How to Help When a Friend has a Loved One In Hospice Care

As some of you know, I recently lost my father in law after a long battle with cancer. His last week or so was spent in a beautiful hospice facility and we are so grateful for the care he received and the kindness and support of family and friends we were shown during that time.  Now that it's been a couple of weeks, I've had some time to process the whole thing and I've had some thoughts about ways that I could support a friend should they find themselves in this position.

I need to be clear that I never once felt abandoned by my friends or extended family. I was not sitting in the hospital or hospice wishing that someone would do the things I'm writing about, they are just things I wanted to make note of in order to make this process a bit easier on someone else going through it, because the truth is when you are in the middle of a crisis like this and someone asks "What can I do?" you often have no idea what to say. Looking back I actually did need things done, I needed a few things from the store, I could have used help with errands and household chores but when someone asked me if I needed anything, all I could think was that I wanted a miracle. I wanted dad to wake up. I wanted him to share a meal with us again. Have a laugh. See his blue eyes smile when he saw me walk into the room. That's what I wanted. My mind was so clouded with grief and sadness that I wasn't thinking of groceries, paying bills, or laundry. So I've gathered some ideas here to keep in mind if you have a friend spending long hours at the bedside of a sick loved one. If you have more ideas, please share them in the comments!

Texts or calls from friends and extended family helped so much. Just knowing that others were praying for us and sending us good vibes made us feel cared about and loved. Don't be upset if texts or calls are not returned. Often, things were super quiet and calm in hospice and I didn't want to shatter that peace. I was often physically and emotionally drained and couldn't imagine carrying on a conversation, but sometimes I really did want to talk and just get it out. Just know that even a quick message or text saying "thinking of you" could be the boost a friend needs to make it a little while longer. As for actual visits, just ask. There were times I would have loved a friend to visit, other times not so much. One thing for sure, I would recommend not just showing up. Things can vary from hour to hour. At times my father in law was sleeping so peacefully and at other times he was actually moaning in pain. Sometimes visitors were a welcome distraction, other times well-meaning visitors felt like an intrusion. Our sleeping patterns were all thrown off too, so we sometimes would doze off in the middle of the afternoon or right around dinnertime. It's a weird, emotional time for everyone. Just ask and don't take anything personally if a friend would rather not have a visitor.

We were lucky that the hospice center was near some fabulous restaurants, both quick and full service. We could quite literally run across the street and get a meal to bring back. There were a few times when the nurses would urge us to actually leave and go sit down to a nice meal. It was hard to do that, but we did a couple of times. When you are spending so much time at a hospice, meals become a real source of comfort and normalcy. We would bring back meals to eat with my mother in law and the three of us would sit at the table together in dad's room and have dinner together. Sometimes we would eat in the family room of the hospice, but the simple act of sitting at a table and sharing a meal as we have done so many times in the past definitely felt comforting but it also got to be quite expensive. Eating out or grabbing a quick bite three times a day plus coffee runs adds up. Find out where the hospice is and use a delivery service like Postmates, Uber Eats, or Delivery Dudes to send over a meal. Just text your friend and say "I'm sending dinner, would you guys rather have burgers, pizza, or Italian?" Then make an executive decision. Order some dishes that most people would probably enjoy and send it to them. Most of the time, your friends are not going to enjoy a meal with their usual love of food but they will be so grateful for your thoughtfulness that they will be happy with whatever you send. You could always be more specific and say "I'm sending dinner from Carrabbas, how does chicken parm sound? Would you rather have some spaghetti and meatballs? maybe a salad?" If you know several friends want to help, check out Meal Train.  Friends and family can sign up for particular days so you know your friend will have meals on a regular basis.

Looking back, I can think of a few things that would have provided a sense of comfort had they shown up in a gift bag or special delivery. 

• Fuzzy Socks - We would often slip off our shoes and try to get comfy on the couch or recliner. Standing up quickly to check on dad or making a quick trip to the bathroom or nurses station would have been a lot faster and more comfortable if I was wearing a nice pair of socks, maybe even the kind with little rubber strips on the bottom. Every night when we left, I would say "tomorrow I'm bringing socks" and of course, every day I forgot. If a friend showed up with a pair of comfy fuzzy socks, I probably would have cried. Well, I was kind of always crying, but still...

• Essential Oils - I'm not a huge believer that essential oils actually heal an illness, but I do enjoy their scent. If you've spent time in a hospital or hospice, there is a very distinct smell that permeates the air. It's not altogether appropriate to take out a can of room spray or perfume, but a dab of an essential oil on a pillow or even my wrist would have brought a sense of home and calm. I love the Now brand that you can get at Whole Foods. Amazon has them too, Jasmine is my favorite because it smells more like gardenia. Lavender, peppermint, and vanilla are also good choices. I actually have lavender in a roller-ball that I use for migraines, which would have been nice to throw in my purse.

• Eye Mask - a satin eye mask to keep out the light is a great idea. Trying to rest in a room with florescent lighting is not easy. An eye mask would have really helped. A cooling eye mask like this one would really be great to help soothe eyes that are swollen from crying. Throw some Visine in there for good measure.

• Cozy Blanket or Wrap - The hospice would give us as many blankets at we needed, but they were heavy and scratchy. I remember wrapping one around my mother in laws shoulders wishing it was softer, but of course I never remembered to grab a better one from home. A wrap like this would be a great choice because you can leave it wrapped around you when walking through other parts of the hospice.

• Hygiene Essentials - There were days we would be at the hospice from 7AM to midnight. I'm not ashamed to say that I would often just plop down in bed without showering. In the morning, we just wanted to get back there, so I didn't want to take time to shower or do my hair. Long days in the hospice mean you may want to remove your make up at some point or just freshen up. Some helpful product ideas: dry shampoo, deodorant, small hairspray, make up remover wipes, hand lotion, lip balm, travel size toothpaste, toothbrush, gum, mints, waterproof mascara, clear nail polish, emery board, tweezers. Something a little luxe, like a hydrating facial spray would have been nice too. 

• Electronic Devices - If you know the kind of phone your friend has, consider a portable charger or earbuds. I have both of those things, but sometimes I would forget to bring them with me or leave them in a different bag. Sometimes my husband or mother in law would need them. I would have loved to have an extra set to keep in the car or leave at the hospice so I always had a spare. 

• Snacks - Seems like a no-brainer, but a nice mix of salty and sweet treats would be welcomed by most people. Individually wrapped crackers or cookies or small bags of chips might be best. Fruit, nuts, chocolates...the usual yummies would be lovely to have in the room. Even if your friend is not a "snacker" it's nice to have something to offer other visitors. One day my sister brought 2 dozen donuts, a huge box of munchkins, some croissants, and coffee cake from the bakery where she works. We left most of it in the kitchen and wrote "Enjoy! Love, The Boehm Family" and they were enjoyed by just about everyone including nurses, cleaning staff, and other families. They were completely gone by the next morning. I loved the feeling that we were able to give other people a little treat in the midst of their sadness or their long work day (or night!). 

Navigating through our hospital to hospice journey and all that that entails left little time for our real life. I was so blessed by my friend who teaches in the adjoining classroom. She told me no to worry about sub plans or my classroom. She offered to help my sub and make copies, etc. Not having to worry about my class was such a relief. I had a couple of other friends at school offer to help too. If you can step in and take that worry off of a friend's plate, you'll be helping them more than you can imagine.

If you feel close enough to your friend, offer to do some laundry for them. We were desperate for clean socks and undies and staying home to do laundry felt like such a waste of time. We would try to throw in a load of necessities when we got home late at night and hope to stay awake long enough to dry them. Laundry can be a little "intimate" if you don't know the person well, so maybe offer to take a load of essentials to a laundry service. Most cleaners and laundromats offer regular laundry service. Tell your friend to leave a laundry bag on their porch or in their garage and you can pick it up, drop it off at the cleaners and return fresh clean laundry. 

Help with the house chores. Your friend may feel strange having you clean their house. If that's the case, tell them you're sending over a cleaning service. I would have loved this more than I can say. Many times people like to receive visitors at their home after a loved one passes and the thought of trying to get it cleaned up after weeks of neglect while you are grieving and planning a funeral is beyond overwhelming. 

Offer to do the running around. The whole time we were at hospice, my mother in law's favorite watch needed a battery and she had some things in the dry cleaner that she was worried about. It would have been a huge relief to her if someone offered to take care of those things. You might think, who the heck would be worried about those things during that time? Trust me, I thought the same. But the mind works in mysterious ways. I think it reaches our for normalcy in times of crisis. Maybe focusing on those un-done tasks is a way to keep yourself from being completely swallowed in grief.

Another great way to help is to get some food in the house. There we times we just needed coffee, or cream, cereal - some staples to keep us going. Going to the store to pick up those things felt monumental. Offer to pick up groceries or use a delivery service like InstaCart to send basic groceries to their house. Just be sure to schedule the delivery for when you know they'll be home.

We all know it's not what you say, it's how you say it. I alluded to this earlier, but be direct and specific when offering your help. Instead of saying "I'm here if you need anything", say "Can I send my landscaper over this week?" or "When's a good time to have groceries delivered?".  If someone asked me "When can we send a cleaning service to handle some chores for you?" I would have definitely picked a day! But there's no way I would have answered "How can I help?" with "Hey, can you clean my house?". When you are direct and specific, the person you are helping knows that you are comfortable with the offer. If you offer to do laundry or have it done, your friend will know that you are ok with the time that would take and the financial commitment you are offering.

Just one friend making a kind gesture like this can make all the difference for a friend who is going through one of the hardest things you can imagine. Putting these ideas out there and possibly making this time a little easier for someone makes me feel like maybe a tiny little drop of goodness can come from our great loss.

Until next time, my friends, be kind to each other. 

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