Three ways to support a family living through a severe childhood illness

Written by Chris Woodruff
Published on March 04, 2022

Have you ever received that call? You know the one—the dreaded “we heard back from the doctor” call. 

When you watch a friend or family member walk through a difficult time, it’s easy to feel absolutely helpless. When his or her child is the one battling a severe illness, this feeling of helplessness grows tenfold. Finding the right words to say or ways to show up can seem nearly impossible, considering the waves of despair that come with severe illnesses. 

The truth is—showing meaningful support to suffering families in your circle doesn’t have to be as daunting as it seems. I have navigated these situations for nearly 10 years through leading a faith-based nonprofit focused on strengthening families living through childhood cancer. 

They are beyond hard. However, in the midst of the deepest valleys, I have found that there are three primary ways to help a family with a child battling a severe illness.  

3 ways to help a suffering family

1. Presence

When a family is walking through the storm of childhood illness, loneliness is often a close companion. As believers, we can combat those lonely feelings by being a constant, hope-filled presence in someone’s life, showing them the kind of love to which Jesus calls us. 

The Bible tells us, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17 NASB). It’s easy to be a friend during life’s mountain-top moments, but what about the valleys of heartache? 

Families battling childhood illness will see many friendships dissipate. Of course, this is no fault of their own. In reality, many friends don’t know how to continue cultivating a meaningful friendship under tough circumstances, so they simply shy away. 

Instead of focusing on saying the “right thing” or carrying out the perfect gesture, understand the importance and impact of just showing up. 

How can you simply be at the right place? Struggling families need friends who offer support, without being asked. You can be someone to listen while they process, to laugh and cry with them and ultimately, someone to just be a reminder that they aren’t on an island. 

If you’re a busybody like me, you may be looking for some tangible ways to serve while being present. The list of options is pretty extensive, but a few of my favorites: Pick a night to cook and deliver a delicious, ready-to-eat dinner. Offer to babysit so Mom and Dad can have a much-needed date night. Support the siblings of the diagnosed child by attending a sporting event or school function that may be happening during treatment or a doctor visit.  

These gestures may seem small, but trust me, they are monumental to a family who is hyper-focused on overcoming an illness. I’ve seen it firsthand with families living through childhood cancer. 

Parents need time to be alone and process life together, and these service ideas give them that. 

God blesses us with a spouse to be our lifelong companion. If we do not consistently cultivate that relationship, how can we expect it to grow? These small services allow parents to spend restful, quality time with one another while giving their kids an escape from the chaos of childhood illness. 

2. Prayer

Prayer is undoubtedly the most powerful way to help. We are called to be in prayer with our Heavenly Father for those in our lives. 

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. A prayer of a righteous person, when it is brought about, can accomplish much” (James 5:16). 

We serve a God who hears us and cares for us. He invites us into fellowship with him, and prayer is the vehicle by which we do this. Come alongside your friend’s family as they ask for healing by praying for them and with them. 

I encourage you to find a distraction-free space where you can talk with and listen to your Heavenly Father. After each question or request, sit in silence and listen. We are often so quick to request things from God without actually listening to him. 

This is also a great moment in which to invite your kids. It is important for our kids to see us cry out to God as they continue growing in their own faith. As you pray, remember: God is always for you, and his voice is filled with truth and grace. 

3. Podcasts (and other resources)

In times of hurt and pain, we desire empathy and understanding. I always advise the support system of families battling an illness to direct them to resources from those who have walked the road before them. 

This allows the family to hear stories of God’s provision, giving them hope in the midst of their journey. Faith-based resources, such as podcasts and blogs, are great avenues to hear personal testimonies and advice from licensed professionals and other support systems. 

Ultimately, these resources provide faith-filled understanding and encouragement to families living through an illness and perspective to those on the periphery–like you and me.

God fills us up in order to pour comfort over those in affliction, such as families battling childhood illnesses. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). 

Navigating childhood illness is no small feat, and we are called to come alongside our friends in comfort and love. While it can be difficult, you are equipped with the power of God, and I have no doubt he will use you, and this situation, for his glory.  


Consider a few extra resources:

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Chris Woodruff

Chris is the CEO and Executive Director of Lighthouse Family Retreat, a faith-based nonprofit that strengthens families living through childhood cancer through restorative retreats and helpful resources. Chris co-hosts The Lighthouse Podcast, a weekly show that features conversations with experts in the medical field, interviews with cancer patients and their families, and practical advice for families and support systems of children with cancer. The Lighthouse Podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and the Lighthouse website: Chris lives in Alpharetta, GA with his wife Jan and three kids.

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