What to say to parents of sick children

Atheist families often have unique needs when it comes to healthcare.  Case in point: How to help children deal with illness.

DK Seattle asked me to comment on what to say to a mom whose an atheist when her child is sick & born that way? When someone’s child is born with genetic illness andthey are an atheist,  they at times don’t want to hear I am going to pray about this.

My son has genetic problems and health issues that he was born with. They weren’t too severe, but we have heard – I’ll pray for you quite a bit.  I always try to translate that statement into something secular, like – this person cares about me and my child. They can’t really help, so they are expressing sympathy and hope in the language they are most familiar with.

The problem with that is that the receiving parent or child may not be emotionally able to translate and it sometimes is very hurtful.  Unintentionally so, but still. Parents with sick children need support. And we should all be striving to support families in the way they need to be supported.

So what can you say instead?  A simple, “I’m so sorry that you and your family and your child have to deal with this. What do the doctors and scientists say about the prognosis for your child’s condition?”   Add in a, “Is there anything I can help you with” for good measure and you will have just expressed your sympathy and concern in a way that is consistent with the beliefs and values of the family involved.

Let’s take the 3 sentences of this statement in turn to understand why a non-religious/atheist/humanist family will appreciate this more than “I’ll pray for you.”

 “I’m sorry you and your family and your child have to deal with this.” 

 If a child has a genetic condition, it isn’t something that can be wished away. It must be dealt with. It’s not a choice. Praying isn’t going to change the reality this child and their family faces. The condition is still going to be there. Acknowledging that reality is helpful. It expresses sympathy in a way that tells the family – you get it. What is happening is difficult and hard and it would be nice if they didn’t have to deal with it but they do.

“What do the doctors and scientists say about the prognosis for your child’s condition?”

A child with a genetic condition or illness is going to be helped by doctors and scientists.  And again, acknowledging the real work that is being done and will be done to help the child, helps.  Every parent has fears. They are bombarded with conflicting information about how to best help their child. Even skeptic parents have to sort through all the information and misinformation that is out there. A comment about the importance of the child’s professional care team and the scientists who have studied the condition so that the care team can provide the best care for the child is absolutely welcome. It grounds the statement of support in reality and focuses on the very real concerns the parent has. “I’ll pray for you” does none of that and makes it seem like you aren’t interested in or concerned in what the child and family will be going through to care for the child. Parents with sick children sometimes need to vent. This question allows them to vent if they need to and helps them sort through their concerns about the care at the same time.  The final thing this does is it expresses hope that the child can be helped.  I’ll pray for you is hope they can get better, but also an admission that they probably can’t be helped. It can be a very demoralizing thing to say to an atheist parent.

Is there anything I can help you with?

Depending on the nature of the illness, the parents may have to spend a LOT of time at the hospital with their sick child. Helping with food, or house cleaning or errands or babysitting the other children, other practical things will the parents of the sick child keep their lives together while they help their sick child. And if they don’t need help they will still appreciate the offer. Telling someone you are going to pray for them is a way of saying, I’m concerned, but I’m not actually willing to give my time to help you. It’s nice to know people care, but it’s nicer to know you have a support network to pick up your slack if you need it.

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