My son was life-flighted to a children’s hospital after a major bicycle accident. He was wearing his helmet (which saved his life), but he was unconscious and on life support. He underwent emergency surgery just hours after being admitted. Successful surgery brought immediate crisis to an end, though he has a long road of recovery.

He spent time in pediatric intensive care followed by several more days in various units of the children’s hospital. During that time, I received an outpouring of support through phone calls, emails, and text messages. As much as I was grateful for others’ concerns, it was hard to navigate some of the comments and questions received.

My son’s story has a happy ending: He was discharged and we are home. Though full recovery is far from over, each day is progress.

It’s difficult to know what to say to a family during trauma. To help, here is a primer based on personal experience of some things I heard and some things I wish I had. This is but one case, and I know others’ experiences may vary. Still, by sharing and educating others, I hope that if someone you love is in a situation that requires emergency hospitalization, you will have a better idea of the most helpful ways to communicate with the family.

 

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“Here’s what I can do.”

Instead of: “Tell me what you need.”

I needed lots of things during the days my son was hospitalized. But taking time to enumerate the tasks and ask individuals was overwhelming, especially when all of my attention was needed at my son’s bedside. Enter my sister who sent a message of “I can do these things” and proceeded to list things like, “pick up pharmacy prescriptions,” “feed the cat,” and “wash clothes.” I was able to simply say, “Yes!” to those things I needed. Parents need help with preparing a homecoming for a child with clean bed linens, air conditioning in a hot house, and food in the fridge. I was grateful to have someone offer those specific tasks that made my son’s re-entry into his home environment comfortable.

“What is the next goal?”

Instead of: “When will he go home?”

I had no idea of a discharge date, so trying to answer this question was impossible. Day to day, nurses helped me understand various goals, and that provided a positive, focused approach in the hospital. One day, the name of the game was eating and drinking. We celebrated a first sip of Powerade and a first bite of PB&J! Those milestones gave hope, and answering questions about goals would have been much less daunting and emotional than fielding a question to which I desperately wanted to know the answer myself.

“How are you?”

Instead of: “How is he?”

Hospitalized for days, my honest reaction to this question about my son was: “He is not well.” Sure, he made progress every day, but it was a lie to say “good” or “doing fine.” We weren’t fine. He wouldn’t be fine for some time. I was grateful for the concern, but those who asked about my son from the outside could do nothing about his situation. Yet they could do something about mine, for little acts make a big difference in crisis. I came to the hospital with nothing but my purse, so a toothbrush, a change of clothes, or a cup of coffee would have made me feel more human during the first few days. These were very small things – and my son’s needs were so much greater – but an outreach such as this is a basic way to help a parent collect herself in the most trying of circumstances.

“I would like to send something.”

Instead of: “I would like to come by for a visit.”

A discharge date is exciting, yet overwhelming. Gone is the 24-hour care and all-hands-on-deck approach. Instead, the home environment transition to parent as full-time caregiver is tough. I understand why people wanted to immediately visit, but the reality of germs, sleep interruption, and overall entertaining weighed into my decision to say: “Thank you, but not yet.” I appreciated the people who sent cards, left a package on the front porch, or mailed something practical like one friend who sent a pizza gift card for ordering out – a lifesaver one evening!

Finally, if you promise something, follow through. One neighbor said she would like to bring by some food once we were home. The offer was great, and I was appreciative. I hoped for details…and they never came. Two days later, she apologized by text message that she got busy. I know busy. I get it. But during crisis, if a promise is made, stick to it. A family just may be counting on your exact promise to help them get through another day.

Hard work and progress don’t stop once a family returns home. Check back in to let the family know they have not been forgotten. Help after discharge is appreciated, too.

Different situations may call for different approaches as well, so remember to be sensitive to cultural, religious, and personal needs as best you can.

Showing concern during crisis is important, but with these tips, that concern can be channeled supportively during a time when a family needs help the most.