When my daughter, Lizzie was born five years ago, she arrived via emergency c-section, blue and lifeless with a then undiagnosed life altering syndrome. Those days remain a blur of gray and black in my mind, a haze of grief and disbelief. I was drowning in pain, unable to comprehend what felt like the end of life as we knew it. In a way, our previous life did end that day, but a new one began. Lizzie fought through 30 days in the NICU, through her arrival at home, through meeting her older brother and two subsequent sisters, through birthday after birthday, hospitalization after hospitalization, therapy after therapy. Here we are today with a five-year-old Lizzie, filling out kindergarten applications and making tentative plans for the near future (something we have rarely had the courage to do). We know our time with her is limited. We live in an ambiguity that at times feels transcendent and at other times, torturous.
The grays of those early days have softened, but there are still very dark days. I was a complete mess, unable to get out of bed at the beginning of this journey. Our friends and family offered to help; loving, sincere offers of help, but I couldn’t accept any of them. I just couldn’t. I could barely breathe. The offers were too much for me to process. Aside from that, I felt like it was my responsibility to navigate this. She was mine, my responsibility, no one else’s. I wanted to close off and white-knuckle and put my head down and get through this. And I did for a while, until I couldn’t anymore. Until I broke. Until the stress and reality were too much. Then I admitted I needed help, but it was still hard to accept. I’ve gotten better at identifying what I need and asking for help. There are still times I struggle with guilt over inconveniencing friends and family. It feels like I’m always the one who needs help and I can rarely offer the same help to others, because of Lizzie’s medical situation. It feels like I’m running at a deficit, constantly withdrawing from the “help bank” and rarely making a deposit. If you know a family like ours (and I bet you do), it can be hard to know how to offer help or what is helpful. Here are a few guidelines that make it easier for me, personally, to accept help.
- Identify what kind of help resonates with you
Do you love kids? Offer to take siblings on a park outing or out for ice cream. Are you a neat freak? Offer to clean a bathroom or pick up and return a load of laundry. Are you a good listener who loves coffee? Take Mom or Dad out for coffee and just listen. Do you have pretty stationery? Write a note and drop it in the mail. Are you a great cook? Bring a meal. Do you have a vehicle? Offer to drive to appointments or pick kids up from school or activities. Help in a way that makes you happy.
- Be very specific in your offer
Include a concrete time frame when you offer help and ask in a way that makes it easy to accept. Families in crisis are swimming in a sea of late nights, medical crises, guilt and difficulties. Our brains are foggy, we can’t handle one more decision and often don’t know what we need. We are focused on getting through the day. Make it easy for us. Would Tuesday or Wednesday work better for a meal? Can I take you for a coffee Saturday afternoon? Would it be helpful if I cleaned your bathroom? I am free on Monday after three or Tuesday morning. A specific and concrete offer helps us say yes, even when we feel guilty or overwhelmed.
- Remember that everyone needs help.
I do. You do. That one mom at school that always wears actual clothes to pick-up, she needs help, too (no, seriously). We aren’t here to fight through this alone. Why do we do this to ourselves? Torture ourselves over not being able to do it all, all the time? Lie to ourselves that we are the only ones who don’t have it together? No one has it together all the time and if it seems like they do, they are lying by omission. Needing help is not shameful. It’s how we are designed and it took years for me to realize that. We need each other. We need to help others and be helped. What would be shameful would be to perpetuate that lie and act like I don’t need help or to shut Lizzie away so that only we get to know her beauty and light and learn her lessons. Our struggles are gifts to ourselves and the world. SHARE THEM.
I’m not completely sure why we are here on this planet, but I do believe that a great part of that reason is to lessen the burden of those around us, to share in their pain and grief, their joy and elation and their day-to-day struggle like one big family. There is so much beauty in all of that. Shared grief, shared joy, shared journeys. So beautiful. My family is not that different from yours. We deal with things people don’t like to think about, we sit in sorrow I hope you never know, but, essentially, we are just us. Just a family, six people making what they can out of what we have. A family. Your family. So, help a sister out.