How to parent in the midst of catastrophic health issues

baby-37519_150This summer’s been a doozy. What once felt like a series of mini health crises has come to feel like the norm with appendicitis, stress fractures, depression, drug addiction, cancer and even death becoming a more common part of life.

Last summer, I started writing a post about how to parent when you feel distracted or distraught by a loved one’s suffering.

It’s a hard topic. So hard, that I never completed the post. I couldn’t bring myself to put a bow on it and send it to you. My thoughts never felt right or complete or enough.

Now, it’s back around as I’m dealing with my own health struggles. This week I had two areas of infiltrating basal cell carcinoma surgically removed from my face. With the surgery behind me and plenty of ice packs, I feel a sense of deep gratitude. My doctor described the tumors as nasty and aggressive and I’m lucky that they could be removed.

So I ask for myself and maybe you too – how do you parent when you’re struggling with your own or a dear one’s illness?

This is what I’ve gleaned talking with some of you and pondering the question these last 12 months:

    • Keep it simple. When your child’s needs feel draining of the little resources you have  serve macaroni and cheese or Cheerios and let them watch TV. It’s okay.
    • Prioritize. Allow what’s most important to rise to the top. Family, food, sleep, and exercise (if possible) make up my essential list.
    • Say no mostly and yes only if that YES will enhance your life. Time and energy are limited. Use yours wisely.
  • Reach out intentionallyAsk for help — as my friend Liz says, “you may need to get over yourself” to do this. Remember that close friends want to lend a hand, particularly when a bigger situation leaves them feeling helpless.

I “got over myself” this past week when my friend Carolyn came bearing flowers the day before my surgery. Having had a similar experience, Carolyn warned me that the hardest part for her had been after the procedure, when she had to remove and replace the bandages. I immediately asked if she would be willing to come over and help me do that. She said yes, and little did I know just how important it was to have her for moral and physical support. With 22 stitches across my hairline — and as the doctor put it, “too many to count” in my nose — I was weak and close to fainting. It took us an hour and a half to remove and replace all of the dressings that first time. I can’t imagine what it would have felt like to do this alone.

    • Stick with the facts. Depending on the age of your child, share relevant factual information, but only the surface story. They don’t need to know the details and certainly not your “what if” fears. While your fears may be in the realm of possibility, they’re not the facts.
    • Be childlike. As much as you can, allow your child’s aliveness and awe of life to touch you and lift you into the present.
    • Dare greatly by saying no to guilt. Instead, accept that you may be more foggy and distracted than you’d like to be with your kids. It’s okay. Don’t add parent guilt to the list of your full bucket of worries. In Daring Greatly Brené Brown writes, “To set down those lists of what we’re supposed to be is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly” (Page 110).
  • Lower your expectations. Finally, be realistic about how much your kids, depending on age, will be able to empathize with you or the situation. In my experience that’s NOT MUCH. They don’t get it, nor should they.

photo 1A few years ago, my brother’s best friend and brother in-law, Steve, died unexpectedly during a surgery. Because Steve was beloved by his community as a volunteer firefighter during the Eastern Long Island pine barren wildfires, acting as Chief of the fire department at the time of his death, founder of the junior volunteer firefighter training program and a village civil servant, the community put on a huge uniformed procession for the funeral. Being family and a close friend, my brother delivered the eulogy. In the midst of the long funeral procession through town, his 8 year-old son Aidan turned to him and asked in a tired voice, “when is this going to be over?” My brother was both heart-broken and relieved by the question. How could Aidan, who’d loved Uncle Steve deeply, be ready to move on? Be so oblivious to the gravity of the situation? Be so cold as to be DONE with Steve? At the same time – in Aidan’s question my brother heard hope and the possibility that life could go on – that tomorrow would eventually arrive and maybe it was sooner than my brother thought possible. In his son’s words were the innocence and gravity of the truth that we do go on, even when we lose the unloseable friend, even when we suffer unimaginable pain.

I’ve decided that it’s okay that I don’t have a bow on this one. Its a question that doesn’t have a neat answer.

Please chime in with your thoughts and questions in the comment section. How do you parent when you feel overwhelmed by your own or a loved ones health challenges or a death?

What advice would you add?

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8 Responses to How to parent in the midst of catastrophic health issues

  1. Vicki Dolan August 16, 2015 at 6:29 pm #


    Thank you so much for writing this…it was so heartfelt and certainly something to be shared. I love the beauty and innocence of young children….they are sad in the moment, yet remind us that life will go on through their happiness.(often while we are still grieving).

    I remember losing a very dear friend, mother of four children and looking over at my kids who were playing and laughing and I just wanted to shout…don’t you know my world has just turned upside down. Of course, they couldn’t understand the depth of my loss.

    When tragedy strikes I often wish I could just be like a little child again, remembering that life will go on and we will be happy again. Hugs to you and your family.

    • Lisa August 18, 2015 at 10:03 am #

      Vicki I completely agree… thank you for sharing your perspective.

  2. agathe et olivier August 16, 2015 at 9:24 pm #

    HI lisa,
    wow, I am sad to read all this. we are sending love your way, lots of! and, as usual, please know that your post really really meant a lot to me. It just helps me to put in perspective the times when I think my kids don’t have empathy enough for the efforts or worries we have as parents! Health is THE most important, take good care of yourself first. We’ll wait patiently for the next blogpsot, ok?

    • Lisa Fuller August 17, 2015 at 9:04 am #

      Agathe my heartfelt thanks for your support.
      For some reason, in this moment, it makes me smile and even laugh to think of your kids… all of our kids, being oblivious to our concerns. They really do have their own reality. That said, I’ve noticed the kids come around, in their own time with a statement or question that reveals they did hear or feel “it” in their own way. So interesting.

  3. Kerry Stevens August 17, 2015 at 7:42 am #

    Hi Lisa:

    This is such an inspiring and thought provoking e-mail. I am so sorry for what you are going through right now and admire your courage and ability to share your experience with others. Many of us in our late forties, early fifties are dealing with our own health issues and/or managing aging and, sadly, dying parents. Our kids never seem to really appreciate the emotional drain that we face as we try to keep up a sense of normalcy and consistency at home and at the same time manage the emotional and physical chaos that health crisis can bring.

    I remember caring for my mom who had a long-term battle with breast cancer that eventually ended when she was just 70. My kids were 4, 6 and 8 at the time of her death. For much of their childhood, I was faced with balancing their needs with needing and wanting to be a caregiver for my mom as well. As you said above – I don’t have a bow or a neat answer for this one either. My one piece of advice is to preserve the space you need, periodically, to be alone, to cry and to reach out to a friend who will be there to simply listen and let you expose your vulnerability, who won’t judge you or tell you that everything will be alright and not to worry – when what you really need is someone who knows that life can really suck sometimes. And that’s, well… just life.

    In the end – we do rebound. Our children are resilient (as are we all!) and have already forgotten that you had to excuse yourself for a short time. By just being children, they remind us that life goes on despite its challenges and that there is always joy to be found in something! Often the most simple of things.

    Lisa: I always enjoy reading your posts. And by the way, thanks for being that friend who often did listen to me cry while my mom was dying. xoxo

    • Lisa Fuller August 17, 2015 at 9:17 am #

      Thanks for your wise sharing Kerry.
      Thanks for providing the shoulder for me to cry on too.

  4. Kendra August 18, 2015 at 10:35 pm #

    Lisa- thank you for your post, for your honesty, bravery and for opening this window into
    your struggles and a space for others to join in and share. I’m so glad that you were able to find this early and that you have a rad friend that changed your bandages.

    I’ve noticed that my Kids have this special nurturing side to them, that pops up here & there,
    but now that they are 11, I had times where they’re noticing my needs & that when I take a break,
    and speak openly about why I need a break (to cry, rest, take a solo walk, etc.), that they
    Are very receptive and understanding. Let’s hope they’ll remember that they need breaks for themselves in times of crisis and to be the friend that changes bandages.

  5. Greg B August 21, 2015 at 7:58 pm #

    Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for sharing, I understand how challenging it is to put out there what one is going through…you are in my prayers.

    I am just getting back from another South Dakota. I can say that in dealing with the loss of my son and younger brother passing in a very short time frame was most challenging to be be a parent and husband. Reaching out to friends has been the best help I have found as they all are very supportive of the things I have had to work through in the grief process.

    It was very helpful to have those email friends that I would only see in person every 3-4 months, but could chat with every week…even when in South Dakota helping my family with our younger brother passing.

    One of the most difficult things for me was recognizing the frustration level and working to be kind to the kids as they went on with life so quickly.

    Wishing you a healthy and quick recovery!

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