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Home » The Vine

The Vine: October 10, 2012

Submitted by on October 10, 2012 – 11:04 AM31 Comments

So, we just found out that a member of our extended family has Stage IV cancer.  #$%^&.

She’s planning on fighting it, but the prognosis is pretty grim, and she has a long, hard road ahead.  She’s married and has four small children — the eldest is only 9 years old. 

So, my question for you and the readership is:  does anyone have ideas for how we can help, given that we live several states away?  If we lived in the same area, I’d be all about meals and child care — but that’s not an option given the distance. 

Sad Cousin

Dear Sad,

I’m so sorry to hear that.

You could offer to coordinate some things via a Google doc or password-protected Tumblr, for people who are more local — meal schedules, babysitting schedules, carpool, reminders for bill-paying or diaper service or whatever other administralia may get lost in the shuffle.

If that feels presumptuous, look into gift certificates for (or whatever similar service might exist near them), or for a local chain of restaurants or pizza places, so they can skip thinking about cooking. Also, Google things like “virtual assistant” or “housecleaning service,” and get Dad a handful of appointments for maid service or what have you. A lot of these online-assistant services will just take care of little chores and errands he might not have time to think about.

Or you could start a Kickstarter for just the family and close friends, and make it for whatever you’d like: kid stuff (formula, diapers, binkies, babysitting); pop-culture distractions for your cousin, like DVDs or a Kindle;  ancillary or hospice care (God forbid, of course, but if the outlook is really that dire…).

You’ve heard a million times that in situations like this, “anything I can do, let me know” is not helpful — but at the same time, sometimes people who are facing a medical fight (or grieving the end of one) are too shell-shocked to give you specifics. The best place to start is calling over there and talking to someone who’s around all the time, to get an idea of what’s really needed. Then act on it, but in as flexible and easy-to-execute a way as possible (i.e. the immediate family won’t have to do/think about anything).

Readers, feel free to chime in. Sad, best of luck to your family.




  • attica says:

    You poor things. Cancer sucks so hard.

    Having been through this, I really second the recommendation for housecleaning service. Get a bunch of people to pitch in for it if you have to; it will be such a relief for the family to 1) not have to look at a grody bathtub; 2) not have to do it themselves when there’s so much else to do/handle.

    Good luck to you all.

  • Andrea says:

    Dear Sad: I’m so sorry to hear about your cousin. This is such a tough situation, but you just wanting to help out is a great start. We had good friends with little kids go through this a few years ago, and I feel like I learned a lot through their experience. Sars’ suggestions were terrific and on the nose (unsurprisingly). There are tons of services out there that you can access on line for meal delivery, housekeeping, organization of aspects of daily life that we all take for granted. Another thing we found that helped our friends was to take over communications about her status. Offer to set up and manage a site or a special facebook page, or just to be the director of emails giving people updates about what’s going on and how she’s doing and letting friends know how they can help. Our friends found that it was much easier to appoint a point person who gave periodic updates or sent notice when something was going on, rather than having to send mass or individual emails themselves. It was better to just have to tell one person and let that person handle everything else.

    Also, if it’s at all possible, visit the family or have the kids come to visit you. If she’s in the hospital for long periods of time and permitted visitors, having people visit and break up the monotony is a huge help. Having the kids visit you or you going to them and taking them for a day when treatment is taking place or the mom is feeling particularly bad helps the parents to focus on the medical issues while knowing the kids are being cared for.

    My thoughts are with you, your cousin and her family.

  • Erinwithans says:

    Oh, Cousin. I’m so sorry.

    I’ve been there a couple of times – my mother in law, and then my uncle just a few months ago. Stay in touch. No one wants to bother a family who is dealing with this, but everyone says “call me if you need anything at all” and then… you don’t hear anything, from anyone, and it’s isolating. Make it clear they can tell you now is not a good time, but call. Thoughtful care packages are great, too – some dvds/netflix subscription/whatever, some handmade socks, some favorite food that if your cousin doesn’t feel up to eating the kids will.

    I really second the suggestions Sars made (lord, what wonders a maid service would have been when MiL was sick), and Andrea’s suggestions about handling status updates is a great one. I know we sometimes felt like every time we did see people (which was rare), we had to give them a rundown of cancer, which was… not actually what we wanted to be doing on a rare social evening.

    Also, get Dad a massage or something some time. Being a caretaker is rough, and gets lost in the shuffle a bit.

    Sending lots of good thoughts to you and yours. Fuck cancer.

  • Amy says:

    All of the above advice is wonderful but my 2 cents is to ask the recipients first. Look into all the details so you can say, “I’d like to do XYZ for you, is that okay?” They are obviously going through a very difficult time and while all of these ideas area wonderful, they may not want them. Then again, they may. I’m just saying, please offer it to them, don’t just do it. Sometimes the mundane things like grocery shopping or cleaning a bathtub help people “get away” from cancer, if only for a few minutes. Other times, chores and shopping are the last thing a person wants to do. My father passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006. The last several days he was literally on his death bed and we were by his side. But one night the girls and I went to the In-n-Out drive through, got the little paper hats with our burgers, and took a “break” from cancer. I’m sorry your family is going through this and I commend you for wanting to help. My only advice is to offer the help, and to be okay if they say no.

  • zh says:

    I’m very sorry about your cousin. When my friend was going through a double mastectomy, we used the Lotsa Helping Hands service for coordinating meals and who would take her kids to school and other services she was in need of. It was really helpful to everyone because we could sign up for services and she would know who had signed up for what day.

  • Rachel S says:

    Sad, I’m very sorry about your cousin. I’m actually going through chemo now, so I thought I’d give my 2 cents. I really like the suggestions about food/grocery delivery. On days when I’m feeling crappy from chemo, I really don’t feel like dealing with cooking, so I think gift cards for food delivery services would be nice.

    Also, I like Andrea’s suggestion about coordinating communications about your cousin’s status. Although I do appreciate people asking me how I’m doing, it can be kind of exhausting to rehash the same information over and over. There’s a website called Caring Bridge ( that allows you to set up a personal page where you can give health updates. There are a variety of privacy settings to choose from, ranging from completely open to the public to by invitation only. You could offer to set up a page for your cousin and act as an administrator on the site.

    Good luck to you all.

  • Angie says:

    Cancer can eat a giant bag of syphilis encrusted dicks. (Imagery!)

    I just found out about this website, too, which might be an option.

    Love and light to your family, Sad!

  • CJ says:

    Oh Cousin. I’m so so sorry. I coordinated care for my brother when he was battling brain cancer.
    I third the idea of setting up some kind of housecleaning. It was a godsend for my sister-in-law and she only had one child at the time.
    Gift certificates are great. There are several good websites out there for coordinating food and care or other activities for people dealing with cancer. I would see if there is anyway that you can arrange outings for the kids. If there is anyone you know that’s local you can maybe arrange things like a trip to the zoo or whatever good local spots there are.
    Bless you for thinking of them. They are going to need a lot of support. Much love to all of you.

  • Tarn says:

    I’m so sorry. I know your family will appreciate you doing your best to support them from afar.

    Most states and counties offer respite care services for family caregivers. You might research the one closest to them and share that information to allow the family some relief. is a good resource with a new state-by-state navigator for local info:

  • Nanc in Ashland says:

    Dear Sad,

    Lots of great advice above about the short term. Here’s some for the long term. Write a letter to her husband and each child and talk about your memories of your cousin. It’s something you’re going to send to them in a year or maybe five years, depending on the age of children. You’re in the “just heard and must do something now” stage and since you’re not geographically close, this might be good for you now and great for the family later on.

    If she does beat the odds and survive, send the letters anyway and add a closing paragraph about how you’re glad she’s around to continue making great memories.

    Rachel S., thanks for sharing your suggestions and I know the nation is sending good vibes for your health.

  • Maria says:

    I second setting up a Caringbridge site for them, because it can link to FB as well.

    I think it will help just to stay in touch and offer support. Lots of times when somebody is going through that, they feel alone, like everyone is off doing their own thing. If you’re calling regularly, it will give you a feel for ways you can help. Maybe there might be a chunk of time where you could help by going out to provide some respite care for her husband to take a break, or to be able to go to school events like a holiday concert. I’m not saying they don’t have a babysitter, but they may not be able to get as much coverage as they might need.

    Very sorry your family is facing this.

  • Katherine says:

    Great suggestions but definitely check with the recipients. My mom just went through chemo in may/june and a housekeeping service was offered & declined – for a variety of reasons but she absolutely did not want stranger in the house when she was sick. Coordinating even a once a month service with dr’s appts, people being out of the house, feeling well, etc., well it might not be worth it to them. At the same time, we got my aunt a cleaning service during her time w/ chemo and it was great. Care packages for the kids might also be another avenue. Some new books/gift cards/toys/bag of m&m’s might go a long way in brightening up some of their days. Good luck to all of you!

  • Megan says:

    We lost a family member this spring, and what I mostly wanted was for people to 1. show up, and 2. be ready to roll with whatever emotions were present at the time. There were times of spontaneous sobbing, but there were a lot of times when we were our regular selves and the grief wasn’t foremost. We didn’t want to have to appear grieving when it was a good afternoon and we were mellow. Maybe it looked callous, but the death wasn’t the only thing in our lives, even when it was the largest part.

    About showing up. A little bit, you feel like a pariah, touched by the bad luck that no one wants to confront. People get scared to encounter that much grief. But after an initial re-contact, they remembered us as us. So get the initial re-contact over with, maybe even by just showing up.

    From far away, yes, handle as many logistics as you can. If you can visit, do. If you do visit, be OK with however they are that day, even if it isn’t All Cancer All The Time.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Oh Sad, I’m so sorry.

    One recommendation, already covered by others as well: whatever you can do, let the family know first.

    I work at a pizzeria call center, where we take all the orders for various stores. Many people call wanting to send pies to people who are sick/injured/just had a baby, and that’s fine. But some of them want it to be “a surprise” and have it just show up on thier doorstep.

    While that may sound good, it really isn’t. One, in that scenario you don’t even know if the intended recipients are even home. And trying to send it to a hospital or some such is even worse–no idea if doors are locked, what hours are deliveries permitted, etc.

    Two, many times, more often then you’d think, the delivery is refused because the recipients didn’t order it and assume it’s a mistake, or worse, a prank. Then I have to try to call the original sender (who is often out of state), explain the situation, have him/her call the people and explain, then make and send out another order. Not the relaxing ideal that was hoped for.

    Three, and sorry, this is awful: as a security measure we are simply not allowed to turn up with surprise pies because that is a favorite terrorizing tactic of stalkers. Yeah, not the kind of thing you want to get into with a stressed out family.

    So if you want to send something to the house, be it food, maid service, or a dog walker, CLEAR IT FIRST. The family will be grateful that you are thinking of them, in both versions of the phrase–you want to do something nice and you want to make sure it’s the right time to do this particular nice thing.

    Fuck cancer in the ear. All love to your cousin, and you.

  • Amy Jr. says:

    Ditto what so many others have said, especially including the other Amy’s tip to ask what cousin needs.

    Some more ideas:
    -Gift cards from places that do food delivery.
    -If cousin is going to be having chemo that will make her lose her hair, a hand-knit hat in a soft yarn.
    -Artwork from kids to hang up wherever the person is.
    -An old-fashioned care package with baked goods and maybe some nice coffee or tea.
    -House-maintenance kinds of things. If that broken ceiling fan hasn’t gotten fixed before cancer, it sure isn’t getting fixed during.

    They may not know what to tell you initially, so having something concrete in mind when you call to ask is generally a good thing. When I had cancer, it took a while to figure out what I needed, but I was especially grateful for people who had given thought to how they thought they could help.

  • MelPo says:

    Recently, a far-away friend dealt with cancer and for a long time all she could do was lay on the couch. Her mom was helping out with housecleaning, dog care, etc. So we all sent lots of itunes and amazon cards for TV and movies. The small financial help this provided when they could stop paying for cable was very appreciated and it was less intrusive than a housecleaning service or the like.

  • attica says:

    I just remembered something else that strangers did for me that was awesome. When my mom was in ICU, where visiting can be limited in both time and number of visitors, there was always a clutch of people hanging out in the ICU waiting area.

    Somebody was nice enough every day I was there to have food delivered. One day it was pizza, a couple of days it was a cold cut platter with rolls and condiments like you order from your grocer’s deli department. With soft drinks and plates and napkins, and everything. I can’t even tell you how appreciated it was, because you don’t want to leave the premises, and vending machines are so dreary, and who knows when you’ll get a chance to have a bite. I remember feeling so grateful to the thoughtfulness of people I didn’t know. And I never knew who was responsible — it might have been family of one of the other patients, it might have been work colleagues of another. But Bless them all.

  • Katherine says:

    I love Nanc’s suggestion about the letter of memories, and I’d like to add just sending postcards/cheerful cards as often as possible. It’s a pleasure to open up the mailbox and find personal, happy correspondence, and not just bills. When my Aunt was dying of leukemia, I sent her as many postcards as I could (we lived across the country, in a similar position to you) and my Uncle told me later that she really enjoyed them.

    My sympathies to you and your family in this hard time.

  • Anlyn says:

    To add to Nanc’s and Katherine’s suggestions…start gathering the photos. If they’re digital, make backups. Keep them somewhere safe, and label them. If you don’t know who the people are, try to find out from friends and relatives. If they don’t know, then IF the cousin is having a good day, and IF she feels up to it, ask her if she knows who is who, so that everyone has a record.

    A colleague of mine recently had his laptop stolen. On it were pictures of his 13-year-old son on a family vacation, shortly before he committed suicide. Those are lost now. Keep the photos in a safe place. Letters too, or any kind of family memorabilia that you think should be passed on.

  • Anlyn says:

    I kind of got distracted on my point about the son, sorry…basically, that you want the kids to have the photographic memories of mom. And if she does beat this horrible thing, then she’ll also have the photos and memories.

    Sorry about that…I realized that was kind of random, and I didn’t mean to just throw it in the middle. :(

  • M. Nightingale says:

    I’m sorry you and yours are going through this.

    Based on my own experiences, the biggest thing is to be there emotionally. Send a letter, a physical letter or card, every week; call on a schedule to check in; sometimes, just booting up the computer is too hard, but the mail always comes. Don’t think you’re intruding, just be there. Illness can be isolating, especially if it comes to hospice care, when the patient can’t even leave the house.

    Also, it can be expensive. Money doesn’t go amiss. It lets your loved ones get, say, a rocking chair, in case the treatment causes insomnia. Or send a little quilt, chemo gets cold.

    But the biggest thing is to not stay away. That human contact means more than I can articulate.

  • Mary Beth says:

    When my dad died of leukemia a few years ago (seriously, fuck cancer), one of the best things we got came from a neighbor – a basket of paper products: paper plates, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, etc. It was something we hadn’t thought of before, and it ended up being incredibly helpful. Since then, my mom has sent similar baskets instead of food.

  • Katherine says:

    I’m sorry for your family. As someone who is (unfortunately) currently on the caregiver side of this, calling is the most important thing, no matter what else you plan to do. In my specific case, both my father and my brother have cancer. A lot of people have been doing meals, but to be honest both of them are on a restricted diet and sometimes people send food that neither of them can eat.

    The best thing anyone did for my brother was get him a netflix account. Chemo can make it hard to concentrate on a whole movie, but half-hour tv shows are a great distraction for him. The aunt who bought him that netflix subscription is the greatest.

    My grandmother was really ill when I was about 9, and I remember very clearly a distant relative of ours taking me out to do Easter baskets for my younger siblings. Even if all you did was send stuff for Easter baskets/Christmas stockings/other small holiday things, the kids would probably be thrilled.

    Again, as a caregiver, it is nice when people treat you like you are, in fact, a human and not a repository of information about the sick loved one. I have a friend who regularly sends me links to silly videos on youtube. It helps.

  • Melissa says:

    My heart goes out to you and your family.

    I’ve dealt with this multiple times over the last few years and suck doesn’t come close to describing the ups and downs.

    I’m going out on a limb here and am going to suggest something that seems odd and awkward, yet I’m planning the third one in 18 months – each is at the person’s request – and these are all people I’ve been, or regarding the current, am very close to.

    Ask if you can plan a party for them because they might not think of it given the circumstances. Get a location or a big back yard and rally the troops. It’s beyond important to let the person know how much they’re loved while they’re here. The details are easy – food and what not – people will want to give.

    Not only is a party a great way of getting people together to tell stories and make/share memories, it’s also a terrific opportunity for everyone to give/contribute to the family whether it’s gift cards, cash, services, or whatever.

    Most important, a party gives everyone a chance to express themselves while the person is still here – and having been through this more times than I care to, it’s the best gift you can give. It tears me apart every single time I’ve done one of these, but the emotional release and sense of togetherness that occurs makes it all worth it.

    If this is something you decide to do, I’m more than happy to give you my email and walk you through it (I’m an event planner by day) as it can be a daunting task, but you’d be amazed how easily things come together in these instances.

    Love and Hugs to you and your entire family.

  • Barb says:

    I third Caring Bridge.It allows someone to keep a Journal, that friends/relatives can access. I think it makes it easier on all the relatives – only one person has to do the journal entries to let you know how the sick person is doing ( and what help they KNOW they need;)
    everyone can be kept up to date repeat repeated details over and over; the site has some other features that might help, like scheduling. Good luck; you aren’t alone in this scary place.

  • Miss-Melissa says:

    “But the biggest thing is to not stay away. That human contact means more than I can articulate.”

    This. A million times this. Since you’re not geographically near to your cousin email, Skype and the phone are your friends. When my son was sick, his friends would visit or Skype him and it would change his entire outlook no matter how crappy and sad he felt. A positive outlook is soooo important when you are battling cancer and seeing and hearing from the people who love you really, truly helps.

    Also, please don’t forget your cousin’s husband. Being the caretaker is sometimes almost harder than being the patient I think because it is exhausting in so many ways. You are handling the doctors, the meds, the insurance company, coordinating care for the kids, taking the car to the shop, paying the bills, grocery shopping, trying to do everything because you don’t want your loved one to worry about any of it. Meanwhile you are consumed with worry that you may lose your spouse, parent, child to this awful disease. You would do antyhing for your loved one so you do it gladly but it is extremely overwhelming.

  • mel says:

    Went through this situation in my own family this year; my twist on the “gift cards for restaurants” help was to find out what places were near the hospital where my cousin was being treated (50 miles from home) and get cards for them, then lookup and print directions from the Cancer Center to each place (My cousins are not iPhone-type people). I also sent an Amex gift card for them to use as they pleased; cousin’s wife said it came in very handy for a motel room, one night when she was just too wiped out to drive back home.

    Sorry you have to deal with this. I know it’s rough to be too far away when life blows up like this.

    Oh–I also baked cookies and sent them. Precious little, but they have two little boys that were thrilled to get their own package in the mail–full of homemade cookies, yet! Their joy gave their mommy and daddy a bright moment. Little things count.

  • JenK says:

    So sorry about this situation, Sad. Depending on the kids’ ages and interests, it might be fun to send a little activity that they can do with Mom, if she’s up for it. I find that my kids love to color with grown-ups. Perhaps sending a package of coloring books and colored pencils/markers/crayons would give them something to do with their mom that isn’t too taxing. Coloring has the added bonus of being therapeutic, too, so that might be good for her. Dover makes books that span skill levels and interests, so you can find something for everyone. They also make some neat stained glass coloring books that are great to color with markers and then hang in the windows, and this might help brighten up the house to cover a wall or window with pictures they got to color together. I recently ordered a ton on Amazon because they are on a 4-for-3 special, and my girls have had a blast just sitting and coloring with me or with my mother, who is visiting from out of state. (And who, by the way, has kicked cancer’s ass three times, so I’m sending some of her awesome vibes your cousin’s way.)

  • KTB says:

    If she doesn’t have one, maybe send an iPod touch or something like that in a care package with an iTunes gift card or some games purchased and loaded–stuff like Words with Friends, Scrabble, interactive stuff like that.

    My mother’s best friend is dying from ALS (not cancer, but still awful), and one of the highlights of her day is picking up her phone and seeing how many people have played words against her. Plus, you can send messages through the game, so it’s super low stress way to send a “thinking of you!” note. It’s always nice to have something like that to play with when you’re stuck in the hospital going through chemo.

    Depending on what city they live in, Eat24 lets people order online and get delivery from local restaurants. Maybe sign them up and load up a couple of prepaid Visa cards?

  • Mary says:

    Send thoughtful cards and notes, sharing happy memories and telling your family member you care.

    Send flowers if she’s a flowers person.

    If you have fun photographs of you together, mail copies.

  • Amy says:

    Sad Cousin, I just read about an organization that may be able to help. It’s It helps people organize a “meal train” for the family (because of illness, deployment, new baby, etc.). Perhaps you could use this for your cousin?

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