Supporting Friends with Children in the Hospital

July 22, 2013


By Amy Hackworth. Image here.

A couple of months ago we discussed what to say and do for our friends who are hurting, and I’ve thought a lot about the helpful and insightful comments you left. There was a general agreement that we’ll never be too far off base if we reach out in love, and it sparked an idea to share ideas about how we can help in specific situations.

My sister Lisa’s two-year-old son, the youngest of six, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in January, and Lisa and her family have had first hand experience receiving kindness and comfort from many friends. Little Noah has responded well to treatments over the past six months and his prognosis is very hopeful, for which we’re so thankful. But it certainly hasn’t been easy, and Lisa and Dave recently shared with me some of the most thoughtful things friends have done for their family.

With Noah’s compromised immune system, extra clean hands for the whole family became a top priority, and knowing this Lisa’s sister-in-law sent a case of pleasant smelling hand sanitizer and soaps, with a note that she’d heard they’d be needing to wash their hands a lot. They’ve also received gas cards to help with travel costs to the children’s hospital four hours away, gift cards to the hospital café (a great idea when the hospital has good food), and a sweet note with money just for a date night. One of Noah’s favorite gifts was from a neighbor, who thoughtfully ordered a DVD just for him from the American Childhood Cancer Organization about a heroic boy with cancer. For any sick child, a stuffed animal is a sweet and cuddly gift, but for a child with cancer stuffed animals must be washable. If a child throws up or has an accident on a non-washable stuffed animal, it simply has to be thrown away. Just think of the heartache that can be avoided!

My friend Dianne’s teenage son was seriously ill for years, and she spent many, many days at a children’s hospital with him. She also shared a few of the kindnesses her friends and neighbors offered to her, and was quick to say there were thousands of others. One sweet gift was a hospital care pack, with non-perishable snacks and a roll of quarters for the vending machines, as well as a paperback book for her, 3-D puzzles for her son and, again, nice smelling lotion. Although she and her husband were both employed with good insurance, incidental expenses still added up, and the anonymous $100 bill they received was a blessing. Her son loved the gift certificates he received for Blockbuster (back in the day) and a nearby pizza delivery place, plus visits from his friends where they could just act like friends — play games, watch movies and talk like teenage boys.

Dianne also mentioned how valuable regular friendship was to her. “Sometimes,” she wrote, “it was wearing to answer too many questions, day after day, and it was a relief to simply do regular things with people. For example, my running buddy still ran with me whenever I was home and not at the hospital. We went on our regular route, and we would talk about ordinary things. She was great to listen to medical details if I wanted to talk about them, but honestly, it was a relief not to live in that theme all the time.”

Doesn’t it make sense that every so often, you’d just like to be part of the regular world? And also laugh. Although Dianne couldn’t offer a formula for humor, she said that was one of the most helpful gifts they received.

If you’ve had a child who’s been seriously ill, I hope you’ll give the rest of us some good advice about the help that meant the most to you. And if you’ve shared a kindness with a friend in this situation, I hope you’ll tell us about that, too.

P.S. — More advice from parents who’ve been there about What To Do When Words Fail Us and more thoughts from Dianne about the great work at their local children’s hospital, including how they helped her son have prom in the hospital.

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July 26, 2013 at 3:49 pm

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1 Lisette Wolter-McKinley July 22, 2013 at 9:23 am

What thoughtful suggestions. I would have never thought of some of them on my own, so I am grateful for the wonderful ideas.


2 Lauren July 22, 2013 at 9:41 am

These are all such wonderful suggestions! Our son was in the NICU for almost 3 months earlier this year and we were always soo appreciative of people that would drop off meals. Often times I would be at the hospital most of the day and it was so nice to not have to think about what to make up for dinner. It’s also nice to remember the child’s siblings too. It’s so hard for them too. A special token goes such a long way. I had a friend that dropped off plain cupcakes and sprinkles so she could decorate them. It was simple and thoughtful and our daughter was so pleased that someone thought of her too.


3 JO July 22, 2013 at 9:53 am

Our twin boys were in the NICU for a great deal of time. We received so many incredible acts of kindness. A fellow mother of a son who had been in the NICU brought us dinner, but brought everything on disposable plates, etc, so we didn’t have to worry about bringing back/washing tupperware. My neighbor (who had a key to our house) would turn a light on and drop off something warm to eat just a few moments before we came home each night (around midnight). Our other neighbors shoveled our walkways and took out our trash. It was completely amazing how our community of friends took care of us during that difficult time.


4 camilla July 22, 2013 at 9:58 am

What a great post. We had a child in the hospital this winter, and I was surprised at how much a simple”I am thinking about you” meant to me. Another thing I was so thankful for was the kind things people did for our other children. It was a scary time for them too, and having that extra attention given to them when mom and dad were spending so much time at the hospital helped a lot. A friend brought them a basket with movies, treats, and activities. Another brought them balloons and art supplies. They felt very loved!
Thank you for this little series…I am excited to see what’s coming next! :)


5 Valerie July 22, 2013 at 9:58 am

When illness strikes family or close friends – it is such a natural thing to offer assistance in any way, but sometime the thought of thinking about what someone can do to help is overwhelming. The examples mentioned here already, where the giver initiated the help without input from recipient can be the most helpful.


6 Becca July 22, 2013 at 10:06 am

Thanks for this timely email, Amy. My cousin’s daughter was diagnosed six days ago with an inoperable, malignant tumor on her brain stem. They’ve estimated she has 6 to 12 months to live. She’s just barely eight-and-a-half. I’m in another state and have wondered what I can do to help. But this post gives me some good ideas. Now I’m off to read more thoughts from Dianna.


7 Sharon @ Discovering Blog July 22, 2013 at 12:12 pm

My gosh, I’m so very sorry. I can’t find any other words than that.


8 Leslie Morris July 22, 2013 at 11:00 am

This is a wonderfully valuable post Amy, thank you.


9 Birdy& Bambi July 22, 2013 at 11:55 am

What a great post. We are in tears and in awe.

Greetings from Germany,
Birdy and Bambi


10 Lisa July 22, 2013 at 11:59 am

There is more. My wonderful sister Amy Hackworth brought us a whole sack full of toys and books for Noah and little things for me to do too. She brought her boys to visit and it was the first smile we’d seen from Noah in days. One friend brought me gum and treats, magazines and a soft blanket (hospital blankets are not soft). Dear friends & family just came to visit, brought dinner, took me out to dinner when I could sneak away, and a few of my very best friends sat in the hospital room with us when the Dr. was explaining what the next 3 years of our lives would look like. They listened and asked questions and having them there meant the world to me. Friends and neighbors brought treats to our other children at home. One friend asked the mother of a boy who had successfully completed his treatment for Leukemia to write me a list of helpful advice and tips for handling the months ahead which was so comforting. Our extended family stopped by or sent cards and care packages often with money to help with expenses. My parents had our car detailed and our carpets cleaned while we were at the hospital, our friends dad fixed our car. The list goes on and on. Not only have we been helped, we’ve been inspired and hope to always remember and reciprocate the kindness our family has experienced.


11 Sarah July 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm

A wonderful post, Amy. When my brother was sick, I was often reminded that happiness is a choice that requires effort at times. Thanks to the many friends and family who where always there with a simple smile, I too, realized I could still be happy in a trying time.


12 Anna July 22, 2013 at 12:51 pm

These are all great ideas. I would also add, don’t be afraid just to give them plain old money. Before having a serious illness in my own family, I was hesitant to do this for friends going through illnesses, fearing it might offend. But now I can say, trust me, it won’t! Whether for medical co-pays, train/plane tickets to visit out-of-town doctors, babysitters to cover appointments, an outrageously overpriced hamburger in the hospital cafeteria. . . if somebody’s sick, you can pretty much bet the family can use a little extra cash.


13 Leah July 22, 2013 at 2:13 pm

What a beautiful post. While I feel incredibly fortunate to not have experienced any health issues with my children, my father passed away a few months ago from a brain tumor. It was a quite a long spiral down (with many years of ill-health preceding this), and without our friends and family we would have been lost. While I realize this is about children, one of the most helpful things applies to sick children and adults alike: My mother and/or I were nearly always with my dad, but it was incredibly helpful to have trustworthy, attentive, loving people to stay with him while we took care of normal-life things. So, my suggestion is to offer to stay with the child so the parent can briefly tend to other things in life—grocery shopping, etc. The parent’s mind will be a little more at ease and the child will have good company.

One other idea is to offer to be the spokesperson for the family. Though well-meaning, people often ask lots and lots of questions and it is tiresome to keep repeating the same (sad) story. With a spokesperson, you only have to tell the story once and the spokesperson communicates it to (and fields questions from) everyone else.

One more thing: it is a small difference, but try to not ask “How are you?” If someone is very sick (and in my father’s case, dying) there is no good answer. It is difficult because in our American culture “Hi, How are you?” is such a standard greeting. Instead, might I suggest “Hi! It is so good to see you.” This conveys the same level of concern you have for the patient without burdening them with providing a sad answer (e.g. “not good”).

My last suggestion is to echo the need for visitors. This is so helpful to both the patient and caregiver.

Sorry for such a long comment! Wishing all families dealing with illness a speedy, peaceful recovery.


14 Tracy Davis July 23, 2013 at 10:45 pm

I love the suggestion to offer to be a spokesperson. Yes! This is so helpful to field unwanted questions and avoid having to retell bad news over and over.


15 patsy July 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm

This is a wonderful & touching post. I wanted to add something. I am the mother of a daughter with mental illness (severe depression- which induced psychosis & and then an eating disorder.) It is terribly painful (of course) yet somehow people get nervous & tend to do nothing or say nothing to those suffering from “mental” illnesses or their families.

Just a friendly reminder- mental illness is still – illness. Don’t get me wrong- SO MANY people have been overwhelmingly thoughtful to our family & I love them & I am grateful. I just want to remind all those readers out there that it is okay to ask – okay to offer help & okay to acknowledge mental illness. It’s awkward to talk about, true. But parents of children suffering with these types of illnesses can sometimes feel alone or worse – judged.

Again- thank you for writing this! While my daughter was in the Neuropsychiatric adolescent ward- my best friend’s son was just a couple blocks away at a different hospital being treated for cancer. We had the opportunity to visit each other & be there for each other. I wish neither of us had to go through this- but what a blessing to have support in difficult times. Her son was trying to keep his life, while my daughter was trying to take hers. It was a humbling time & one I hope to never relive.

My most favorite thing, is to be told, ” We are praying for you.”
That simple statement from friends & strangers keeps me going day after day.


16 Kalli July 22, 2013 at 7:06 pm

Amy this is such a good and timely post! I just dropped off dinner for a family in our neighborhood, the wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor while pregnant. They delivered her son 5 weeks early, removed and tested the tumor immediately after to find out it was malignant but extremely slow moving. She started chemotherapy and radiation last week, 3 weeks postpartum. They have two young daughters about the same age as my boys. Talking to her parents she said that the older girls were in desperate need of interaction and playmates after being stuck at home and rather shuttled aside with everything that’s going on. Gift cards, gas cards, attention to other kids, prayers, thoughtful notes-all so important!


17 Tracy Davis July 22, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I love the idea of the roll of quarters, and wholeheartedly echo the sentiment of being grateful to have someone to be “normal” with. It helps to be able to forget about the pain for a while, and focus on something else for a break.

My infant son was in the NICU, and then at home with hospice care for 51 days before he died, and I’ve reflected on all the love and support that we received during that time and after.

Here is a post I wrote about some of the things I found helpful.:


18 Brandi Willimon November 22, 2014 at 6:37 pm

Oh Tracy,
Thank you for sharing this link, as well as your thoughts. I cannot imagine your pain. Big big hug from this mother’s heart, to yours.


19 April July 22, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Laundry! As an adult trauma nurse, I can say that laundry is a big deal to families stuck in the hospital. Bring them clean laundry, take the dirty laundry, do the laundry at their house. Pictures. Pictures of friends, pictures of the patient, pictures of favorite places. As a trauma nurse my patients can look drastically different from ‘normal’ life. I love seeing pictures of them from ‘real’ life. It reminds me that they are mothers, daughters and friends, not just patients. Patients love having a touchstone of where they were and where they are going. And we love, love hearing thank you! We work hard, very hard. We don’t get paid a lot. And boy, it is an emotionally tough job. A thank you makes it all worth every second. Oh, the tears of joy when we see a patient return, better, healthy and smiling. I really can’t describe that feeling.


20 Annie Groover July 23, 2013 at 4:54 am

Our youngest daughter was in the hospital for almost 2 months. At the time, we were homeschooling the eldest two. We had an unbelievable outpouring of support. Another homeschool family took our kids and included them in their school so they didn’t fall behind (in SC you have to log 180 days of school), other friends brought meals (even people we didn’t know from our church!), my best friend came over and would clean our house and took our laundry home to wash and fold. My sister-in-law kept my big 3 girls for several weeks and cared for them on top of her own 3 kids! I could go on and on, but it really was an amazing time. And while I would never wish a sick child on anyone, and would not wish to go through those scary times again, I think we are richer for having the experience.


21 Kristen July 23, 2013 at 6:49 am

Hello, great post and great comments with some excellent ideas. I am a pediatric nurse, and I would just caution any gift-givers to check with the family before giving a child in the hospital any food items. Hospitalized children are often given many food restrictions, and bringing around ‘forbidden’ items could cause them some heartache! Also, no fresh flowers if the child is immunocompromised.

LOVE the idea of pictures from home and maybe a (non-stuffed animal, non-porous, able to be wiped down with a bleach wipe) favorite toy from home.


22 Rochelle July 23, 2013 at 7:09 am

A friend of mine went through this about 6 years ago (and all is well with their little girl since, Yeah!) — but at the time we (a group of friends) banded together to raise money — we held a garage sale and a few other little things to give them cash for the parking at the hospital (and anything else they needed). It may sound small, but $8/ day over 6 months of parking adds up (as do other little expenses that we did our best to try and help with). After it was all over and they were back on their feet, my friend started a charity — called Small Blessings ( to pay it forward with the same kind of help to other local (Boston based) families.


23 Holly Johnson July 23, 2013 at 7:59 am

This is a wonderful post, thank you. My brother had childhood leukemia when I was 5 and it was a terrible stress on our family. I think now about what can be done for the siblings who are often so distraught but without the words or sophistication to verbalize their feelings. I think as friends to the family, we can offer the children diversions and routine—playdates, small outings close to home, and lots of attention. Siblings often try to be extra well behaved and mature during these times as to not additionally tax their parents or make the home even less stable. But in fact, they need to be free to be kids, to cry, to have tantrums and act just as they always have, and sometimes some encouragement to do so is helpful. I remember not wanting to leave the house for any reason, like I by being home I was somehow keeping things safe. I think these signals are very important to watch for and respond to, although it is so challenging when the parents are needed at the hospital and consumed with their own grief.

One bright point is that siblings can come through a situation like this even stronger and more prepared for the challenges of life if they are given lots of love and support through the hard times.

I just feel so much for the families with sick young ones, and my heart goes out to you. Remember that love is what will hold you together and nurture your soul the most.


24 clyde July 23, 2013 at 11:32 am

My nephew and sister in-law’s son Mark was diagnosed with leukemia a few months back – the same type as you mentioned in your post. As you will know first-hand, the news is devastating in the beginning. As Mark went into treatment and was stabilized, it is still a touchy matter for our whole family to think about a little three year old going through such a hideous illness. Anyways, a few years ago, for a year long period time, two of our aunts were diagnosed with breast cancer. Both of them went through the treatments, surgery, and the heartache that the whole situation brought to their families and extended relatives. For a while, we just offered kind words, phone calls, and as much assistance we could offer from a distance. But then it was time to do something more tangible. After some more phone calls and a lot of prayers, the answer was care packages. E-mails were sent out, inviting everyone in the family to participate, and a schedule was set. So, every weekend, these two aunts received a box with all sorts of goodies that were homemade, handmade, or bought. Everything was game (of course, each care package was thoughtfully and carefully prepared to go with their health stages, like if they were at home or the hospital, could not smell certain things, and the likes). Back to Mark – our family decided to go the same route with him. Months in advance, he gets these care packages from our family. Many of us include things for his 10 and 7 year old sisters. They are delighted to see that their little brother’s illness didn’t put them on the side by also receiving little trinkets and treats. About the parents: sending cards, board games, CDs for them too – stuff that can put their brains off the situation for a little while – can be one of the best things to do. Sometimes, just phone calls aren’t enough… So we sent little gifts of kindness that they can actually open and have a delightful surprise that can help take off some of their burden while the treatments go on for months or even years to come. A side note; money never fails (any amount). If you don’t know what they specifically want or need, this always works.

I hope this helps in a little way to people who are dealing with a similar situation. Thanks to all your readers for their comments and suggestions, and thank you for asking us to share our personal thoughts/experiences. Feels great to share.


25 Emily July 24, 2013 at 12:13 pm

So many thoughtful ideas are listed here – any family would be lucky to receive these gifts from friends, and I have just one more to add: Have any family facing cancer (whether in a child or an adult) contact Imerman Angels at Their mission is that within 24 hours of contacting them, they will use their extensive network to provide a one-one-one mentor “angel” for both the patient and their family members who have gone through the same experience (i.e. , same age during treatment, same gender, same type of cancer) and come out the other side. These Angels can be a tremendous source of hope and practical advice to complement all the wonderful gifts from family and friends.


26 Anne July 24, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Here is another article that has some tips for working with kids in the hospital.

It’s always rough, but friends can help you pull through!


27 Chelsie July 25, 2013 at 7:40 pm
28 Design Mom July 27, 2013 at 4:56 pm

I’m so pleased about this series, Amy. Thank you!


29 J August 6, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Being a mother of a child who was treated for cancer – is a life changer. I would like to add that an important way to support friends or family is to be there once treatment stops. Thankfully, our son is thriving, he has returned to doing the activities he loves and feels well. However, no part of this journey is easy and once treatment ended, it was (is) one of the most surprisingly difficult periods in my life. The fact that cancer touched his young life, will always be a part of who he is – and who I am as his loving mother.


30 Monica November 12, 2013 at 8:38 am

I take my daughter a couple times a year for scoliosis surgery. We have averaged about 8 hours per surgery due to her NF they have to be extra careful. We generally spend a week in hospital, which compared to what some deal with is a walk in the park. But due to our distance from home and a younger child I spend that week alone with a hurting child usually starving and broke. We are a single income family and the expense of hospital is something that just doesn’t fit well. Probably the best help we’ve gotten is babysitting for the younger child. So that my husband can continue to go to work. Family and friends step in as if it were part of their regular routine and give us the peace of mind it takes for him to continue to work and me to just focus on my daughter’s recovery. Also when people do visit, they are kind enough to sit with her so I can shower, or go for a walk or just not have to be there for a few minutes. The biggest godsend is other parents in the hospital, they are very understanding and easy to be friends with in the time that we spend there. I’ve met many parents on unit with my daughter most with similar issues and so they just get it. They know when taking about it is good and when we should just talk about the weather. As a side note. Parking is one of the biggest expenses, in our case we have people drive us there and drop us off then my husband comes back to pick us up when we are discharged.


31 Erin July 13, 2015 at 12:13 pm

I see that this is and old thread but I came across it while looking up some information and advice on handling the bump in the road life has given our family. 4 months ago my son was diagnosed with Leukemia (ALL) and the support we have received has been overwhelming and a true lesson in life and a whole new level of gratitude and appreciation you never thought possible.
The parents in my sons class pulled together resources to do several amazing and generous things:
1-Organized to do a walk for cancer (during a period of calmer treatment so my son could attend) and has his friends and their parents there showing their support and letting him know how loved he was and that he had not been forgotten even though he has not been able to attend school since he was diagnosed.
2-arranged a meal program where one of the parents went to a kitchen (supper works) and prepared un cooked but fully ready to go meals for the month that could be frozen.
3-had each child in the class buy a present for him that represented their friendship or what they felt about him and did a beautiful gift basket complete with a handmade doll that looked just like him and had a superhero cape.
4-Used the remainder of the money they raised to buy him a “super Hero” It was a gift certificate for a company that send superhero’s or princesses to kids parties. Amazing idea!
This is certainly not the only amazing things that have been done for us over the last few months but all of these things are great ideas for people looking to make someone in a stressful situation smile and feel loved.

After the class had given us all these gifts; I look at my son and said “did you feel that?” and he said “what mama?” I said “all that love honey, did you feel it?” and he responded: “I sure did Mama, that was ‘to the moon’ kind of Love-so cool”


32 Rochelle July 25, 2016 at 8:33 pm

Thank you so much for this thread! I have been searching for ideas for a care package for my cousin who’s 13 month old son is battling leukemia. This was very helpful!


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