A similar version of this post was originally published in July 2012.
One of your friends just landed themselves in the NICU. Let me guess. You want to help, but you have no idea what to say or what to do. Fear not, many of us who have been there have these suggestions to help!
1. Ask the family if they have a meal calendar set up, and if not, volunteer to get it started. While you’re at it, encourage folks to bring the meal in disposable dishes, along with a breakfast food for the family. That was always the toughest meal for me and my family to plan. It could be something as easy as a box of cereal and a gallon of milk. I have a few more helpful tips for bringing meals on my personal blog. And, if time is on your side, you might even go on a grocery run for the family or set up a grocery delivery for them.
2. Mow their lawn or shovel the snow, depending upon the season/region. One morning we left for the NICU, and when we arrived home our lawn was mowed and edged. We were floored. If you can’t do it yourself, consider hiring a friend or company to do it.
3. Don’t ask when the baby is coming home. Trust me, if they knew they’d be shouting it from the mountaintops. When the time comes, lend them the bullhorn so they can alert the tri-state area. Until then, zip it.
4. Setup a carpool/playdate schedule for the kids. Obviously, you need to ask permission first. But, lining up folks to bring kids to and from school or extracurricular activities can be a huge burden lifted. In our case, we had family at the house to help, but putting them on pickup/dropoff duty in a system they didn’t understand was too stressful for this momma. Instead, we opted to have families who knew “the drill” help us out.
5. If there’s a holiday coming up, consider decorating or doing an activity with the family. During our NICU stay, fall and Halloween passed us by, but with the help of sweet friends our kids still enjoyed the holidays. Friends bought pumpkins and helped the kids carve and decorate them. It was a wonderful activity and infused a much-needed bit of normalcy into our lives.
6. Put together a gift basket full of useful items and drop it off on their porch. Items to include: hand lotion, bottled water, gift cards to local restaurants/grocery stores, onesies that wrap rather than snap (easier with all those cords) and non-perishable snacks (granola bars, fruit snacks, etc.). Find more ideas for a NICU care basket here.
7. Don’t get offended when they don’t call or write back. Being a NICU parent is hard. As in Mt. Everest hard. Try to find ways to communicate with the family that allows them to respond when it’s convenient for them. Instead of calling, send a text message. Instead of dropping by, write an email. It’s often hard to balance it all, cut them some slack. Holding virtual space for someone is a huge gift.
8. Speaking of communication, ask if there’s a family spokesperson or if you can serve in that role. Sometimes the family has a blog or CareFlash page, but they often need someone to field all the inquiries of how to help. If you’re close enough to the family, consider volunteering in this capacity. Just make sure you’re a help, not a hindrance.
9. Take up a collection. If you feel so inclined, you might ask close friends and relatives to donate money. The family can hire a babysitter upon discharge, pay off medical bills or go out on a much-needed date.
10. Make them a prayer blanket, put them on a prayer list or decorate a card or posterboard to let them know they’re loved and cared for during those difficult days. Some cards we received were from folks we knew and others were sent anonymously. Each one touched us deeply and came at just the right moment.
BONUS: Call a local photographer and ask if they take NICU photos – many do, for free. Even though the stay is stressful, parents still want to document their preemie’s progress. There are also bereavement photographers who lovingly, and respectfully, take photos free of charge for families.
However you choose to support a family who finds themselves in the NICU, do every act with love. Trust me, your kindness will be a great blessing!