Saturday, January 24, 2015

Top Ten Things To Do For Parents of Critically Ill Children

When we were funeral planning, I started writing this post.  I just found it today when I was seeing what thoughts I had that hadn't quite made it to the finished product.  The more I thought about this post, the more I felt compelled to complete  it as its been mulling around in my head since October.

At that time, I found myself listing things I didn't want to happen during our immediate grief--things that trigger anger in me; that I know will cause me to explode at an unsuspecting good-doer.  During our funeral planning, I also identified people  who could shield me from the horrible things I've seen well-intentioned people say to the bereaved (and I may have said before I opened my eyes). I started thinking of plans to escape the ignorant statements people spew because it makes them feel better and they've never thought about how it feels to the person who is grieving most.

It is too soon for me to write about all of that. It's not my experience yet.  I only know what I know from watching others mourn.  I know my fear of what people will say to me, but I don't know how I will really react.  I may never be able publish a post about that because too many people troll to start a fight and I don't have it in me even now and when I really have the perspective necessary to write THAT post, I will be way more vulnerable.  That's why I identified people to help me.

What I am strong enough to say is what I know today: what I've lived and what I still live everyday. It is a similar post, but from the perspective of a mom to a terminally ill child. And if you want to troll and tell me I'm selfish, I'll tell you that's right. This post is my top ten wishes of what people would say and do for us.  I think the same is true for all families with critically ill children.  Keep this wish list in mind when your friend or family member has added full-time caregiver to their list of parent chores.
  1. Don't ignore that my child has a terminal illness.  I don't mean it has to be a topic of conversation (unless you have questions), but it does mean that my concerns regarding my child with regard to everything have a different depth than what goes into your calculus when thinking about concerns.  While it is perfectly normal and fine to be concerned that your healthy child is having difficulty understanding a concept in math and you are worried that may hold them back academically, don't be annoyed when my child has the same difficulty and I say "such is life".  My child is not going to live to be an adult.  I'm not building her to be a successful adult. I'm building a successful childhood--that includes normal kid things like school, but we don't sweat the small stuff.  The concept will come and if it doesn't, I'm not that concerned.  We are not putting stress on a first grader to be a perfect student. (Same thought process with her still using a pacifier to sleep at almost 7!)

    On the same front, decisions about what I can do and where I can go are determined by my children. I can't leave town for a couple nights. I just can't. The nature of heart failure means that DQ can go from fine to on the edge in a matter of hours. Leaving town is not an option for me. I will be too worried. I almost had a mental breakdown a couple of weeks ago when I had to leave town for work. It doesn't mean I don't want to see people who live far away; it just means I can't go to you and I can't meet in the middle. It might not be fair, but life is not fair.
  2. Ask questions.  If you want to know why the Dancing Queen looks so healthy, ask! I will gladly explain as much as you want to know.  I've done tons of research about my daughter.  I know her diseases inside and out.  I don't talk about what I know a lot (even if I do talk a lot), but I will gladly share.  I've learned through the years that most people don't want to know what I'm thinking, I've learned, how I feel.  Or at least that is the impression given.  So if you really do want to know, ask.
  3. Never ever start a sentence with: "at least". If you hear those words coming out of your mouth, shut it. There is no comparison you can make that won't make the situation worse.  I'm of the opinion that the words "at least" ought to be banned from the American lexicon completely!
  4. Remember it doesn't stop.  DQ hasn't been hospitalized for a couple of years (knock on wood).  Part of that is because we do have her in hospice now and can do some things without the ER that we couldn't before.  Despite being in hospice, she is quite stable.  She goes to school and she looks "normal" on the outside.  But she is still in heart failure.  She still has a prognosis that she will not live to be an adult.  It was only two years ago, when her heart was healthier, that we were told she has 3-5 years left.  Because there is no emergency does not mean our worry has lessened or that our lives are any easier.  None of it stops.  I understand human nature is to be concerned for the first five minutes of a catastrophe and move on after that.  We have to otherwise we would go insane since there are so many catastrophes in the world.  But for us, this catastrophe doesn't end.  If you remember that when talking to us, it will give you perspective. 
  5. Help.  Especially when we are in the hospital, having big tests, or a illness has struck and we are locked in, help is so welcome.  While we appreciate the offers of help, we do not have the time or energy to call and ask for it.  Real help is showing up and doing it.  Don't expect us to entertain.  One of the best things ever done for us was when my aunts and mom came to our house one day when we were in the hospital and cleaned.  I will never forget it.
  6. Food is always welcome!  We love getting food.  There are days when it is just too hard to think about cooking. And most takeout can't be eaten by DQ, so we love food. If you do bring food, please make it healthy and in a container that never has to be returned (they sell disposable bakeware with lids now perfect for this). Having to return a container though is even harder on us than cooking in the first place.  It sits on the counter everyday reminding us again of more things we have to do. It is draining.
  7. Be there.  Having a sick and special needs child is lonely. You are constantly taking them to medical appointments, meetings at the school, and pharmacy. Our spare time is spent researching, making appointments, and trying to find ways to help your child feel normal.  (You would be surprised how much time is spent figuring out things to do that let my kids feel normal without making them feel worse about themselves because they have motor delays or heart failure keeps DQ down.)  Having a friend be there--sit and have coffee; come over. If you make a plan for your friend who is a special needs mom, a plan they do not have to make themselves, you will be a hero.  We desperately want to feel normal and be with friends, but don't have the energy to make any other plans.
  8. Go to the hospital. Sit on the sidelines, don't expect to be entertained, but be there. Bring veggies and good coffee.  Offer to sit with the sick child so mom or dad can pee or get some food (DQ would never let us out of her sight when in the hospital). Or if you can't be at the hospital, take their other children for a fun day (bring them to the park).
  9. Remember the siblings. If you bring a gift for the sick child, do the same for the siblings.  So many times, people feel bad for the sick child. That is proper because the child goes through hell.  But just because the sibling is healthy, doesn't mean they are not going through hell too.  Life in a house with a terminally ill child is hard on everyone.  Can't afford two gifts, don't bring any.  The kids don't expect gifts.  They do LOVE visitors though.
  10. Never say "everything will be fine".  That is one of my biggest pet peeves of all.  I hear it in tv shows all of the time too and scream at the tv (ask my husband, he will confirm). You have no idea if everything will be fine.  For us, it won't be fine. When you say "everything will be fine" to your friend, you are dismissing their real feelings in a negative way and diminishing what they are going through.  It is not helpful because it means you do not grasp the gravity of the situation.  Just don't say it!  Instead, you can say "I don't know what to say, but I'm thinking of you and want to be here for you."  Ask your friend if they'd like to share their concerns. Or don't say anything at all, but give a hug.  
I offer this question up to all of my friends who are moms to critically ill children or children with special needs: What would things would you add if this was your top ten list?
Having a child with a CHD is like being given an extra sense---the true ability to appreciate life. Each breath, each hug, each meal is a blessing when you've watched your child live off a ventilator, trapped in an ICU bed, being fed through a tube. Each minute is a miracle when you've watched your child almost die and come back to you.
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