The close friend of one of my kids has been sick. Very sick. We’re all worried and praying and hoping, but it’s all very up in the air and scary right now.  We’re doing everything we can to support the family, but I’m also worried about my child.  This is heavy stuff.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and talking about how to prepare him for his friend’s serious illness.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

Be honest.  Give an age-appropriate assessment of the situation. Don’t sugar-coat it. It doesn’t have to be scary, but you can let your child know that it is serious.  Kids KNOW when you are worried.  If you say one thing, but your actions say another, your child will be confused and worried.

Keep the lines of communication open. Your child may not have many questions at first.  Some things need to percolate. Start a conversation periodically and see if any questions come out. (Don’t forget to keep it simple and age-appropriate.)

Keep the relationship going. If the sick child is up for visitors, visit! Keep it short. Have something for them to do. 13-year old boys aren’t really known for their heart-to-heart conversation skills, but they do grunt at each other while playing video games, so bring one. For younger children, try play-doh, bubbles, books, a puzzle. If the visit is in a hospital, prepare your child for what he will see. (In this case, my son’s friend has lost a lot of weight, has an IV in his neck, drains and a catheter. I explained it all head of time so he wasn’t alarmed and didn’t feel the need to stare.) If the sick child is not up for visitors, try Skype.  Or send notes, pictures, even a video recorded on your webcam and emailed to the parents. It helps both your child and the sick child to be able to communicate with each other.

Let your child help YOU help the family. Making and delivering dinner, picking up school supplies, bringing home books and papers. Sometimes all we can do is drop off a casserole, no matter how much more we WISH we could do. Have your child be a part of the support team.

Have a symbolic way for your child to wish for better health for his friend. If you are religious, of course, pray! Light a candle, at home or at church. Plan or attend a prayer service. Launch a balloon, plant a flower, hang up a picture of the friend to keep him close in your family’s thoughts.  Acknowledge the heavy and scary part of the situation. And then create a means for your child to appeal to God, or nature or a higher power, or whatever fits your family’s tradition. Some things are too big for us to carry on our own. It’s ok for kids to learn that.

We’re still working our way through this in our house.  I’m sure I have more to learn about how to handle this. I remember being in a similar situation when I was 14 and being utterly lost at knowing how to support my friend and handle my own emotions.  I hope that I can guide my son through this tough time and teach him to be part of a strong support system for his friends.