From an article originally posted August 14, 2013…
This post is going to focus on helping a family with young children. Specifically, what one does when the mama—the glue, the go-to—is sick, but these principals can translate to any family with small children struggling with disease. Part One focused on the local support of our community; this focuses on the help we asked for within our home.
When one is first diagnosed with cancer, there is a haze that enters. It’s a grace fog. I’m slowly remembering the details of this time last year. I believe God was gracious to let us enter a kind of stupor where we lived from one moment to the next. So many offers for help come in right at the start. But truly, our heads were spinning. We could not articulate our needs. This time last year I was about to face my first chemo. After weeks of tests, surgery to get a port, and tears, I was about to walk into the hardest thing I had ever done. One cannot know how daunting chemo is until they experience it, and I hope you never have to experience it. We decided to capture our family before this journey started with my dear friend Jen. These pictures were so lovely, but not only was I filled with cancer, I was filled with uncertainty about how we would go forward as a family. We didn’t know our needs, we didn’t realize the depths of pain chemo would take me to, we could not understand or articulate much at all. We were simply broken and needy without understanding of our need yet.
It took us weeks to begin to understand our needs. If someone initially doesn’t have a specific way to help, it doesn’t mean one won’t come. Don’t be afraid to ask again later. Or, if a specific thing is laid on your heart, present it. One friend brought fruit often, another brought flowers and put them all through my house. One friend brought me beautiful Burt’s Bees lotions, another spent hours rubbing my feet (this was the best distraction from nausea). I never told them or asked them, but they took initiative and loved us so sweetly in these ways.
Jason and I debated for a long time, in the quiet of our room, how we were going to face this as a family. Would Jason take leave, would we just get through it, how would we face almost a year of treatment with mama sick? Jason was in the beginning of building a core group for our church plant. He had a big job ahead of him with his biggest support down for the count.... Down for a long count. We had countless offers for help, but we knew the energy it takes to care for 4 young children. We had to be very honest in many circumstances with people who loved us, but simply didn’t have the energy to care for our big family. Here are the thoughts of what we came to together.
First, our main concern was the kids. We wanted their hearts gently cared for in our home. Last year our age range with our kids put us in a unique position. With older quiet children and younger needy children, we had lots of different needs. We didn’t want our older children to grow bitter by being asked to do too much, and we wanted the needs of our little ones to be gently and carefully attended to in our home. So Jason and I prayed through a list of people we felt would love our children well through this difficult time. It was not an easy thing to ask of someone. We knew we were asking much. We agreed to be very clear that people were welcome to decline.
We decided to have people live with us for several reasons. Jason needed the help. The kids needed to know the house was still functioning. We didn’t want the kids pushed into too much responsibility at too young an age. With someone living here, Jason felt he could continue working. Mind you, it was the first week after chemo that completely took me out of the game. I was down for 5-7 days after chemo (sometimes less, sometimes more). With treatments three weeks apart, we asked for help those first critical days. With meals coming in from our community, and our house being cleaned once a week, the person who moved in to help focused on bringing joy to the kids, laundry, me, and cleaning up after dinner. Trust me, all our helpers left exhausted. I’m sure it was emotionally exhausting. Countless times the person would fall asleep as Jason was taking them to the airport.
We also identified local families that were safe for our kids. I had chemo on Wednesday and typically Friday was my worst day. We really tried hard to have our big girls on a sleepover that night. The little ones were easier to distract and they weren’t ready for sleepovers. We didn’t want the big girls to see me in that bad of shape time after time. I remember the treatment that landed me in the hospital. It was such a relief to have my kids happily playing in a home away from worry. We actually never told the kids I was in the hospital. There was enough hard without them needing to know that.
There are always some things in the home of a young family the kids only want mama and daddy to do. Those things, in our house, were bedtime and discipline. Jason is a master at bedtime, and this was his new domain. And with our kids hurting so badly, we did not want others disciplining our children. Hell to me would be hearing someone unkindly dealing with the broken hearts of our kids through this difficult season, and not having the strength to protect them.
This was a dance for our caretakers. Not an easy dance. My sister said it was the dance of distraction. She and the others masterfully helped my kids in such creative ways. I remember when Mickey first came she said, "Kara, I don’t care how sick you are, you will be doing the discipline, I will be bringing the love.” What a beautiful thing. God always gave the grace of strength to discipline my own children.
My kids were struggling. It showed, but I was so thankful when my caretakers didn’t talk poorly about my children, and agreed to gently love our kids even in their ugly. This is hard to articulate. If you have the opportunity to love a sick family, please don’t be shocked by bad behavior. Do not gossip to others about their behavior. Push into their behavior and love them creatively when you see the ugly side of their day. The kids are hurting, they have not developed communication skills, they struggle to process the pain of the disease they live with daily. Not only do they not have communication skills, their friends really don’t know what to say. Harper came home once upset after a friend had said, “I hope your mom doesn’t die.” It came from a place of care, but Harper had never considered I would die. We were all muddling through the year. Especially my kids. It should never be surprising when the hurting hearts of our children act out in the midst of such difficulty.
Looking back, I remember some specific helps that felt like lifesavers. I just remembered how someone printed our school supply list and took our girls school supply shopping. One thing that really felt like it buried us was all the extras in school. If I know someone in my position in the future, I believe I would ask to help assist with all the extra projects. We had country reports, book reports, some kind of Middle Ages fair. All those extras were so hard for us. Not only was I filled with guilt I couldn’t participate, we had so little margin to help with those extras. I remember there was a moms and muffins scheduled for Lake’s class two days after chemo. It was my worst day. I cried for days that I would be missing it. I had resolved to keep him home from school. He’s very tender hearted and very close to me, I just couldn’t imagine him there motherless. I cry now thinking of it. My sister had come to town and Lake invited her to come. Bless her heart, my poor sister cried through the whole event. There was a picture each child had made of their mamas, and it described them. The moms were to guess who they were talking about. Lakes picture said, my mom teaches me to count to 100 in her bed. It was a picture of us together in my bed counting. It wasn’t hard to know whose mama that was. My sister tearfully accepted the picture on my behalf. She had to leave there and get on a plane. How unbelievably hard that must have been for her.
Nothing I mentioned here is easy. Entering the home of a family facing the hard, ugly of cancer is unbelievably hard, sacrificial, unselfish, exhausting work. But I cannot tell you the gift our live in help was to our family. In the absence of me, my kids were loved and mothered by many. It was such a gift. Such a beautiful gift that I will never be able to repay. I hope this could help you if you are ever in a position to walk into the depths of hard with another.
Thank you for sticking with me through these long posts. Please know this is my story. It is certainly not a prescription of what everyone would desire. Be available, be sensitive, and be watchful for opportunities to love and serve. Hopefully this post gave a picture of this kind of story or inspired you in a new way to love a hurting family. I certainly hope it motivated you to give grace to the tender hearts of children in a similar situation.
Ending, a beautiful thing that came from this hard. I realized it a few weeks ago when my friend came to visit. If someone enters our home, our kids know they are safe people to love and be open to immediately. After a year of people in and out, my children learned to let all kinds of new people in their life. As I sat and watched my friend engage my kids, I saw an openness in each of my kids I had not seen a year before. You see, not all the people that lived with us were people my kids knew. Some care came all the way back from my high school and college friends. But Jason and I knew the hearts of these caretakers, and our kids trusted our judgment. So the beautiful fruit of this hard, ugly battle is an open heart in my children toward people who enter our home.