) The number one rule is not to ask, "What can I do?" People will either a) be afraid to ask for help or b) as we have found in our case, not even really know what they need or what to ask for. If you see a need or have an idea and you know it won't be more of an inconvenience than a help, just do it.

2) Food is always good. People may say that they don't want a meal, but in the midst of a life crisis, grocery shopping and meal preparation become necessities of life that are too difficult to maintain. It doesn't always have to be a meal either...fridges and pantries are usually pretty bare...so staples such bread, fruit, lunch meat, snacks, treats, paper towels, paper plates, and toilet paper are all welcomed. Anything that saves the person an extra errand or two is usually appreciated. Most people don't want to chit chat, plan when they will be home or have to relay updates multiple times a day, so a cooler or drop area somewhere in the front of the house is a good way to avoid that.

3) House projects are good. In our case, we have someone who cleans our house and does our yard...but I can only imagine how stressful those things would be if you didn't. Someone did plant flowers for us because it was that time of year, and it was a huge blessing. Laundry is also an option, although I haven't figured out a way to outsource that yet. I don't even know whose socks are whose myself...so I'm not sure how someone else could fold our wash. 

4) We don't have a pet, but someone mentioned to me that they had a person in charge of their dog when they were gone. The friend had a key and anytime this family was at the hospital, the friend covered all doggie duties (and doodies!). Obviously, this would be a better job for a nearby neighbor than someone who didn't live close by.

5) Cards, e-mails, texts and phone calls are alright as long as a response is not necessary. It is wonderfully encouraging to know that people are thinking about you and praying for you...but returning messages, writing thank you notes, etc....are impossible things when you are simply struggling to find the strength to run your family. 

6) Gifts are good, but can get overwhelming. Spacing them out is a nice idea. Also, if there are other kids in the home, keep that in mind. It is similar to a new baby and siblings...kids are very self-centered and if one child is getting all of the attention it can cause issues.  Also, don't expect someone who is either ill or grieving to be overly expressive in their gratitude for a gift or kind gesture. Deep down they do appreciate it, but many times they are just trying to make it through the day and enthusiasm may be tough to generate. (We have found this with Bailey...people will do very nice things for her and she seems unenthusiastic, but honestly, she was feeling so poorly that she just could not generate any excitement even though she was very appreciative).

7) Try not to do things that cause the receiver to have to juggle their schedule. "I need to come by at this time because I have this and this and this to do." The sufferer does not need one more thing to worry about, person to work around or line item on the day's itinerary.

8) Helping with the kids...planning fun outings, having them over for play-dates...things that distract kids as "fun" things to do rather than making them feel shuffled around because mom and dad are consumed with something else.

9) Hospital and home visits are intensely tricky and dependent upon the situation. We have found that when our "patient" is feeling decent and only in the hospital riding out the time for a fever or waiting for a drug to clear, then she enjoys visitors because they make the day pass more quickly. When she is feeling badly, then she wants the room dark and quiet and she doesn't want to have to sit and chit chat. She is only ten...so I can't speak for adults, although I would imagine it is much the same. 

10) Read their Caring Bridge page or whatever website they are using to update people with information. Initially, when the pain is great, a little piece of you dies inside each time you tell the story. In the long term, when the sufferer sees you they will want to talk about anything other than the sorrow. If you are informed, then you will allow them time to just be normal, rather than forcing them to relive the sadness multiple times a day. This applies to family members too...do not assume that because you are close family that you deserve updates...see reasoning above. Also, leave notes as you read updates. They are so encouraging...it can feel very lonely during these times of grief...it is nice to know you are not walking alone...that people are following your journey. 

A couple of other random things that don't necessarily fit...but I think are important to know:

1) While people may be going through an intensely sad and dramatic life change, they do not necessarily always want to have to talk about or acknowledge this. If you see someone crying and obviously suffering, then it is probably alright to meet emotion with emotion. However, if they appear happy and smiling...they may be trying to "forget" and just be normal for a bit. In that case it is much better to offer a hug and a, "Hey. It is great to see you!" Rather than the head tilt, sad eyes and, "Ohhhh...how ARE you?" Sometimes we want to get away and not think about it. That is the beauty of a Caring Bridge site...that you don't have to update each different person you see. (Yes, this is similar to #10 above...it is an important one though.)

2) As you go out and about your life, consider that some of the people you encounter are undergoing immense suffering. The week Bailey was diagnosed, but before she started treatment, we were out running errands and it was awful. I was in a fog and small talk was excruciating. Bailey and I were in the Gap and she had her leg brace on and was in a wheel chair, and there was a mom and her daughter in front of us, and the mom was peppering us with questions. I'm sure she was just being chatty, but they did not pick up on our cues that it really wasn't something we wanted to talk about. "What did she do to her leg? Is it a sports injury? How? Do you need surgery? When?  What kind of surgery?" "Oh, we did something like that and you'll be back to normal in no time." She asked at least ten questions, Bailey was looking at me with eyes begging for it to stop. I wanted to scream, "She has CANCER and it will never be back to normal!" Of course this poor woman didn't know that, but she also didn't read body language well either. It just reminded me that I don't always know what someone is going through and I need to be aware of that as I meet people throughout my day.

3) A serious health crisis is all-consuming. While it may feel like a friend or family member has fallen off the face of the earth, really they are simply retreating and using all of their resources to keep their family functioning and moving forward. They have no strength for anything extra or to carry any other wounded soldiers out of the jungle. They are doing all they can to keep their little clan going. Between hospital stays and running a home, there is no time or energy left for anything that falls outside of the parameters of the immediate family. 


Sherry said...

Tiffany, thank you so much for this post. I often end up not doing anything for people, except pray. because I just don't know what to do. It is overwhelming wanting to help in some way, but just not being sure how; My gift is not cooking for others, and, in general, I don't like to clutter others' lives with "stuff". So, this post has brought me to tears this morning. Thank you for sharing in such a real and very practical way. Praying for you all.

lymanfamilyfun said...

Tiffany - this is such great information for those who really want to DO something and just don't know how. It has been such a blessing to experience your transparency - you are teaching us so much! We wait for updates daily and just say a quick, 'thank you,' if there isn't one, we count it as a great day and you needed a break! I continually want to give you guys huge hugs and smiles so lifting up Bailey, you, Patrick, Luke, Emmy & Caleb daily and knowing that you are receiving those from God and those closest to you!

Nina said...

Tiff, this is so well done. Thank you for letting us learn from your experience. I'll save this to use myself and I will also share it with others as a resource. Bless you my friend.