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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 spirit of this 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 lost my brother in law after several days in critical care. 

Before I begin, I must describe 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 crisis, 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.  

In the hospital, and during the past few months, our support system has been amazing.  They showed up on a minutes notice when we asked.  They backed away when we needed it.  They understood when we cancelled plans.  In short, they gave us grace.They understood when texts went unanswered for days.  They understood when we needed time with just our Joyner Tribe. They understood when we would rather have you send food, than drop it off, and require us to interact with anyone else. 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.

#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 visitors need to stay away. 

There are several reasons for this. The time it takes for someone to coordinate when they can meet you takes 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. Or worse, walk in when we are receiving devastating news. Or very often the family may simply have finally found a moment of blissful numbness, and having to hug a new person and see their pain will just bring it all rushing back.

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 package. 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 many of us 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 bed made a big difference when you’re going on 72 hours of no sleep. 

#4 Be aware of YOUR need to feel needed
I know the feeling of helplessness is overwhelming. I. Get. This.  But please, deal with your own feelings before trying to help.

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, 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. 

Use this need to be 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. 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, or left his truck in the driveway with the keys in it. 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.  

#5 NEVER post updates or any information on social media without direct consent from immediate family. 
Family may share info with you as they process and seek support, but that is NOT permission to share information with others. Do not violate their trust with the guise of trying to help keep others informed. Always ask before sharing ANY information.  You can not control the ripples of what you post, and I promise you, there are ripples.

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