Back in 1992, my mother-in-law was a hospice patient. And we were spending more time together. Our friends and family asked what they could do for us. And she said baked custard sounded good to her – so we let people know her request. What followed was an array of home-made custard pies and custard desserts delivered to the home.

It was great. And to this day, every time custard is mentioned, I think back to how we felt very loved and cared for by those who carried their home-made dishes into the home.

When we know someone who is going through a tough time – we naturally feel the need to do something for them.

We hear of an illness, or a job loss, or the loss of a home or the passing of a loved one. Big losses. Little losses. We often want them to know we are thinking of them. 

We may have friends who are no longer able to care for themselves. That would be a huge loss – realizing you have to depend on another person just to get out of bed is a humbling experience.

My grandmother was hospitalized in 1972. I can tell by the writing in her get-well cards that her friends were with her on Saturday – and some of them wrote in a note they were surprised to learn of her surgery the next day on a Sunday.

Grandma Imm kept a written log of her visitors on each day, and she had received 107 get-well cards. I am sure she saved those cards for herself – but here I am – the proud owner of another set of greeting cards – my Grandma Lula’s collection of get-well cards from 1972. No one in the family seems to remember what surgery she had – but she had a surgery.

Those greeting cards meant so much to her – she taped them into a beautiful scrap book. The cards have fallen from their once-secure spot, so I put them in safe-keeping in a little box.

I have read the notes and signatures in each card. The first card I opened was signed by Warren and Odelia Wickerham, and it melted my heart to see their names once again.

Warnie and Odelia were our neighbors. They were the two who were asked to call the fire department – back in the sixties – by my two older sisters. The Wickerhams answered their door on a Monday evening and of course made that call to the fire department because two young neighbor girls heard a smoke alarm go off. I wrote about the house-is-not-really on fire but let’s-get-the-firetrucks-here-anyways story in ‘Older Brothers’ on this blog.

Fred and Gertie Jerger sent a card – and they included their dog’s name on the card. I asked my brothers and sisters by way of email if they remembered the Jerger’s dog. Fred used to walk the dog. My siblings remembered the dog was a Dalmatian but needed a hint that the dog’s name started with a T. For the record – her name was Tina.

I recently heard someone use the word ‘empathy,’ and it made me look up the dictionary-definition of empathy and sympathy.

Sympathy means we feel sorrow for someone, and we often let them know by way of a card – which can be a very thoughtful act. When you are on the receiving end of a greeting card, it can mean so much – just knowing you have been remembered.

Empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to really connect. Empathy means you are willing to listen. The person experiencing the painful event knows you hear them and knows you are willing to feel their pain right along with them.

If a friend chooses to share something painful with us – an empathetic person listens without interrupting. There is no need for us to come up with a solution, an opinion, or a profound statement. We won’t be telling them anything. Just being with our hurting friend is all that is needed.

It’s OK to tell them we have no idea what they are going through. Since there is nothing we can say to make them feel better, it’s OK to let them know we don’t know what to say.

It is well known that families who have used hospice or home health services often tell the staff that their presence – just being there – is very meaningful to the family or caregiver.  

Making a meal in your own home and delivering it to the family is a way of helping out. And just sneaking in and giving a few hugs – staying to visit or not is ok.

It is interesting to hear people say they can be surrounded by people, yet they are lonely. I imagine they are verbalizing a need to stay connected, to have purpose, or experience joy once again. Their days can be very long.

Those who wonder why God has not yet called them home can be reminded they can have purpose as prayer warriors for others. Let them offer their wisdom. Ask questions about their childhood, and write their answers down. Their children and grandchildren will smile when they learn you have helped them write their story. 

Depending on the person’s physical health, they might just want to see you for a few minutes – and no longer. And we all know that’s OK. Visit with the caregiver in another room if needed.  

We certainly should not wait for our friends to experience an illness or be at the end of their life before spending time with them, so I decided to compile a list of the many things I saw friends do for friends during my years as a hospice nurse.

~ Help them sort through family photos – this will cause reminiscing. There is a story behind every photo. Help them label the photos with the names and the dates.

~ Look through scrapbooks with them. Maybe you have a scrapbook of your own that would be something to share with them.  

~ Give a house plant to them.  Succulents make a great gift because they do not require a green thumb. Take them outside so they can watch you plant some perennial flowers. 

~ Call to let them know you are going to the store and ask if they need anything.

~ Help them write their story. Ask them questions about their youth. Did they have a Christmas tree in their home while they were growing up? Was it real? Was it silver? How did they celebrate their birthday when they were children? Their stories and answers can be very interesting.

~ Tell them what time you will be there with a meal for them.

~ Put a card in the mail for them. It’s OK to just sign your name, but writing a personalized note can be a very thoughtful and meaningful gesture. You could choose to include a ‘remember when’ memory or two. A few of your written words might just make their day. If they were an adult in your life when you were a child, thank them for your childhood memories.

~ Invite their children or grandchildren to your home, so they can have a break. Or go to their home and play with the children. Help the children color some pictures or write a note to them.

~ Take their car to the car wash for them. Fill up the gas tank while you are at it.

~ Tell them you know there is probably a burden you can lift for them – but you need to know what it is.

~ If you are fortunate enough to be able to carry a tune in a bucket, sing with them. Have the children or others sing songs or play an instrument for them.

~ Deliver a puzzle and help them put it together. Find out if there is a board game they would like to play.

~ If they are grieving the loss of a child, never stop talking about that child. Always say their child’s name. Stay connected. Let them know you will always love their child, and bring up fun times you enjoyed together.

~ Buy some ‘Hank the Cowdog’ books for them.

~ Take them to a ball game or dance recital or playground. If you have the funds, buy a light-weight transport wheelchair for them. Sit for a few minutes in the sun with them.

~ Read a book of interest to them. Read Colossians or Ephesians or Psalms or Proverbs with them.

~ Clear your calendar and spend some scheduled time with them – as often as possible.

~ Become a front porch bandit and leave a bouquet of flowers for them.

~ Remember them in your thoughts and prayers as you find meaningful ways to give them something to look forward to.

One of my Grandma Lula’s saved get-well cards is one she received from Agnes Cape. I laughed because Agnes Cape was my best friend’s grandmother. And Agnes Cape was my younger sister’s best friend’s grandmother. Agnes was the grandmother of many, many best friends – if that makes sense.

Agnes wrote a poem to my Grandma Lula – and it goes like this:

Tuesday 12 Noon

I’m going sewing to Clara Maries

Viola can’t go – too much sneeze

Elsie is in Toledo with our Sis

This is one sewing she will miss

Tuesday 6 pm

Clara Brady and I were the only ones there

We did what we could and that’s only fair

Guy says his nerves is chewing him up

This March weather is quite tough

When you get sick you work so fast

Here’s hoping the thing will not last –

Agnes Cape 

My grandma Lula apparently had her group of girlfriends just like we do now. I know she liked to play cards and put puzzles together. One of Grandma’s greeting cards that really caught my eye happened to be signed by Elsie who was mentioned in Agnes’ poem. Elsie was also a neighbor of ours. The card has the prettiest of pictures with a pink rose in a white vase. The tiny amount of glitter makes it especially easy on the eyes.

In Elsie’s card, she wrote – Dear Lula, Well what’s trump? Hope you will be good as new soon. I am with my sister here in Toledo. She is doing very well. Think I will be home soon. Sincerely, Elsie.

If the generation before us were to have the opportunity to see today’s technology – they too would love our emojis and memes. They would be in awe of the quick way we are able to send our love and concern to others.

Social media is now our way of sending pictures of our flowers, and farm, and even let them know what is on our dinner plate at the moment.

I would love to have a picture or two of what Grandma’s life was like back then. Oh wait – I do!

Grandma Lula is in the front – second from right. Clara Brady is in the front row far left. Harriet Siebenaler’s mother, Marguerite Casebere, is in the back row far left. Agnes Cape is in the back row far right. We need help identifying the rest of Grandma’s friends!