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When a Friend’s Child Is in the Hospital: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

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People mean well. They really do.

When our son Jackson was born and throughout our stay in the hospital, we had so many wonderful people reach out and check in on us, offering words of encouragement and even shared experiences with their own little ones. Each person who reached out did so from a place of love, with concern for Jackson and concern for Zach and I and true interest in our progress.

Sometimes, though, the “what” people said came off a bit… well, wrong.

Not that they said it wrong. Or even said the wrong thing. There is no right thing to say during a time like this (except maybe “Want me to smuggle you some tequila and cookies up to the ICU?”) and it was always the way I took the comment rather than what was said.

But, I figure that since we’re out of the thick of it a bit and can see the sky clearing outside of the dense forest that is ICU life, I’d share some of the things that rubbed me a little the wrong way and some good alternatives when it comes to checking in on a friend with a child in the hospital.

1. “Gosh, you must be exhausted from being up there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I don’t know how you do it!”

Ahhh the time comment. Don’t get me wrong — I was at the hospital every one of those 196 days Jackson was inpatient. I’ve had jobs I held on to for shorter (and definitely showed up to less) and, you’re right, it wasn’t easy. But there were days I would leave a bit early or come a bit late so I could sleep in or get things done around the house. The nurses encouraged it. It was hard to do, but it was necessary. Without fail, this comment would come the day after one of my late arrivals. I’d feel like a fraud for taking time to myself and like I should have been there more. Though the question was meant to acknowledge my strength, I took it as a sign of weakness and a sign I should be there more often.

Good alternative? “When was the last time you were able to take some time to yourself? You’re so strong for being there as often as you can, but I’d love to treat you to coffee to help you unwind!”

2. “When is he coming home?”

Well, for a bit the right answer could have been tomorrow or never. There is so much unknown when it comes to the ICU that long-term plans like “coming home” are often not talked about on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. We spent a lot of time focusing on how to get Jackson stable, and we often would have agreed to years in the hospital if it meant getting through the next 12 hours. Plus, home is a very scary place for people who have spent half a year in a hospital. No more monitors, no more constant supervision, and a whole lot of unknown. That can be hard to understand, especially when it seems like things start to be less critical and more stable.

Instead of asking about the long-term, focus on the now. “How is he doing today? How has his week been? Any big plans coming up? Do you need more wine?” This leaves the door open for more discussion and to let the parents drive the timeline bus. And the answer to the last one is always “yes.”

3. “If you need anything, just call.”

This is honestly a very sweet thing for people to say. They truly mean it and want to help. The problem is that it involves me doing something. When I was in the ICU with Jackson, it took all my power to put on pants and not cry three times a day. The thought of having to express vulnerability and ask for help was beyond my emotional capacity at the time. When I did feel like I could ask, I was in a groove and, honestly, would often forget. My favorite example of the opposite of this question is my best friend, Katie. When Jackson was born with a lot more complexities than we expected, she called my family, coordinated travel, and booked a flight, no questions asked. Instead of asking if I wanted her to come, she just did, showing up from Maryland to cry with me and drink wine with me and help me. It required no energy on my part, which is about how much energy I had at the time.

Instead of asking what people need, simply do. Show up, clean their house, fold their laundry, bring dinner. Drop wine off on their front porch for when they get home from the hospital, but be sure to let them know it’s there, just in case.

At the end of the day, there really is no “wrong” thing to say to someone going through an experience like ours. Being a friend and reaching out and saying what’s on your heart is always the right thing.

Unless what’s on your heart is “we’re out of wine.” Then be sure to keep that to yourself and a pick up a new bottle ASAP.

Follow this journey on The Adventures of Jackson and Juna and on Facebook.

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Thinkstock image by KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Originally published: May 24, 2017
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