The only advice I can ever give you is from my very own experience, and really, that's the best kind. I wish sometimes that I didn't hold this wealth of knowledge from this hard road, but it has proven to be a treasure when I consider how much I have learned about how I should treat others. It's the hard I would rather do without.
Over the past five years we have had both good and bad experiences with people. I've found that people fall into one of six groups. I made these up, this isn't technical.
Group One: (One and Done)
Some people swoop in to help, they DO help and then they're done. They write you a check, bring you a meal, send some flowers and then you never hear from them again. Sometimes that's all they can do, aside from pray, and sometimes they've checked you off their obligatory list of things to do. They are definitely a blessing. Intentions vary by person.
In our experience, we have most often been ministered to through this group. Though they may only come into our lives once, their one time provided something at a time when we needed it. Over the last few years this group of people have provided everything from meals, tickets for special events, hotel accommodations, prizes and more. This village has come together to make the bigger picture happen for us, some have been friends or family and others complete strangers.
Group Two: (Ball Droppers)
Some arrange to help, but don't follow through for whatever reason. Sometimes they never intended to follow through to begin with, sometimes they fail to organize their time, and sometimes an emergency may arise on their end. This group of people tend to place a burden or add stress to the family instead of helping them.
We have had large prizes promised to our Riley (directly to him) which never surfaced. Occasionally, we have been offered financial assistance for one need or another (fuel, meals, co-pay) that has never come. On several occasions someone has scheduled to bring in a meal to us, but didn't follow through leaving us waiting at dinner time for a meal to arrive, and it didn't. Once I even had someone call me just a few minutes before dinner would have been delivered to say that she had decided earlier in the day that we probably didn't need a meal, so she wasn't going to be bringing one. We needed it. I can honestly say in my experience, not only have these things been inconvenient, they really hurt my heart during a time that I needed to be ministered to.
Group Three: (Amazing Helpers)
Some come alongside quietly. They're always there, but not in the way. They are the person you know you can call, and you will. They don't help you to gain attention or for anything in return. Their presence is valued; they are a true blessing. This is the person that is there when you find yourself leaving suddenly for the hospital and need to leave some children behind, or you have a death in the family. They are a blessing on an ongoing basis and you find yourself thinking how you would be a mess without them.
We are fortunate to have two of these people in our lives. Always helpful, always willing. We try not to call on them as much as we did a few years ago, but we know if we need to that we can.
Group Four: (Dominators)
Some come in and take over. They orchestrate things you never could, but quickly begin making decisions for you. Families in crisis are often very vulnerable to this group because they are easy prey. While the dominator may do good and helpful things, their presence can become overwhelming very quickly and even begin to interfere with the family's ability to have privacy and make decisions as needed. This is one of the hardest groups of people because it generally tends to be a family member or close friend and hard feelings can be an end result.
We had a dominator early in our journey. This was one of the most difficult relationships for me personally. So many things were accomplished during this time that we could not do on our own. We are so appreciative over them. Eventually, boundaries were over stepped and we had to draw some clear lines. Unfortunately, it also put a damper on a friendship that we really valued.
Group Five: (Vultures)
There is also a last group of people who try to take advantage of families in crisis. They are just plain ugly.
In this category we have fallen victim (several times) to fundraisers being held for Riley (sometimes even without our knowledge) and we never received a cent from them. We also have someone ask us for money on an occasion when they were aware we had been given a large sum for his surgery. This happens SO often.
Group Six: (Prayer Partners)
This is my favorite. These are the people who pray for you faithfully. While they may occasionally send a card, bring you some brownies, etc... their primary ministry is to pray for your family. They ask how things are going when others have forgotten. They ask for prayer needs. I love them. This brings great comfort and is truly an invaluable ministry.
Our church is filled with these sweet people, but in addition to them we have a group of friends and family who faithfully pray for Riley.
It's important to realize that when someone enters a season of crisis, there is no time limit on a crisis. We have currently been in "crisis" for five years, but as I mentioned before we've entered the roller coaster stage. There are many other families like us whose children have lifelong illness, some far more serious than Riley. Sometimes the end result is death which onsets a new state of crisis- grief. These are such difficult times for families and I pray that you will find your place in ministry to let them know that you care. Many times families find or turn from God during times of crisis. It is our job to point them to Him, over and over again.
So, how do you minister? What do you do?
Well, even though I may be sassy, I'm not the boss of you. First, I suggest you pray for the family and ask God to direct you. Be still and listen, He will tell you what needs to be done. Ask the family what their needs are. Often times, they are not going to tell you. Look for clues. Is the grass in the yard high? Do the children need haircuts? Did the cart look slim when you passed them in the grocery store? Maybe Mom looks like she could use a nap?
I highly suggest asking the family to make a list of their needs. A list has been an invaluable tool for me. I make a list of what we need a few weeks before Riley's medical appointment. Sometimes I may even include a few wishes like a trip to a museum, or a special meal out. Then I pray over my list and ask God to provide what He sees fit, through the means that He has. After I make the list I check around our home for anything we may already have. I don't flash my list around, but if someone wants to know what we need, i offer them a glance at my list. I have handed my list over to friends, emailed the list and had times when no one saw the list at all. As an example, this is one of the very first lists I made:
1. Fuel $100
2. Co-Pay $200
3. Roll of Quarters (for hospital vending machines)
4. Travel sized shampoo, soap, etc...
5. DVD's for Riley
6. Lego Set
7. Lunch Meal
8. Magazines for me and Barry
10. Blanket for Riley
I prayed over this a week before his surgery. That very night I was specifically asked if I had a list of what we needed. I pulled out the list. I didn't have a single thing before I prayed over it. By the time we left for this surgery we had cash and gift cards in hand for meals and fuel, prizes for Riley's prize bag, snacks, magazines and borrowed DVD's. We brought a blanket from home for the car ride. Every single thing on the list had been covered. We even had someone bring us dinner the night we returned home and someone let Jordan hang out with them while we were away.
Having a list help me sort through what I needed. I was prepared to respond when someone asked how they could help. My list displayed a wide array of things people could help with from loaning us movies, baking us some goodies or providing financial assistance. It also allowed me to show an act of faith. By writing things down I was able to say "God, I can't do all of this, but you can." Sometimes, not all of the things on the list get covered. That's okay. We always have everything we need. Riley's next visit is in six weeks. I've already prepared my next list, including a wish. I include a wish on his list every time, but he doesn't actually receive a wish every time. That's okay too. I have tucked the list away and if anyone asks, it's ready.
After you have prayed, talked to the family and assessed the needs, then it's time to act.
Maybe you don't have a wealth of financial resources but you do have the ability to pray and send a note. Riley has received many cards over the past few years with a little handwritten note that said he was loved and being prayed for. He loved them all. It's exciting as a kid to receive mail. It's exciting as a Mama for my child (or me) to open something happy in the midst of all of the hard stuff.
Bake something yummy. We have a friend who is known for her sausage rolls. When everyone else is sending dinner food, she's the girl that whips up some sausage rolls and a few muffins and sends breakfast. She delivers the night before and sometimes the sausage rolls make it to morning. :) Meals of any kind are always appreciated. The important thing is to remember that if you make a promise, you follow through. I've often had a nudge in the mornings to make a double batch of spaghetti or soup to share with someone. When the Lord nudges you, there is generally a need. Call your friends and let them know you're going to bring something over and ask if there are any dietary restrictions or allergies. Don't always feel like you have to take a full meal. You can coordinate several friends to make a meal with you, or just take in special treat like a dessert, fresh bread, garden produce, a fruit basket, a casserole or a salad. Deliver it with a hand written note of encouragement and pray over that family as you prepare your dish.
At a different time in our lives we were the new parents of a preemie baby. We lived about 30 minutes away from the hospital and since I was breast feeding, I wasn't able to leave the hospital. Our circumstances then were very odd, but we were without family during the few weeks he was in the hospital. We were stretched for cash and very few people dropped in to visit us because the baby could not be visited. During that time, someone blessed us with a very large meat tray. Because we were so far from home and already in for the evening, we were unable to take the tray home. The room the hospital granted us for his stay was without a refrigerator and we had no choice but to give the tray away. We took a small amount for ourselves, enough for dinner, and then took the remainder of the tray to our sweet nurses who were caring for our little one. By the time the tray had arrived to us it was time for it to be returned to the refrigerator, but we did not have one available to us. It was a very thoughtful, and costly, gift, but we were not able to reap the benefits of it due to our circumstances. I say all of that to say this: make sure what you give or prepare is appropriate to their circumstances.
Do something for the child (or children). A gift, card or treat for a child is always a fun thing. Children in crisis sometimes get overloaded with gifts (we did at first, but now his treats come sporadically). Consider giving gifts like movie tickets, gift cards for a fun stop to shop, a special blanket or new pajamas. Think about other children in the family who may be feeling left out.
Provide financial assistance when needed. Gift cards have been a huge blessing to us during this time. Cash is often used for fuel, co-pays and on-going medical bills. We average 10 medical bills per month just for Riley. Co-pays are an additional cost for us. Having gift cards allows us to specifically say "this is a meal" or "this is an activity." At one point we were given money for something fun, and while we very much needed a "fun" moment, I was pulled in my thinking between medical bills and "fun." We chose the fun thing because that was what it was designated for. If you want to give someone money for something fun place it in an envelope and write FUN on the outside. It helps the Mama (or Dad) in making that decision. Remember, some children are not able to physically go places that are full of germs. A money donation for fun may mean a new toy for them. That's okay.
Time. Your time can be invaluable to someone. Offer to babysit, sit with an elderly parent, or run errands for someone. You may want to offer to take the kids for haircuts for a single mom, or scoop up her kids for an afternoon at the movies or the park. Clean the home, or just a few rooms of a cancer patient or friend in crisis. Help do laundry for someone. Maybe you could mow the lawn or do some minor repairs. Think about changing light bulbs or dusting fixtures for the elderly or physically handicapped.
When my grandparents died there was a little old lady that would pop into the front door and disappear into the kitchen and then the bathroom. Next thing I knew, she was headed out the door. A few hours later she was back. After a few rounds of this I asked who she was only to learn she was a friend from church. Her ministry is to straighten up the kitchen and restroom while the family receives friends in the home after a death. She comes in, wipes down surfaces, cleans the toilet and leaves fresh linens. She runs home, washes the dirty batch of linens and is back for the next round after the next meal in line. She does this several times a day for several days and sometimes at several homes at the same time. It never even crossed my mind that the bathroom was clean, but I certainly would have noticed if it had been dirty. She was quiet, and intentional. Even though many people never really thought about her ministry, it was of great help during a difficult time. Sometimes cleaning can become overwhelming in the midst of a crisis. People in crisis are often in a fog.
There are many other things that could be done. I'd love for you to share your experiences of some things that were helpful, and maybe even some things that were not helpful. Our ministry to others should always lessen their burden, encourage them, bless them and point them to Christ.
What are you doing to serve?
God is good, all the time!