*Money. While it may seem like such an impersonal gift it is one of the most needed at a time like this. Instead of focusing on bills and trying to make ends meet your gift of money can literally lift that weight off of some one's shoulders and help them focus instead on healing. Not only are there bills to be paid while dealing with an illness but the money can be put towards meals at the hospital, meals on the go, gas, prescriptions, babysitting, housecleaning, and a whole host of other issues that this person/family now has to deal with.
*Food. It is a life saver!! Whether it is a mother trying to deal with her sick child or an adult not feeling well because of their illness, the last thing anyone wants to think about is preparing three meals a day. Home cooked food is like a warm hug when your plate is full of responsibilities. Even if you are too busy to cook a meal, just dropping off anything that is edible is a lifesaver. Cans of soup, frozen pizzas, peanut butter and jelly. It is the thought that counts and every piece of edible food is greatly appreciated. I can attest to the fact that the last thing you want to be doing while dealing with an illness (especially a newly diagnosed illness) is making meal plans and shopping. There were times when I walked through the supermarket in a daze only to realize once home that I didn't buy anything worth making into a meal. We had the cooks at Ben's work sending him containers full of food almost every single day for the first several weeks. We had a woman from Jacob's Tae Kwon Do organize everyone to fill our freezer with frozen casseroles and food...several times. A neighbor brought complete homemade meals to us on busy days - there is nothing like homemade vegetable soup and brownies for Valentine's Day or Steak, potatoes, and a cherry pie on President's Day! :) Even a gift card to a local take-out joint is a welcome gift.
*Gas cards. Unless you live close to the hospital, there is a lot of driving involved with an illness. Whether it is a preemie having to stay at the hospital or a little boy needing radiation daily...the gas adds up. Gift cards for gas are an incredible help. Gift cards to grocery stores and Wal-mart or Target are also helpful. All of the household necessities still need to be purchased and having a gift card helps lift the burden.
*Cleaning. If you know the family fairly well or feel comfortable with them...pitching in around the house is a God send. What helped me the most at times was coming home to a completely clean house, thanks to my mom and a local homeschooled girl. I did not need another thing to decide on or another list to make - they didn't ask what needed to be done...they just did it. Some people won't want people in their house touching their things, other people will be hesitant asking for help or admitting that they need it. If you sense that someone can use the help...insist on it...as long as you feel they will be okay in the end with you touching their things and being in their house. My mom cleaned while I was gone at appointments with Jacob - I don't think I would have wanted people around while I was home. Just washing a few loads of laundry and folding it, or getting the kitchen cleaned can be a tremendous help for someone who is too tired to do it themselves.
*Gifts. Children need gifts, in my opinion, to feel like people remember them and to feel special during a time like this. Adults need it too. Whether it is a warm pair of fuzzy socks or a brand new toy, it is a special surprise that reminds them that they are special. It also helps to remind any siblings or children that they are special too, as they may feel neglected when the sick person is getting all of the attention. I can not stress enough how important it is to remember the siblings of a sick child or the children of a sick parent at this time; they too are dealing with incredible stress and changes and need the support of people around them as well. Care takers always appreciate a bottle of bubble bath or chocolates to remind them, too, to relax and take care of themselves.
*Cards and letters. This is one of the most important things in the life of a sick person (or family of a sick person). Cards and letters just reminding them that they are thought of. A reminder that they are remembered as they go through this journey. Especially as the illness drags on - help often stops and people return to their lives as you are still in the trenches. Those letters and cards mean the world to you on some days! A cheerful note or colorful card waiting for you in the mailbox can make your day. All it costs is a stamp so anyone can do this...a weekly or monthly card is an easy way to make the journey a little less bumpy.
*Phone calls. Keep them short but just remind the person that you are thinking of them and wanted to check up on them. Do not burden them with your problems when you call...let them know that you are calling them because they have been on your mind.
*Visits. The days during an illness are weird. There are times when you don't want to see another soul or have to deal with entertaining someone. Then there are times when you are lonely and need to purge your thoughts or just speak to another human. Gauge how a person is feeling and play it by ear. At the beginning dropping off a meal in less than a minute is a good idea. Later on someone may be up for a visit. Give them an opening to send you away such as "I just wanted to drop this off...I won't keep you" and see how they respond. Don't take it personally if you feel someone isn't up to your company at the time - dealing with something like this is completely exhausting at times and lots of times they aren't up for the company - it's nothing against you. Other times you will find that people crave company and the support it brings. Be sensitive to what they are projecting and go with the flow.
Support, support, support. That is what anyone going through an illness needs. The ideas up above are ways to show your support. I remember each and everything that people did for us - and the blessings abounded. It makes you feel not alone in a journey that can be extremely isolating. I, literally, can not thank everyone enough for the support that we were given so I hope to spend the rest of my life paying it forward to others who find themselves in similar situations. I didn't know what to do before to help others...I do now. I hope you do too.