If you are eagerly looking for ways to support a friend who has a child with special needs, chances are very good that you are already doing an amazing job. Caring and acting in love is the foundation of an awesome friendship.
If you're seeking ideas to heal a broken or strained relationship through increased understanding, bravo to you. Loving harder, when there's hurt on both sides, isn't easy. But great friends are worth it.
Here are 7 things that have the power to completely brighten your friend's day, or start moving a relationship back to solid ground:
Coffee, in any form: I think Gary Chapman - author of the famous book The 5 Love Languages - may have missed the sixth love language... Coffee. Making someone coffee. Bringing someone coffee. Inviting someone for coffee. Coffee in any way, shape or form. There's something magical about that amazing beverage and the comfort and connection it brings. The gesture, be it an invitation or delivery, says, "You are meaningful to me, and I want to spend time with you, even if but for a few minutes." Moms of kids with special needs have personal needs too. Of course they do, we all do! One of those needs is to feel like the special one, now and then. The gift of coffee delivers that feeling in a small but beautiful way.
Bring dinner: Moms of kids with special needs are proud bunch. We don't want charity or pity. But... when our child is sick, or hospitalized, or recovering from a procedure, you better believe we are struggling to keep things afloat. Getting dinner on the table on most days is hard, but on these extra stressful days, dinner feels like not just an inconvenience, but a heavy burden. If you offer to bring a meal (and thank you if you do!), a good rule of thumb is to reach out with specifics. Basically, act like dinner is coming, no matter what: "I would love to bring you dinner tonight. What are you in the mood for, and when can I drop it off?" If she doesn't respond, don't get discouraged. Text, "Is pizza at 6 p.m. cool?" This makes it hard for your friend to say, "Oh, that's ok. I'm good." Even when she's not. The generous act of providing dinner, a gift of your time and energy, will never go unnoticed.
Talk to her child: This probably sounds silly. Of course you talk to your friend's child. But if you really think about it, do you? Do you get down on his/her level (if height or accessibility require it), and say hello, and say his/her name out loud? Doing this can be harder than it seems. Perhaps the child is non-verbal. Perhaps he/she cannot make or maintain eye contact. But making a pointed effort to say hello and engage says that you see the child as a complete person. When moms get together, there can often be a lot going on in the room, or wherever you happen to meet. So your friend will probably (I hope!) give you grace in this area. But if you can remember to make a point to connect with her child, even if just for a second, it will warm her heart like nothing else.
Lend a hand: Imagine you are at a party with tons of families and kids. People are trying to get food and drinks, navigate crowds and enforce a modicum of discipline with their wild kids. Chaos. Sometimes, your friend with a child with special needs may need to run to the bathroom, or might like to grab a plate of food. But doing so would mean leaving her child, who needs constant supervision, unattended. "What can I do to help?" would be a really sweet offer, if you see her struggling. Even better? "Let me sit with Johnny, while you grab a plate." Then just sit down next to her son. Like it's a done deal. You just gave her 3 minutes of independence. She may kiss you!
Learn to help: My daughter Elsa has complex feeding needs. She eats nothing by mouth. Everything goes in via a G-tube and is administered by a large 60 ml syringe. There are seven people who know how to feed her, and those seven people will forever be angels in my eyes. It doesn't make sense for most people to know how to do it, but if you spend a lot of time with your friend and would be on her call list, if emergency strikes, she would be thrilled to know you'd step in. For instance, what if something happened to one of her other children, or to her spouse, and she had to be in the hospital for several hours? Being trained in advance on how to administer medicines and food would give your friend incredible peace of mind. This is a very above-and-beyond offer of service, but one worth keeping in mind, in case you are an above-and-beyond type of friend. And I think you probably are.
Accommodate, when you can: When events are at home, or in familiar places, access and accommodations are usually not a big deal. But sometimes when you leave the area 10 miles from your home, things can get complex. Vacations can't just be easy-peasy get-aways. They require lots of research. You have to make sure that each arm of the trip is thought through. If you are heading up organizing a trip, or special outing, and your friend and her child will be in attendance, it would mean the world if you checked in advance about accessibility or sensory factors (whatever elements create problems for her child). Your friend will likely do it, too, but if you did a little investigating, it would demonstrate that you are invested in her child's experience. That's another thing that points back to seeing him/her as a complete, dimensional person. Huge!
Don't forget special needs dads: Women and men are so different (big news flash, right?), and the supports that we need aren't quite the same. By the time children come into our worlds, sometimes we've moved addresses once or twice for work. Core friend groups can be far away. Opportunities to simply hang out and watch a game may have dwindled. But the need for friendship is still there for our men. Being a parent of a kid with special needs can be really lonely. Encourage your hubby to ask your friend's hubby to watch the Stanley Cup Finals or a soccer match. A few hours of companionship can go a long way.
Thanks for caring and engaging deeply and purposefully in your friend's life, and for thinking of trying some of these ideas. And a VERY big thank you to my precious family and friends, who inspired this post by showing me love and support in all of these ways... and more.