In February of 2007, I was working full time, taking care of a toddler and newly pregnant with my second child. Life was busy and full and wonderful, and then a bomb was dropped on our family: My father was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer that had already spread to other organs.
In case that wasn’t tough enough to deal with, my dad and I lived 1200 miles apart; he near Orlando and me an entire country away in Toronto. Although my first instinct, and that of my siblings, was to drop everything and fly down to him, my game plan beyond that initial visit was difficult to theorize. The reality was that I couldn’t move to Florida to be with him for the duration, no matter how much I wanted to. I had to think of ways I could support my father, and those taking care of him, from where I was.
My dad passed away seven months later, but in the years since, I’ve spent time reflecting on those months and the role I played in caring for him the best ways I could. And, as life will have it, there have been other opportunities for me to find ways to support struggling loved ones who were closer to my heart than they were to my home.
It’s easy to feel helpless when someone we love is sick, and even more so when we are unable to drop everything and run to be with that person. But there are ways we can still support, from afar, the people we love when they need it the most.
1. Send food.
You can’t pop by with a casserole or oversee a specialized diet, but you can still help feed your loved one. Send gift cards from local restaurants with take-out options, arrange food delivery from nearby caterers, and research grocery distribution services that can bring necessities (that you have paid for) once, intermittently or regularly. Grocery shopping can difficult for someone in crisis, but it’s a load you can easily help lighten.
2. Be organized.
When your loved one tells you about appointments or procedures, mark them down. This will prompt you in conversations with your loved one (“Hey Dad, how did it go with the nurse today? Do you want me to arrange a taxi for your appointment with Dr. Williams next week?”), and reduce the need to exhaust your loved one with repeated questions about their schedule — which, for a patient, can be quite full.
3. Check in with primary caregivers.
The people taking care of your loved one when you can’t be are crucial allies. Be sure to check in with them about how they are doing and how they are coping. If you can do anything to make their lives easier as primary caregivers, do it. That means ensuring those food deliveries include enough to sustain them as well, lending an ear when they ask for it and hard as it may sometimes be, resisting the temptation to direct, criticize, or otherwise advise on their action plan. As long as your loved one is getting what they need, keep in mind that the burden of physical care is being shouldered by someone else. Offer them the gratitude they deserve.
4. Take care of yourself.
No matter how scared, worried or concerned you are about your loved one, it won’t help anybody if you are so upset that you’re unable to function. Don’t neglect your diet, sleep or exercise, and if you need to talk to someone professional about finding coping methods to get you through, do it. The circumstances around being ill are always in flux, and you need to be strong enough to handle them.
5. Be sensitive to changes.
Being sick is complicated, and changes can occur quickly. Your loved one is dealing with upheaval in their physical, emotional, social and spiritual world and their outlook may be different every day, depending on an infinite number of factors. Be sensitive to these changes, and alter your course of care if you have to. Don’t take anything personally, and keep in mind that it is your job to try to make them feel more comfortable — not the other way around.
6. Be a welcome distraction.
Illness can be all-consuming, so when you do call, Facetime or email your loved one, talk about more than just their condition. Your loved one does not need the added stress of thinking about your worry or sadness, so let them know you are ok. Talk to them about the things you always have: about movies or books; about life and plans and whatever takes their mind off of things if even for a few minutes. Laughter really can be the best medicine.
This story was written by Karen Green.