Personas, Casseroles, and Prayer

Contributing Writer: Deric Milligan, Inheritance of Hope Co-Founder & CEO

I have lived through the sobering reality of terminal illness. My wife Kristen battled cancer for 10 years before surrendering to it in 2012. Our family was tremendously blessed with a community who cared deeply for us as we suffered through some very difficult times. 

While there were countless showings of selfless love that buoyed our spirits, there were also some gaps and misunderstandings about what we needed. Sitting in this situation, I started to understand that if you hadn’t experienced it, you may not get it. I’d like to give you a cheat sheet on what suffering families are really thinking and needing from you. 
6 Misconceptions About Suffering Families
1) Suffering families want to be left alone
Suffering families don’t want to be left alone any more than they did before the crisis. Even families who kept to themselves are likely to be more open than ever to you reaching out because they need help and encouragement. Part of what makes Inheritance of Hope so unique in the lives of families we serve is very simply that we show up. They are not accustomed to people coming alongside them through the difficulties they face. As Woody Allen once said, 80 percent of success is showing up. And that’s true.
Galatians 6:2 (ESV) “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
2) Suffering families expect you to get it perfect
Kevin DeYoung, in “Just Do Something”, writes about how Christians can become paralyzed searching for the will of God. An obituary he cites in the book reads as follows:
I think we often get caught up in fear or worry and it prevents us from reaching out to others, perhaps suffering families most of all. We do not have to say the perfect words or do the perfect thing when it comes to relating to suffering families. Just do something, and let the Holy Spirit lead you. A suffering family will see your heart even if you butcher the words and actions.

DeYoung boils following the will of God to this:

Live for God. Obey the scriptures. Think of others before yourself. Be holy. Love Jesus. And as you do these things, do whatever else you like, with whomever you like, wherever you like, and you’ll be walking in the will of God.

3) Suffering families need you to be manically upbeat or grimly depressed
Be yourself. Don’t manufacture an unfamiliar persona because you think it’s appropriate. Even in the darkest of times, Kristen and I were able to find humor. In fact, we often joked about things that outsiders would not have understood. Suffering families don’t have to be stuck solely in darkness, and they also don’t need you to be uncharacteristically upbeat to offset their sadness.

Romans 12:15 (NIV) “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Be savvy enough to recognize that those who mourn can also rejoice and those who rejoice can also mourn. Let the Holy Spirit guide you here.”

4) Suffering families want more lasagna and casseroles
Getting meals has been a tremendous blessing to me and my family over the years. However, bringing food isn’t the only way you can help. There are many other ways to serve a family as the hands and feet of Christ.
Here are a few examples:
  • Do the laundry
  • Mow the grass
  • Pick up children
  • Watch children so parents can have a date, even if it’s in their home
  • Stay with a sick parent so the caregiver can get out and have a break
  • Become a personal assistant to help manage schedules, return calls, write cards
5) Suffering families are prepared to tell you how you can help
Too many people make the mistake of asking how they can help and assuming a family is ready to answer that question. They’re not! They are so overwhelmed that they can’t even think about what needs to be done or what might be helpful. If, by some remarkable chance they do know what might be helpful, most of us are going to feel like we’re burdening someone to ask for help.

Here’s my recommendation:
Make a suggestion for what you plan to do and confirm that it would indeed be helpful. For example, “I’d like to do your laundry tomorrow. Can I come by and pick it up at 10?”
6) A suffering family doesn’t need help after the immediate crisis ends

Too often, others assume only the sick person needs help. As we work with families at Inheritance of Hope, we commonly hear that people will rally for the immediate crisis, diagnosis, funeral, etc. but disappear when a different sort of suffering is just beginning. Be mindful to continue to be present when others are going to disappear.

Above all, pray for suffering families. While I hope these practical tips help break down common misconceptions that might hold you back, the absolute best thing you can do in addition to these suggestions, or even instead of them, is to pray. I cannot tell you how powerful it is to have someone tell you they’re praying for you. After all, what better way can we relate to someone than through the lens of the Creator who made each of us?