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How to Help When a Loved One's Family is in Critical Care

Welcome to another post that I wish I couldn't write from first hand experience. Like seriously.  I hate this.  But I process through writing.  It is the only way I know how I make sense of this senseless tragedy. I also believe that we experience pain so that we can eventually help others through their pain, so I'm sharing this stuff with you all. I truly truly hope it helps someone.

The original title of this article was either "How to not make it worse...."

We had so many amazing people support us during that awful time, from sending messages to having food delivered. I don't know what I would have done without my support system.

Unfortunately there were also others who made it worse. Some were merely thoughtless, but some were painfully selfish. I actually had someone so angry when they were asked not to come to the hospital (the same request made of literally everyone except my brother's children & his grandmother) that they cut me out of their life, accusing me of not loving them enough to let them visit to "comfort me". This is of course is an extreme, but awareness is important.

The spirit of this article is not to shame or to complain, but to give you insight. I would know NONE of this if we hadn't experienced it firsthand.   A few months ago, I lost my brother in law after several days in critical care. Each day felt like a week, we called it "Hospital time". 

Before I begin, I must stress how CRITICAL CARE is different than supporting someone in the recovery sections of the hospital. Forget all images of visiting someone recovering from pneumonia, or when you had your baby. Critical is minute to minute life and death. You are woken up from deep sleep (which is rare to come by) to hear updates or make life altering decisions. You learn to read monitors.  You become family with the nurses.  You spend every moment advocating for your loved one.  

My husband and I  have come up with some tips on how you can be helpful, or at least avoid making it worse, when you have friend who has a loved one in critical care. 

 #1 Reach out, but don’t pressure.
The next time your loved one is in  has someone in critical care, reach out to tell them you love them and are thinking of them. The many texts we got while we were in the hospital were priceless. Over and over, people told us they loved us and were praying for us. It was a balm to our souls.  I can not truly express how much it meant. 

But don’t push , take their lead. Let them know you are there if they need you, then take their lead in how much they want to share. You will probably not get a response, but that is OK. It took me a few weeks before I came out of the fog, and went back to read all the text messages and finally respond.

#2 Be patient for updates.
Send well wishes and prayer, but don't pepper with questions. Be patient and wait for when they are ready to update you.   My brother in law was a man who made friends wherever he went.  He was one of my favorite humans on the planet, and many others had the same feeling.  Which meant many people wanted update of his condition after his accident. We literally had to assign a person to answer the phones, because people kept pestering with questions.

Critical care changes up and down so quickly, the updates are never accurate.  Please be aware that family may be processing painful news, and not ready to share yet. We found that the moment we starting sharing news was when it felt real. In this age of instant updates and live streaming, I get that waiting is hard, but you must be respectful of the family's choice of what and when to share.

Again, this is CRITICAL CARE, not a normal hospital stay. This may sound cold, but the first-tier grievers are the immediate family members. Respect their wishes at all times. Critical care is a small window of time, and no matter the outcome, you will get your time to see the patient or family eventually. Your need for news or closure needs to take a back seat to the needs and wishes of the immediate family. 

#3 Presents over presence
I am not trying to scare people away, but please know CRITICAL CARE IS DIFFERENT THAN NORMAL HOSPITAL STAY.  Family must be emotionally present at all time.  I truly can not describe it, and I hope you never experience it. 

Do not show up unannounced, ever, for any reason. Unless you are specifically asked to visit, or loved ones specifically say "open to visitors”, then ALL visitors need to stay away. There are several reasons for this. 

  • Critical Care is minute to minute life and death. Decisions are made all the time, updates are essential as you advocate for your loved one.   Again, this is NOT the recovery section of the hospital. 
  • It takes time and emotional resources (neither of which there are extra) for someone to coordinate when they can meet you at the door, taking away from being able to hear updates, or make vital decisions. 
  • If you think you can sidestep this problem and be "helpful" by just coming up to room, then you will most likely interrupt a much needed nap during a brief calm in the storm. My in-laws didn't sleep more than 30 min at a time, on hospital chairs, for five days while my brother in law was in the hospital. 
  • Family relives the pain every time they have to tell someone new.  Very often the family may simply have finally found a moment of blissful numbness, and having to hug a new person and see their fresh pain will just bring it all rushing back.
  • Or worse, you may walk in when we are receiving devastating news. 
Send your love in ways that require literally no emotional resources in return from the recipient.  When sending a present, send it to the waiting room. Hospitals are perfectly capable of delivering a care packages and food trays. Several people had food delivered to our room, such as simple Jimmy John’s food trays. There can never be too much food sent (again, please don't show up without permission). Any sandwiches we had leftover, we gave to the amazing nurses who became our family for that week. 

An amazing couple in our church asked if it would be helpful if they purchased us a hotel room by the hospital; she researched around the area and found a clean and safe place for us, so some of us took shifts using it to shower and sleep.  She paid online and all I had to do was show up. Of course my mother and father in law wouldn’t leave the hospital, but some took a few hour shifts to shower and catch quick naps. One night, 2 of us spent 3 hours sleeping, and were called back to the hospital, but the 3 hours in a real bed made a big difference when you’re going on 72 hours of no sleep.

Offer to babysit their children or grandchildren, so they can be at the hospital without parental duties.  My friends watched my kids for four days & nights, and I am eternally grateful. It was the best gift I could have received, being able to be fully present with my family, and not worry about my kids for even a second.

Clean their house, because they probably left in a hurry. Coming home to flies from dirty dishes is awful. When the call came of the accident, a member of my family didn't even lock the doors or turn off his lights, and  left his truck in the driveway with the keys. He was lucky he even shut the front door & turned off the engine as he jumped into the car with someone else and sped to the hospital.

Drop off clothes. Again, we all left in a hurry.  No one had clothes, or toothbrushes.  I ended up buying some clothes from the nearest Walmart for family members. There are so many ways to help.

#4 Be aware of YOUR need to feel needed
This might need to be Number One, because it motivates all others. I know the feeling of helplessness is overwhelming. I. Get. This.  But please, deal with your own feelings before trying to help. During this time, be on deck to help, but not upset if you don't actually get to bat.

I said before how amazing our loved ones were, they reached out and comforted our souls. That said, we also had people who didn't respond with grace or mercy. People who didn't respect the boundaries or needs of the family. The situation felt out of control to everyone, and some sought control by pushing in, in the name of helping. 

When you can't say no to someone, there is a problem. Beware of someone's "need to be needed" turning into control. Your red flag in a crisis is if someone responds in anger when you say no to their help. Someone violating your boundaries in the name of caring for you is still a form of control.  Like I said initially,  I actually had someone so angry when they were asked not to come to the hospital that they cut me out of their life, accusing me of not loving them enough to let them visit to "comfort me" .  They had no care or grace for the fact that we were waiting on updates on a possible transfer, not knowing if he'd be accepted at another hospital, and if he did then he'd be on a helicopter in 20 min to who knew where, with us racing after.  Again, Critical Care is NOT the same as recovery section of the hospital. It can all change in a minute. 

Use the need to feel needed to motivate your generosity, but make sure it does not cloud your judgment in what is appropriate. Again, find ways that you can help that require no resources from the family. 

#5 NEVER post updates or any information on social media without direct consent from immediate family
We all had our roles to play in the hospital, even appointing a social media person, the one who all the online updates were filtered through.  Critical care changes minute to minute.  "Critical but stable" means someone who is severely ill, but their condition is just not deteriorating at the present time. In other words, the doctors cannot predict what will happen, but the patient is very ill. In critical care, any minute, it could change.

If you are part of a support system, like maybe an extended family member or friend, the immediate family may share information with you as they process and seek support, but that is NOT permission to share information with others. Do not violate their trust under the guise of trying to help keep others informed.  Again you may think you are needed, because the family is too busy to share updates, but always ask before sharing ANY information.  There may be several reasons the family is withholding updates.  We kept many details off social media until my brothers' children were able to see him or their mother was able to tell them.  They have friends on social media, and we would never want them to be updated to bad news that way, instead of through face to face with a family member.

 You can not control the ripples of what you post, and I promise you, there are ALWAYS ripples.

#6 Give Grace
In the hospital, and during the past months, our support system has been amazing.  They showed up on a minutes notice when we asked.  They backed away when we needed it.

I am so thankful our support system understood when we cancelled plans.   They understood when texts went unanswered for days.  They understood when we needed time with just our Immediate Family.  It is several months later, and I am just now able to talk about some of the details of of those first few weeks with people outside my immediate family.  Ask, and then be understanding, when we would rather have you have food professional delivered, rather than you drop it off, and require us to interact with anyone. In short, they give grace.

I know they all wanted to be there specifically for us, to hug us while we cried, but they respected us when they weren't that person at that moment. They took our lead, cried when we needed to cry, and let us laugh when we need to be numb for a little bit.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 1 Cor 1:3-5

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