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Caring for the Chronically Ill in Your Group

Guest Post by Matt Murphy

Chronic illnesses are constant or intermittent illnesses that impact (to varying degrees) a student’s health and can limit participation in many “normal” teenage activities. Some of these chronic conditions include seizure disorders, asthma, diabetes, lupus, hypertension, or a long-term illness such as cancer. Most of the ideas we share below apply best to more serious health conditions.

Caring for the student: The teenager may have some limitations and things you can’t do with him, but engage on an appropriate level. Ever wondered why pediatric units have video games available? Distraction is a great way to alleviate patients’ pain. This is probably the only area where you have a bona fide excuse that playing games is pure ministry! Find out from parents and medical staff what the student can and can’t do and what level of interaction is appropriate. Also remember the need for positive touch.

Caring for parents: Parents of a child with a chronic illness may feel a sense of powerlessness. They are stretched emotionally, spiritually, financially, and psychologically as they wrestle with this illness, helping their child have a good life. Steer clear of platitudes and cliché sayings like “You’re so strong” and “I don’t know how you do it.” Allow for weakness, empathize with the pain and difficulty, and encourage through presence and silence rather than always being quick with words. Encourage parents to maintain some semblance of a routine in the life of the family. Also encourage them to maintain healthy boundaries and discipline within the family; illness isn’t an excuse for poor behavior, but sometimes compassion needs to be used in redirecting and interpreting behavior of a hurting child.

Caring for siblings: Other children in the home may feel (or are) neglected and often feel invisible. Ways to combat this include spending time with the other children, arranging for play dates for the siblings with friends from church, taking them to a meal, and showing up to some event they are participating in. This will do two things: show the “invisible children” they are being cared for and allow the parents of a chronically ill child the chance to take a breath.

Caring for friends: Spend time with the student’s friends. Help them understand the illness, what limits they may have in hanging out with their friend, and how they can be good, caring friends. Encourage them not to walk away but to step up in sacrificial love.

When the illness is terminal: Friends and family of terminally ill teenagers need to work through five essential tasks. They need to be able to say:

  • Thank you.
  • I’ll miss you.
  • It’s OK to go.
  • I forgive you.
  • Forgive me.

These five statements are normally followed up with more explanation, such as “thank you for being such a great son.” Helping a family through these tasks will help them cope with the death of their loved one and feel like they have said their peace as much as possible.

Hospice and Outside Services
Hospice provides end-of-life care through a team of professionals that most commonly includes a nurse, a social worker, and a chaplain who come around the family near the time of death and help provide care. Chaplains are great resources in end-of-life care such as finding a mortuary, prices for funerals, and explaining what the end-of-life process is like.  Consult with the chaplain to help provide care for the family.

Matt Murphy is a 14-year veteran of youth ministry across multiple contexts. He combines his background in clinical social work, education at Denver Seminary with his passion for helping hurting teenagers and youth workers. You can find more about him on his blog at EngagingTheShadowsofYouthMinistry.com.  Matt has just had his first book published: 99 Thoughts on Caring for your Youth Group by Simply Youth Ministry.

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Josh Griffin is high school pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA. He’s the co-counder of DownloadYouthMinistry.com and host of the Youth Ministry Garage Podcast. He's authored more than 20 youth ministry resources and is the author of "99 Thoughts for Small Group Leaders" with Doug Fields. Josh is a father of 4 who speaks a little, podcasts a little, Twitters a bit, and blogs a lot. You can find him at DownloadYouthMinistry.com!