Beyond balloons: 6 ways to help a family in the hospital during the holidays

Sophie and Maddie Litterer pose with Santa
Sophie and Maddie pose with Santa

There’s nothing like being home for the holidays. But for families with a child in the hospital, sometimes that’s just not possible.

As a friend or family member, you may wonder what you can do to make the family’s holidays a little brighter. Some of the best advice comes from parents who have been there and know firsthand what can make a difference.

Reach out

“Don’t be afraid to let the family know you’re thinking of them,” says Boston Children’s Hospital Family Advisory Council member Katie Litterer, who’s spent more than one holiday in the hospital with her twin daughters Sophie and Maddie, now age 8, after they were born prematurely at 27 weeks.

“I always appreciated the reach out, no matter what was happening,” she says. “At this time of year especially, you just want to know that other people care.”

Haven, with brothers Tommy and Ronan
Haven, with brothers Tommy and Ronan

Be a point person

“A lot of times, parents in the hospital don’t even know what they need,” says Litterer. “I really appreciated when people took the initiative to take charge of something, because it can be hard to ask for help.”

If you’re close to the family, you can help by offering to broadcast news to other family and friends when they can’t.

“It can be overwhelming and draining to keep everyone in the loop, especially when you’re in a crisis,” says Molly Foley, member of the Boston Children’s Virtual Advisory Council and mom of 6-year-old Haven, who was born with a congenital heart condition and has needed several surgeries. “Having someone take care of that for you frees you up to deal with the situation at hand.”

Help the family keep holiday traditions

“It was nice when people brought traditional holiday foods we couldn’t get in the cafeteria,” says Brenda Allair, a member of the Family Advisory Council. She’s spent several holidays in the hospital with her youngest daughter Jillian, now age 15, who was born with a rare genetic condition. “Our family is French Canadian, and it’s not Christmas without meat pie.”

If the family has strong religious traditions, you can also help by volunteering to stay with their child while they attend services or by taking siblings to services or other holiday events.

Jillian (center) with siblings Thomas and Kaitlin
Jillian (center) with siblings Thomas and Kaitlin

Don’t forget siblings

When all of the focus is on the child in the hospital, other siblings can sometimes feel left out.

Stephanie Stein, Virtual Advisory Council member and mom to 8-year-old triplets, found it helpful when friends planned special activities with her daughters Amaya and Julia after school, while their sister Kira was in the hospital last year. “It was a nice way for them to keep busy and keep their minds off of worrying about their sister.”

During the holidays, siblings may also appreciate small gifts, such as coloring books, stickers or crayons.

Kira, Julia and Amaya
Kira, Julia and Amaya

DO sweat the small stuff

“When you’re uprooted from your house, you lose control of everything,” says Foley. “Everyone is so focused with what’s going on at the hospital, but you still need to keep it together at home.”

Foley was blown away when her friends and family pooled together to pay for a house cleaner.

“It was absolutely the best feeling, to come home and not have to deal with a filthy house, rotting food and dead houseplants,” says Foley.

Other ways to help on the home front include grocery shopping, taking care of pets, taking in mail, or clearing the driveway and walks if there’s snow.

Give the gift of food

All of the parents agree that gift certificates to restaurants in and around the hospital make a great gift.

“It’s a good excuse to get out of the hospital for a short time and to get some fresh air and recharge, without worrying about the added expense of paying for a meal out,” says Foley.

You also can volunteer to make meals for the family at home or organize a group of people to provide meals.

“Knowing that meals are taken care of gives you one less thing to worry about,” says Foley.

At Boston Children’s Hospital, we recognize that our patients and their families are the experts on their health care experience. Our Family Partnerships program offers different opportunities for patients and families to get involved and impact patient care.

Learn more about Family Partnerships at Boston Children’s.