We are very grateful to many family members, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances who expressed their love and support for us. Some of them commented, "I don't know what to say/do." At the time, we were so consumed with our feelings, we didn't know how to respond.
Now that we've had a little time to think, we have some ideas, which we hope will be helpful to people grappling with a new diagnosis.
When other sad events happen to a loved one, friends and family may feel awkward or unsure about what to say or do, but there is usually a social script or personal experience to rely on. For example, many people have experienced the loss of a loved one, and we have ways, as a society, of dealing with that, like bereavement leave, rituals, and offers of casseroles. We have no social script for dealing with parents who have just learned of their child's special needs diagnosis, and most people have not personally dealt with something like this themselves and statistically speaking, they probably never will.
So here are some things you can offer - or ask for - in the period right after a child receives a special needs diagnosis:
- Time off from work and other social obligations. One of the things that was hardest for us was that we felt expected to carry on with business as usual. This was very difficult. We desperately needed a break, and found it difficult to ask for one.
- Babysitting help. As much as we love and adore our little guy, it was hard to process this information on very little sleep while avoiding tragic toddler accidents, changing diapers, reading Dr. Suess, and wiping a constantly runny nose.
- Help with household stuff. For the first couple of months, we were so sad and exhausted that just paying our bills, doing laundry, and maintaining our house felt onerous.
- Social outings that do not involve children. For the first couple of months, just seeing typically developing children was heartbreaking.
- Meals, flowers, cards, emails. All of these little reminders that people care mean so much. We treasured the kind words and deeds of our friends. One night a friend of mine invited me over for dinner, when her husband was working late, after her son had gone to bed (see #3). The dinner was spaghetti with jarred sauce and a green salad. I cried in the car on the way home after seeing her, out of appreciation for her kindness. It was so nice to get to talk with her in a quiet, warm, comforting space, and not have to cook or do dishes.
- Culturally appropriate spiritual healing. Since there are no rituals for making the transition to being a parent of a child with special needs, it is helpful to find places, people, books, music, and ceremonies that mark and make sense of the experience. We're not talking about the facts; we are geeks and have read too much about Fragile X, early intervention, medications, etc. Edited to add: We are also not talking about the utterance of religious maxims such as, "This is God's way," which can be unhelpful, insensitive, or culturally inappropriate. This is about processes for dealing with the existential stuff: What does this all mean? What now? We are still looking for more ideas on this one, and welcome any resources others have found helpful. (And yes, we've seen "Welcome to Holland". It's okay, but not really doing the job.)
- Shared language. One of the things about this diagnosis, and probably a lot of other special needs conditions, is that in addition to dealing with feelings of sadness, a parent must also become an expert in the child's condition, quickly learning new words, people, and places. The more friends and family know, the easier it is to communicate about our experiences. Even day-to-day conversation can be encumbered when in the course of making plans, we casually say, "Quinn has an OT appointment that afternoon," and then have to pause to explain what an OT is and why Quinn has one. We love it when people know the lingo because it makes not only the "big" conversations less taxing, but the everyday small talk as well.