As I write this, I’ve spent two of the last three weeks alternating shifts at the bedside of a family member in the ICU who suffered complications following a high-risk surgery. It’s been brutal for everyone, most of all the spouse of the patient. This couple met in their teens, and just celebrated 51 years of marriage. The patient narrowly averted death twice, and has a long road to recovery ahead. The spouse spends from 9 to 11 hours a day at her husband’s bedside.
The most precise and moving depiction of what it’s like to live in this isolated world without normal cues for day and night, with the constant uncertainty that any victory is temporary and at any moment you’ll be told your loved one is again on the verge of dying, was this piece written by Aleksandar Hemon in the New Yorker.
No other family members reside in the same state as this couple. Between a scheduled visit during and immediately after surgery and the subsequent unscheduled visit for nearly fatal complications, the wife has had someone from our family at her side in the hospital at all times. The family is small but close-knit, and we’ve made it a point to be on the ground as much as possible, with 3 different family units sending one or more members from another state or country to be present during this time.
That changed abruptly this afternoon when we caught a departing flight home to resume our normal lives. We are still orchestrating the next rotating panel of out-of-town family members to fly out and be present on the ground, but the logistics are difficult. Between jobs, kids, and the web of obligations that follow from life rooted in our home communities, it is hard to be available at all times.
The spouse has returned home nightly to between 14-20 voice mails as well as e-mails from friends, all sincere in their request to “Let me know if I can do anything at all.” Perhaps there is a generational component, but the spouse has demonstrated reluctance at asking these friends for explicit assistance with both mundane tasks and emotional support.
We found an option that seemed both acceptable to the spouse while keeping specific details of the patient’s condition out of the public eye. The spouse is informing friends that family has now left town, opening up time to take them up on the offers of support from close friends by breaking bread and sharing a meal together. This keeps well-wishers out of the patient’s ICU room, where they are not welcome; allows them to swing by to pick up the spouse for meals away from the hospital; does not assume they will pay for meals (although most will likely insist); and spares friends the high cost and hassle of hospital parking.
This got me thinking about how the general offers did not seem actionable to the patient’s spouse, and how perhaps more explicit offers of help might grant permission to accept the support that is being offered.
Without detracting in any way from the incredibly loving and genuine offers of assistance this old-school spouse has received, here are a few offers that might have made it easier to accept support:
1) Would you like me to sit with you in the hospital room or waiting area for a few hours to keep you company?
2) Could I pick you up from the hospital to take you out for a meal?
3) Could I bring you a picnic meal for us to enjoy together in a hospital courtyard (weather permitting)?
4) May I pick up some items for you during my next grocery store run?
5) Would you like me to notify the clergy at our spiritual center or otherwise arrange for a chaplain visit?
6) Could I come by to take you for a walk outside the hospital?
This is the best I could devise, semi-groggy after a week of poor sleep. I’d love any suggestions you may have of similar ways to offer specific support to folks who are reluctant to accept general offers.