I was thinking about the things that parents of preemies need the most while their babies are fighting for their lives in the NICU. I'd like to share some of that here, in honor of Parents of Preemies Day, and in case you are ever thrust into this kind of situation or have a friend who is. If you're new to my blog, you can read the story of our sweet little fighters, Will and Graham, here.
So first, the practical. Will was in the NICU for roughly 2 1/2 months. We ate, slept and breathed the NICU. JB and I saw Will 2-3 times a day, usually at his "cares" times, which is when we could be there for his feedings (we took turns holding the tiny feeding tube) and participate in diaper changes. These are a big deal when your baby spends all day, every day, in a closed-off incubator bed. It may be the only interaction you have with your baby because he may be too fragile to be handled often. I remember the day Will was first allowed to wear clothes (a tiny white shirt), I was so excited and so proud of him.
Here are a few things that friends of NICU parents might find helpful:
- Visiting. NICU visitation rules are usually strict, so you likely can't visit the baby in the hospital. At ours, only two people at a time - ever, period - were allowed at the baby's bedside, so if JB or I brought a visitor, that meant the other one of us couldn't see Will. So we did bring visitors sometimes, but of course we got so little time with Will that we kept it to a minimum.
- Meals. Many people (myself included) like to bring meals to new parents. JB and I found that our schedule was so chaotic - and changed frequently - that it just wasn't practical to coordinate when we would be home to meet someone who was bringing the meal, and then have time to sit down and eat it. (Not to mention finding time to return dishes.) What honestly helped us the most was that many of our friends gave us restaurant gift cards instead. I know that may sound mercenary or make you feel like you aren't providing a lovingly-cooked meal, but you can save the home-cooked meal for when the baby is actually home and the parents are spending all their time at home then.
A $10 or $15 gift card to somewhere quick and easy (Chick-fil-A, etc.) that's located between the parents' home and the hospital is a lifesaver. JB and I could plan for a quick dinner on our way to visit Will and it was perfect. And it was also a way to spend time together, just the two of us, to decompress and talk about how we felt about that day. I remember there was a Taco Bell really near the hospital and a lot of times, we'd head through the drive-thru after Will's last "cares" of the day (around 10 p.m.) because that was the only place still open. I'd get a sparkling cherry limeade and JB would get a frozen lime drink and we'd sit in the car, talking and de-stressing.
- Gifts. One of the best gifts we got was from a friend of mine and her Bible study group. She and I grew up together, but we don't attend the same church and I didn't know any of the people in the group. But they pooled their resources and sent us a card with gas money. As you can imagine, going back and forth to the NICU 2-3 times a day uses a lot of gas, and I thought this gift was incredibly thoughtful.
If there's one thing I learned through our experience, it's that everyone deals with hardship and grief differently. Some, like JB and me, are more private, while others just need to talk about what's happening, and talk about it often.
A couples of weeks after Graham died, when Will was still in the NICU and very sick, some of my friends took me out to lunch. I was so thankful to be in a normal-ish situation after everything that had happened, and it made me feel so much better to know they cared about me and wanted to hang out with me - that they weren't freaked out by the girl who was grieving. They let me talk about it while I wanted to, and then our conversation turned to other brighter topics. It was really nice.
People going through a rough time want to feel validated in their fears and worry. Well-meaning acquaintances who tried to "fix" the situation when they were talking to me, or told me to focus on the positive - "At least you still have one son" or "My niece's baby was born prematurely and he turned out fine" - weren't helpful. I understand they didn't mean to be insensitive, and I tried not to take it personally. But it did sting.
The best someone can do for a friend who's in this situation is to take your cues from your friend: if she wants to talk about it, then listen. And if not, you can talk about fun things, like TV shows or light gossip or whatever provides a temporary escape.
I guess I could go on and on, but there probably aren't many of you who haven't gone through hardship in your lives and know what this is like.
I still feel like I don't always know what to say to other preemie parents - the whole experience just kind of sucks, to be honest, and there's really nothing you can or should say to make it better. Just knowing other people cared about us and were praying for us meant the most.
You can also check out Parents of Preemies Day on Facebook to see the stories people have shared, and to learn more about Graham's Foundation.
And what's a preemie parent post without a pic of my sweet little former preemie?