There comes a point in life when our mortality is called into sharp relief. For some, it is a harsh and sudden awakening. But more often, it’s the growing realization that the people around you are more frequently falling ill or otherwise requiring significant medical care.
Mine was one of the harsh and sudden awakenings (see “The Cysterhood”). But since that realization, I’ve had four surgeries (laparotomy, laparoscopy, and two arthroscopic knee surgeries), several cancer scares, a 6-month course of frequent bloodlettings, and several extended convalescences at my home and at someone else’s home. I’ve been around the medical block. That experience has taught me a great deal about the art of being a patient, the caretaker’s art, and about what kindnesses were most impactful to me.
When your friend is ill, you naturally want to help, but often the way seems unclear. It doesn’t help that many of us are either first-time patients or just generally suck at asking for help in general (guilty as charged!)
Here, then, is the manual you can’t buy in the hospital gift shop…
Chapter 1: Timing
When a friend falls ill, especially suddenly (as happens with accidents), there is often a frequent and immediate outpouring of sentiments. It never hurts to reach out in the beginning to express condolences/sympathy/healing thoughts.
If you’re very close to the person who is sick, or happen to be one of the very first to know, a small act from you can go a very long way. When I shattered my kneecap, I was in the emergency room for about 3 hours. By the time I returned (to the home of my significant other at the time, since I could not be left alone), there were ALREADY flowers and a get-well balloon waiting for me. I wasn’t even off the morphine yet. Simple act, but very meaningful since it helped soften those first 12 hours.
When someone is hospitalized, in-hospital visits CAN be meaningful. But it’s valuable to contact someone close to the patient beforehand. Are they heavily medicated and sleeping? Are they self-conscious about their appearance? Visiting hours?
One of the most helpful types of visit? Arranging to trade places with the patient’s primary caretaker (like spouse or parents.) Those folks often need a break but feel guilty about leaving the patient alone. This way, the patient gets a new friendly face and the caretaker gets some needed “me” time.
But as someone who has been through this process before, some of the most meaningful outreach from friends or family comes in the SECOND week after the incident. During the first week, the patient may be so overwhelmed with response that they can’t fully process it. But without fail, things seem to taper off after Week #1. Things get quiet and you quickly feel forgotten. Which is sadly ironic since it’s usually the second week when pain increases (due to weaning off of the hard medications) and when you finally realize what you need from other folks.
So I tend to focus on the 2nd or 3rd week of recovery. I’ll try to reach out with a text or mail immediately following to make sure I’m not needed sooner, but then in Week 2 I’ll send a gift and reach out in more detail to take the edge off that slower, harder period of recovery.
Chapter 2 – Gifts
Deliveries in General
Again, check with the caretaker or the patient if you’re sending something, or at least let them know to expect a package. There’s nothing worse than being unprepared for company or unable to move when a package requiring signatures shows up. And I’ve had some friends ask if I received flowers which were apparently delivered to wrong addresses a week earlier. Which just made me feel guilty since I couldn’t thank them for the gesture I didn’t know about in time. No need to set up elaborate surprises or anything like that – better to make the delivery as painless as possible.
Honestly, I think pajamas are some of the BEST gifts you can give someone facing a long convalescence. (Robes for hospital stays, uncertain sizes or awkward casts.) If you’re recovering at home, chances are it’ll be weeks before you’re ready for constricting daily clothes. In the meantime, you’re stuck with whatever old pajamas you had, and most get worn out quickly from daily use. A gift of pajamas or other loungewear during a convalescence will almost certainly get used, and will bring immediate comfort.
If your friend will be living home alone for any part of their convalescence, there are a few things that may come in very handy.
From my own experience: After abdominal surgery, your mobility is extremely limited. It took me three weeks before I could start to bend over. Weeks 1-2 were fine since I had live-in help. But week 3? Drop a fork and it’s dead to me forever. Anything I couldn’t reach with a deep plié was unreachable. My boyfriend would come home to an apartment floor covered with the shrapnel of my day: scattered silverware, napkins, pencils and assorted detritus I couldn’t reach.
Some ideas to help recovering friends become more self-sufficient:
- Reacher Tool: A must-have for folks after abdominal surgery, but I also would have killed for it when recovering from knee surgery and the remote was across the room.
- Jar Pop: I love this thing and it’s never failed me. No more sad moments where I can’t open the pasta jar and have a sandwich instead.
- Safety Can Opener: No need to let the already injured hurt themselves on can tops. And helpful for those with limited arm strength or mobility.
Whether you do it yourself or just hire a housekeeper for a one-off cleaning… When you have to live in a place 24 hours a day, the creeping knowledge of living in your own filth can gnaw at you, especially when you’re in no shape to clean. A pre-emptive gift of a housekeeping service visit right before a convalescence could be especially meaningful.
A classic, and especially nice during hospital stays since hospitals are boring and smell like bleach. Unless you’re certain it’s their favorite type of flower, stay away from particularly aromatic flowers like stargazer lilies – some folks (myself included) are sensitive to those scents all the time, and even more folks become sensitive when on medication. Flowers that can be easily moved are also very welcome, as you may be moved between hospital wards and there’s always that drive home to consider.
I like to send cut orchids for long recoveries because they have a really long bloom cycle – some friends sent them for my own recovery from my laparotomy and they lasted nearly the whole 4 weeks. Remember to fill out the note so they know who sent them!
Other great ideas: Books, video games, Netflix online streaming subscriptions. Things to do while stuck in bed. Pampering bath products, especially if the patient can’t shower. There’s no glamour in four weeks in bed.
Chapter 3: Food
The way to the heart may be the stomach, but make sure the stomach’s not under attack first.
This works best if the patient designates someone to organize meal delivery dates. Most fridges can’t handle an inundation of casserole dishes. If offering to make meals, always keep in mind any dietary needs the patient has – not only everyday needs, but the needs of their recovery. Rich and/or spicy foods can be dangerous at first. Bite-sized food would work well if the patient can’t use one hand or arm.
For some reason, folks LOVE to get sick people candy. The thought is, of course, sweet and commendable. But the sad facts are that someone in the hospital is probably not allowed to eat candy yet (often diets are restricted). And someone who can’t get up and move around may not want to eat candy to avoid weight gain during their inactivity. And perishables are even riskier up front when the patient might be suffering from nausea until the food goes bad. When possible, I far prefer healthy snacks when recovering.
A big favorite of mine to send to folks when they are recovering are those Edible Bouquets. They get a weirdly bad rap, but fresh cut fruit is almost always hard to come by at that quality, and it tastes amazing when you’re recovering. They’re a bit on the pricey side but especially great if your company is ordering the gift for a sick coworker.
Another decent option is a gift basket – usually you can find one with a mix of candy and some more nutritious items. The best part about most gift baskets is that everything is individually packed, so there’s no rush to consume everything right away and the patient can go at their own pace.
Chapter 4: One on One
And then there’s the more emotional side of care – what do you say or do with a friend who is suffering? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. But for my part, a few notes on the subject.
First off, I prefer it when people do NOT try to wave the problem away with words. “Oh, you’ll be fine” – perhaps this sounds hopeful in your head, but to me it sounds like belittling the suffering. Personally I’d far rather hear “Wow, it sucks that you’re going through this. I’m sorry.” And then moving on, no more eggshells to walk on. But everyone is different, and some folks really need a more optimistic presence during recovery. If you’re worried about this, just ask.
When talking with a patient, DO share stories that may help demystify scary things, or that give hope for recovery. “I know that scar seems like it will never heal, but I tried a few things and mine faded pretty quickly” or “Here’s what to expect after you get back from the OR.”
DO NOT – EVER – talk about how much worse you had it or (god forbid) say anything like, “I wish **I** could get four weeks off from work”:
- It’s not about YOU.
- Being in pain is always worse than going to work.
- You’re liable to get hit with a crutch or other handy implement if you dismiss someone’s ordeal this way. I’m just saying.
Far more useful – and appreciated – is when friends try and help me forget what I’m going through by providing distractions and dealing with me like a normal person. Calling and telling me stories about what’s going on “out there”. Playing video games or board games with me. Help your friend feel connected to the life they lead outside their illness, and provide ways to distract them from the monotony of their situation.
Even when your friend is not hospitalized, your time can be one of the greatest gifts to give. In general, check before showing up – often someone recovering does not feel fit for public viewing without warning. But offering to take someone out on a walk, to a doctor’s appointment, or just to sit and visit for a bit can be a big highlight in otherwise tedious times.
And for those of you who end up as full-time caretakers: make sure you take care of YOURSELF, too. Find “me” time. If you’re having a rough time of it, talk about it with someone; ideally the patient (especially if you’re a couple – you’ll have to live together after this, too.) You can do more when you’re not bottling up frustrations because you feel like that’s the ‘right thing’ to do. You may also be in a better position to call on folks for help – even if the patient doesn’t want to ask at first, you know your limits. If you need help with meal prep or doctor’s appointments, put out the call. You BOTH want to be healthy on the other end of the recovery.
In the end, remember that there is no “right” answer. Your instinct to help and support your friends is the most important, most valuable thing. How you choose to pursue those instincts is up to you. These are just tips on how to make the most of that contribution. I know for my part, when I’m lucky enough not to be the one in the hospital bed, it can sometimes seem daunting – where to start? What will help? And when dealing with the whirlwind of emotions around illness the whole decision-making process becomes even tougher. Hopefully this little “guide” will jumpstart a brain or two and take some of the stress out of caring for someone who may not know how to ask for help and support.