You learn a lot about how to support someone when you’re on the receiving end of it. There have been things people have said that really stung — and then I realized I’ve probably said them myself at some point. They meant well, I’m sure of it. I mean, if I ever said those things, I know I meant well. But, wow, when you’re going through rough waters, it becomes crystal clear how wrong — or right — certain words and actions are.
I’ve gotten asked — many times, actually — by people who have a friend with a baby or child in the hospital about what they can do to support their friend. Now, my story is not everyone’s story. And just because I feel a certain way doesn’t mean every parent in my shoes feels that way. But, if you were to ask me, here’s what I would suggest:
- Show up. Sit in the waiting room with a book or your work or some knitting. Even if your friend can’t come out and see you — she knows you’re there. You don’t have to sit in silent vigil. But, let her know you’ll be there from 1 to 3 one afternoon. Having a kid in the hospital is tough — you never know when they’re going to start crashing or when it’s going to be smooth sailing. So many times, just knowing that I could sneak out to the waiting room for quick hug from my friend was enough to get me through. Even if I couldn’t sit and visit.
- Create a hospital care pack. Include quarters (for vending machines), healthful snacks (because vending machines snacks get old — literally and figuratively — maybe try trail mixes, bottles of water, mints), crossword puzzle books, decks of cards, toiletries (the hospital-supplied ones are not exactly high-quality), etc. Make sure to put a hand-written note in there. Or, better yet, maybe several hand-written notes that say on the outside “Open when you need a hug.” Or, “Open when you’d like to smile.”
- Make her dinner. Tell her you’re going to bring it on whatever day at whatever time. Don’t expect your friend to sit and eat with you, but know that she will appreciate the friendly face, quick hug and fresh homemade dinner.
- Call and text and email her. We heard a lot of “we didn’t want to bother you.” But, here’s the thing, if your friend is busy or in a meeting with a doctor or holding her baby, she won’t answer her phone or email. But, she’ll know you cared. And she’ll know you’re thinking of her and her family. And, when she has a few minutes, she’ll answer you back. It just might take some time.
- Stop by her house and do some stuff: check her mail, do her laundry, pet her cats, wash her sheets. What I wouldn’t have given to slide into fresh, clean sheets on the few nights we went home after the hospital. But the last thing we had time — or energy — to do was wash our sheets. Thankfully, though, the hospital had a small laundry room for us to use or else we may have gone for quite some time without clean britches, too.
- Don’t stop living your life. Just because our life stopped while we sat by Penelope Joy’s side doesn’t mean our friends’ did. They still had work and kids and life they were living. Don’t be scared to talk about your life. And, for crying out loud, don’t be afraid to be happy. Sometimes talking about what’s going on outside the hospital is a welcome reprieve from the constant talk of blood test results, EEGs, pulse ox levels and end-of-life decisions. Talking about normal, happy things is OK. If we weren’t in the mood, we wouldn’t have had you visit.
- And, finally, be patient. Some days, it’s hard enough to remember to brush your teeth when you have a child in the hospital. The experience is exhausting — mentally, physically, emotionally. So remembering to call someone back or trying to be a gracious host when someone visits can be a lot of work. Have patience — and compassion — for your friend. She is experiencing something no one should ever have to experience. And she deserves a break.
In the end, know that there is nothing you can do to take away your friend’s pain. Or fear. Or sadness. But, by putting yourself out there and showing her you’re there for her, it will bring in moments of light.
I’m going to go one step further, here, and provide some advice that you didn’t ask for. Mr. B and I have gone through something life altering — and life shattering. And we’ve had some of the most amazing support, encouragement and love we have ever experienced in our lives. No, I mean, seriously amazing. And I thank God for our support system every single day. But, we’ve also had some well-meaning people try to find just the right words to say, even though there are no right words. And some words that sound good coming out actually cause the recipient more pain and sadness than they’re already experiencing.
- “It was God’s will.” I could go on and on about this one. And, I kinda already did. But, let me just say this: I can’t believe in a God who would give us this chapter of our story simply because he (or she) could. And I certainly can’t think that Mr. B and I deserved to lose our daughter or that our sweet, innocent Penelope Joy deserved to die. Bad things happen — too often to even count — simply because they do. God isn’t there to hand them out. He/she is there to get us through them. Instead of “it was God’s will,” try “oh, wow, I am so sorry. I will keep you and your family in my prayers.” Or, “is it OK if I add your family to my prayer chain?”
- “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” God thinks a heck of a lot more of me than I do of myself — probably true on many occasions. But, again, the thought that God purposefully did this is pretty disheartening. And not something to tell someone who is in a situation that would make even the most faithful question their faith.
- “Let me know if I can do anything.” Oh, gosh. We heard this so many times. And most of the time, my response was no response. On any given day, we didn’t know what we needed — except our baby, happy and healthy in my arms at home. And not even some of the most talented doctors and nurses I’ve ever met could do that. Putting the ball in our court was a game-ender. There were people, however, who just … did. They said they’d show up with dinner, and they showed up with dinner — no expectations for us to eat it with them. Just a hot, homemade meal and a hug. And then there were the people who showed up and cleaned our old apartment because we were making funeral arrangements and, well, mourning. Instead of telling your friend to let you know what she needs, see if there’s anything you can anticipate — and provide it for her. No strings, no expectations, no added stress.
- “It wasn’t meant to be.” I’m hoping I don’t even need to tell you why this is an inappropriate response to someone who just lost a child.
- “I know just how you feel.” People have told us this countless times — I still hear it to this day. I actually had someone tell me that their dog of 10 years recently died, so she knew “just how I felt.” And a mom whose baby had a cold “totally understands” because she, too, was watching her child suffer. Please. Just stop with the comparisons. Even Mr. B doesn’t know exactly how I feel — and I don’ t know exactly how he feels. And we lived the exact same story. Every person is different. So, no, I’m sorry, you don’t know exactly how I feel. I know you mean well — I really, really do — but comparing my situation to yours is hurtful — especially if you’re talking about your dog. (Don’t get me wrong, I love our dog — but she is no replacement for Penelope Joy.)
- Or, maybe you don’t call or don’t write or … quite frankly … fall off the face of the earth. Because you’re uncomfortable and don’t know what to say. Remember, though, there are no right words to say. Those friends who stuck by me? The ones who called and just sat there in silence because there were no words? Or the ones who sat with me and cried? The ones who said, “Sh*t. That sucks.”? The ones who showed up with a bottle of wine and Kleenex? Those are the ones who nailed it who got it. Because they’re the ones who were there for me through the worst possible experience of my life. Even though it sucked and was ugly and made them, God forbid, uncomfortable.
- Last, but certainly not least: “Are you going to try again?” As if Penelope Joy was just our first stab at something. As if practice makes perfect. As if she didn’t matter and we can just move on to the next kid. What I think you mean to ask is: “Are you going to have more children?” Because Penelope Joy mattered. And she will always be our oldest child. And any future kids (if we have any future kids) will know her story — they will know she existed and that she mattered and that she was a light in our lives.
In closing, the very best thing you can do for your friend — no matter what she’s going through — is love. Love hard. And love her through it. No matter what “it” is. Be there — physically and emotionally — even when, no, especially when things get ugly and uncomfortable.
Please, please don’t take this post the wrong way. Mr. B and I are eternally grateful for all of the love and support we received — and continue to receive. And, I will always take someone saying the “wrong thing” over someone who disappears. I only share this post (written from an honest, caring spot in my heart) as a look into things from the other side. The side where moms and dads leave the hospital with a small biohazard baggie of their baby’s curls instead of their actual baby. Thankfully, not everyone has been on this side of the story — and I hope none of you ever are on this side of the story.
Hopefully, some of this may be helpful if you ever are in this situation, looking for how you best can love your friend through some pretty rough waters. Remember: the words and actions we use matter. And so do the ones we don’t.
P.S. If you’ve made it this far, let me apologize for the length of this post. Another reason I’m not a very successful blogger is that I can’t/won’t/don’t limit my posts to “a readable 200 to 300 words.” I’ve got stuff I wanna say — and a lot of words in the dictionary at my disposal. What’s a girl to do?