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Monday, April 16, 2007

Tips for being a friend to the caregivers

As a friend of Gretchen and Larry, they asked me to share my own top ten list of how best to respond to friends in a crisis during a time of healing. My husband was injured in Iraq and our lives changed in an instant like the Holt-Witt family. During my journey, I learned some important lessons about how to behave and how I wished others would behave toward me. I wanted to share them with all of you.


1) Don't approach Gretchen, Larry and Liam with tears in your eyes. It makes them feel as if they have to use precious energy to buck YOU up. If you can't keep your tears to yourself, come back when you can or write a note.

2) Don't ask questions that make them recount the whole ordeal, the facts and statistics. Just take your lead from them when it comes to conversation. I loved it when people just picked up from where we were, not where we'd been.

3) An illness like this is a draining, draining grief, so different from a death. They are grieving an ambiguous outcome at the moment and hoping like hell for the outcome we all want. This takes an incredible amount of energy. They do not have the luxury of falling apart.

4) Do not repeatedly tell them to eat or sleep. They cannot. They are operating on adrenaline right now. Food is only fuel, sleep is hard to come by.

5) Don't expect Gretchen or Larry to get back to you by phone. All of their energy right now is on Liam Liam Liam and then Ella and then lastly, themselves. You might imagine they have some idle hours just "sitting by his bed" in a hospital. Wrong. They are talking to doctors, going to procedures, focused on their child, worried about their daughter, torn in many directions and time evaporates -- day and night are the same.

6) Don't be afraid to acknowledge their pain, if appropriate. It’s OK to say "This sucks." Don't ever say "God doesn¹t give you more than you can handle" or "things happen for a reason" or "you are so strong." Those kinds of greeting card platitudes should be illegal.

7) Stuffed animals are useless. Food can always be given to the hospital staff-- bribery does work to get kinder, gentler, more attentive care.

8) When you talk to or look at Liam-- treat him like a person-- not a patient. Get down on his level and look him right in the eyes.

9) Don’t try to pry them away from the bedside for a quick meal or a walk around the block. They may not ever want to leave his side and that's just fine. Take your cues from them -- always.

10 ) Subscribe to the "chit system." A wise man told me in the midst of my crisis when everyone was asking what they could do to tell everyone they have one chit. And at some point in time you will ask them for a favor. It could be as simple as bringing over a pizza or driving a kid somewhere -- or as complicated as dropping everything and being by their side, no matter what is happening. But all of those people who want to help, will have their chance. So get ready all ye buddies of Gretchen and Larry, that means you. To be needed in that way is perhaps the greatest honor of being a true friend.

-Lee Woodruff