When someone we love is sick, one of the first questions many of us have is, “How can I help?”
But learning how to help in difficult situations doesn’t always come naturally, especially for children.
A new book by San Diego author Phyllis Schwartz teaches what it feels like to be helpful. As the saying goes, “When mom feels great, so do we.”
Schwartz will be speaking at Warwick’s on Sunday, September 25 at 12 noon and will be signing copies of her book. She came to the lunchtime edition on Thursday. The following interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
This is a difficult subject in a children’s book, a parent’s illness, and I wonder what inspired you to write about it?
Black: It gushed from my own experience as a three-time cancer survivor. I have not had small children through my various cancer experiences. My children were a bit older – teenagers and older adults. But about a year ago something came to my mind that I wanted to express a simple, constructive message aimed at young children. Not to trivialize illness or injury for a family member or loved one, but I think to show children, and then their families around them, that they have the power to contribute to a more positive outcome when someone has a health threat. And I felt like little kids would feel overwhelmed and frustrated by someone in the house who was sick or battered because they wouldn’t really understand how they could contribute. I’m quite verbal and I’m in touch with what I need and want, but young children may not be able to pick up these cues. It might be obvious when a mom or grandma says, “Hey, can you pick up your clothes today? Because I feel bad.” But how do you get kids to feel like they have something to contribute, that they can be helpful? So not only do they feel really good about it, but the person they’re helping – in my case, that’s me with my friends and family and my kids – I feel like it’s healing.
Let me ask you about it. The idea of helping can be very meaningful, not only to the person whose friends and family are flocking to them, but also to the person helping. Can you talk about how helping can be healing?
Black: I think for me and for others who may be ailing and who need healing and help, knowing that someone wants to help is almost as wonderful a feeling as helping itself. It’s just the gesture. It feels appreciated. When you’re not feeling well and you’re walking around in your crappy pajamas and I’m thinking to myself and you’re feeling, “Am I worth it?” You respond to things like, “Do I deserve this attention? Do I want the attention?” And I found that even the smallest gesture and a little help – it was the help but also the thought – really gave me a lift. And when I first got sick, I was alone in Chicago, and I had just gone there to work in a new newsroom. And my colleagues who barely knew me were so amazing. I mean they took me to the hospital, they brought me books, they got me crackers when I had to go, excuse me, they threw up because of my radiation. So I think there are a few different things here. People can come up with the simplest thing to make you feel good. Big gestures are great, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t have to be a big gesture. And if we come back to young children, they may not have pocket money. I’m not talking about going out and buying mom an ice cream cone, but they just do things to make people feel loved and comfortable. Just the fact that kids can do things that are within their power: go out and pull weeds in the garden – I talked about that in my book – or help grandma make the bed. I think it’s good to give people suggestions that can be done.
You have to read a section from the book. do you share it with us
Black: Thank you for your request. By the way.
It turned out that our mother was sick,
So the doctors found a solution.
They removed a few dents
and quickly sent her home.
Dad said mom’s recovery would be faster
if you make her laugh and don’t pinch your sister.
Grandma said you can help make mom’s bed
and don’t let worries fill your heads.
We made their funny videos and colored a card,
We even helped weed daisies in the yard.
I wrote it but it’s funny. I love it. I love that line when grandma says, “And don’t let that worry you.”
It’s such an important part of it, and one that goes back to helping kids process their feelings of confusion and helplessness. Right?
Black: I’m sure every many people have had that experience where your parents whisper in the next room and you lie down by the door. I used to do that and you hear the crack. “What’s happening?” It sounds like something important is being discussed. And so children get something like the end of things or the whisper. And I hope that this book will help families, and even people who don’t have family, maybe with their friends. Start a discussion about if you’re not comfortable, what do you need? What should I do? What are some simple things I could do? Even the simplest thing is so appreciated.