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What can I do to help a friend whose child has cancer?

"Is there anything I can do to help?" - it's totally normal to ask this if you’ve learned that a family member, friend or colleague’s child has been diagnosed with cancer. Bear in mind though that this parent's world will have been turned upside down and they may not know where to start when they are offered help. So make it easy for them. Make a specific and practical offer. Parents usually appreciate the support they receive from family and friends. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture – the little things mean a lot.

Don’t short because you have no idea how to do so, waiting for the family to reach out. The family is certainly in chaos and trauma, and most likely don’t know how, if or when to reach out…

There are many ways you can provide encouraging support and meaningful help. Here are some examples of things that you can offer the family to do:

Top ideas to support a parent

1Let them know you’re
thinking of them

Whether it’s in person, on the phone, by direct/private message on social media – keep in touch. Knowing that you care really matters. They might not be able to reply but reassure them that you don’t expect a response.

2Arrange a
hospital visit

Many families may not want visitors right after a diagnosis. They may need time to be together as a family, or maybe they are concerned about infection risks.

Always ask before visiting. Once the family has become more comfortable with their new routine ask them directly ‘Would a visit right now be helpful?" and also, "How long should I stay?".

You might visit when the child is at home or in the hospital. If so check visiting hours with the hospital, observe signs posted in the unit, particularly about precautions you should take, such as washing hands and wearing masks and gloves, and how many visitors are allowed in the room.

Be understanding if the family asks you to leave. You can offer to bring a snack or treat to share so your visit doesn’t impose on the caregiver.

Try also to visit at times other than weekends or holidays, when others may visit.  A Tuesday morning can be just as lonely as a Saturday night, if not more.

Last but not least, always refer to your next visit so your friend can look forward to it.

3Help with the
other children

Can you collect their other children from school or nursery, babysit, or have them stay overnight? Having a child in hospital can upset the family routine, and offers of childcare will not only help practically, but could offer siblings some distraction and fun. Parents often worry about siblings feeling left out, so outings and small presents can mean a lot.

4Take care of
houselhold tasks

Just because a child is in the hospital, parents’ responsibilities don’t stop. You can lend a hand by mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, ironing … If you can shop for groceries or prepare some home-cooked meals, that’s also one less worry for parents. Meals that can be frozen and reheated later can be especially helpful.

Many websites allow you to create a schedule of tasks or food drop-offs. These sites allow parents to easily communicate what they need while giving you a way to help. They enlist friends, neighbors and family, so parents don’t feel overwhelmed.

5Treat
them

At the hospital, the cost of meals, drinks and things like magazines can add up quickly. Find out what shops or restaurants are in or near the hospital, and buy a gift card.

7Handle
the updates

Many parents are tired of answering the same questions repeatedly. You could offer to make phone calls, answer emails or provide updates on social media. Just verify with the parents what information can be shared and with whom.

8Make a
care package

Parents tend to put their own needs last when their child is seriously ill. Why not create a gift parcel with a personal touch? Some nice toiletries and hand cream, or a box of healthy snacks, could be much appreciated. For the child, send several small gifts, which can be unwrapped as treats when they need a boost to help them face tests or treatment.

9Offer them
a break

Once in a while, parents just need to get away for a little bit. If you’re visiting the hospital, persuade them to go for a walk, pop to the shops or have a coffee, while you sit with their child. Going to a film, a football match or for a walk in the park are a few ways to cheer someone up. Choose something they’ll enjoy and keep them company.

10
Listen

The most meaningful and helpful things are little…like listening. It’s OK to say: "This is so hard. I don’t know what to say.’"It’s a way to acknowledge the situation rather than pretend it’s not happening. And then let the parent share whatever he/she needs to say. Let them know you will be there whenever they need to talk, or cry, or scream…

11Stay in touch
after the treatment

Even though the patient and family may be through with treatment, they’re still suffering its effects. Maybe the child is behind in school, maybe siblings are struggling from the time they didn’t have that parent. There may be financial issues, loss of job. You can still help out with food, doctors’ visits, childcare, or financially. It takes a long time to get back out of the crisis mode.

What to avoid

It’s important to avoid unsolicited advice, platitudes or saying you know how they feel – unless you’ve experienced what they are going through. Only offer advice if you’ve been invited to. Also, this isn’t a great time to share your knowledge of cancer statistics or death rates.

Sometimes, when we don’t know what to say we can unintentionally say something wrong. Here’s a few sayings to avoid:

  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • Have you tried x treatment? I read online it helps cure cancer.
  • I know exactly how you feel.
  • I don’t know how you do it. I could never handle this.
  • It will all be okay.

Instead, focus on expressing compassion and letting them know you are concerned and want to help.

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