“Angela, would you hand me that gauze?”
Grandmother could have reached it. She sat not three feet away. Yes, she held her deaf and diabetic neighbor’s diseased foot in her lap, but one good stretch and she would have had it on her own.
I, on the other hand, stood all the way across the room, ponytail and sweaty palms pressed flat against a yellow-flocked wall, trying to vanish.
I hated to disappoint Grandmother. She’d bought me donuts for breakfast. Willing those donuts to stay in place, I crossed the room on gangly legs that didn’t feel like mine and knocked the gauze toward my grandmother with the tip of an untied sneaker.
Patient and a little amused, she smirked in her usual way and nodded at the floor by her neighbor’s foot. She wanted me to sit.
I didn’t know what gangrene looked like and wasn’t anxious to find out, so I took the seat she’d indicated, but faced her instead of the foot.
It was enough. With tenderness, Grandmother continued to dress her neighbor’s foot, handing me scissors and gauze and tape to hold at intervals.
A bony hand rested on my back and I stiffened.
The hand withdrew.
Grandmother didn’t react, but I felt guilty, so I leaned into the deaf woman’s leg. A few seconds later, she began to play with my ponytail just like my grandmother might have, and I relaxed. While Grandmother worked in silence, I took in my surroundings as if I’d just arrived. The walls were mostly bare, and it made me inexplicably sad, so I spent the rest of the morning drawing pictures for my new friend’s living room.
Sickness doesn’t have to be scary, and a little discomfort isn’t always a bad thing. You know your child best, but in many cases, allowing your child to help care for and encourage those who aren’t quite themselves will end up blessing both the patient and the child if you do it the right way.
Here are a few tips:
Be honest. Kids know when you’re hiding something, and it scares them more when you do so. Speak in euphemisms and generalities if necessary, but tell kids the truth about what they’re walking into before they get there so they can process it and make their own plan for coping.
Express confidence. In yourself, in them, and in God’s ability to work all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). Choose your words carefully and watch your body language closely.
Invite them to participate. Don’t force participation, but let them know they are not only welcome, but wanted, allowing them to choose where they will sit or stand and for how long. When they speak, acknowledge their words with enthusiasm, but don’t put them on the spot.
Give them a job. Kids feel empowered when they are allowed to help. Assign them an age-appropriate, measurable task that you can thank them for later, such as making sure the blankets stay straight, the room stays quiet and calm, the gift you brought gets delivered and/or displayed, or the cat gets enough attention. Avoid assigning self-management tasks that imply pre-existing mistrust, such as keeping their mouth shut, staying out of the way, or being good.
Provide escape or distraction if needed. Anticipate your child’s needs. If you think the visit may prove too much or last too long for them, pack quiet activities they will enjoy, but only offer them when they show significant signs of distress or are causing a disruption. If they need to be excused, tell them exactly where to wait for you or exit gracefully with them. Make sure, though, that you give your kids time to self-soothe and problem-solve before you step in or you might rob them of an opportunity to overcome mild discomfort on their own and so mature.
Affirm them. Thank your children for whatever contributions they are able to make, even if they are small, from simply obeying to participating directly and/or creatively during your visit. Tell them how their just being present is a blessing to people who are sick and to those who love those sick people. Let them know you would like them to come with you again sometime and, when possible, allow them to help plan the next visit.
Sickbed visits aren’t really comfortable for anyone, but when we view them as opportunities to model and encourage service and empathy, we help our children become the comforters we’re all called to be (2 Cor. 1:3-4).