How to support family dealing with cancer, non-sartorially
July 1, 2014 10:16 AM   Subscribe

My cousin's kid was born with cancer. A friend of theirs started a website where one can buy a t-shirt to show support for the family. This seems a little odd. Should I buy a t-shirt or do something differently to show love and support for the family?

Several weeks ago, my cousin's wife gave birth to their third kid, a baby girl. Unfortunately, the baby has a tumor and needs chemo. It's treatable but obviously very scary. The two older kids are staying with my aunt and uncle so the parents can focus on the baby.

Now, my aunt and uncle have done well financially. My uncle is retired, they travel, etc. My cousin and his wife seem like they are doing fine - they own their home, have good jobs at a university, they probably have great insurance, time off policies, FMLA, etc. So I was a little surprised when I saw that one of their friends had started a website where one can buy a t-shirt and donate to show your support for the family.

So far, they have sold more than 300 t-shirts and have raised nearly $9,000. It says at the top of the website that the money will go to support children with cancer but then it says near the bottom that all of the money will go to my cousin to take care of the baby. I realize that there are all sorts of terrible expenses that could come up while dealing with a mom healing from a C-section and a baby who is being treated for cancer and my father, siblings, and I obviously love and support them and want everyone to be happy and healthy, but this kind of rubs us the wrong way.

Part of me says, it's not about the t-shirt, it's about showing love and support. Is there a way to do that besides buying a t-shirt or donating money? I thought it would be nice to buy them delivery food or something but doing stuff for their family can be easier said than done. A few years ago, my husband and I visited them at their vacation place where they were unbelievably hospitable to us and they looked at me like I was insane when I tried to pay for the pizza one night.

While I want to show love and support, part of me says that God willing, the baby is going to be with us for a long time so I have 18+ years of showing love and support. I thought of buying books for the children but then I worry the kids will be like, this is the book we got when our baby sister had cancer. Should I just send the parents a card? Maybe include a gift certificate for a nearby ice cream place so they can take the little guys? Is there any stuff I could send them that would be helpful? Should I ask my aunt if they need anything or if there's anything we can do to help?

What is the gracious thing to do? I thought about sending a card and making them some cookies. Every thing I think of doing or sending just feels so weird. Like, sorry your baby has cancer, hope you like chocolate chip. Part of me is just worried that years from now, there's going to be a weird rift with that part of the family, like, they couldn't even be bothered to buy a t-shirt when baby had cancer. I thought of buying a t-shirt for each of my siblings and their significant others and giving them as gifts on Christmas. That would be eight shirts for $160 - steep but doable (plus I'd be starting my Christmas shopping early for once!).

Specific questions:
- Should I buy a t-shirt? One for me and another for my husband? One for everyone in my immediate family?
- If not (or even if so), what is the best way to show love and support for the family?
posted by kat518 to Human Relations (25 answers total)
It's possible that they're doing the t-shirt "business" as something to do to keep them mentally and physically busy while their child dies of cancer. Let them mourn and buy a shirt if you are able to afford it.
posted by theraflu at 10:23 AM on July 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think a sympathy card with your best wishes is a good way to show support (I'm serious about this - my husband is currently going through a major health crisis and all the cards and emails from friends and family have been so helpful mentally). Beyond that you really need to ask the family if there's anything you can help with. I would ask your aunt and uncle - maybe if you're in the same town, you can watch the kids for a night, but even barring that your aunt and uncle will have ideas as to how you can help.

Chemo is really expensive, even with insurance. It's perfectly acceptable that you don't feel right in giving them money, but it's also not out of line for someone else to make a different decision.

Honestly, I think you are making this about *you*, just a little bit. They are dealing with a very big thing and they will likely not even notice who is buying a t-shirt and who isn't. They have more important things on their mind right now.
posted by muddgirl at 10:24 AM on July 1, 2014 [12 favorites]

Buy shirts for you and your husband, or make a donation; I think $40 is a reasonable cost to suck up for family love & harmony in this case. And then of course you're still free to drop off food, gift certificates, etc. No on the Christmas gift idea.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:24 AM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Now, my aunt and uncle have done well financially. My uncle is retired, they travel, etc. My cousin and his wife seem like they are doing fine - they own their home, have good jobs at a university, they probably have great insurance, time off policies, FMLA, etc. So I was a little surprised when I saw that one of their friends had started a website where one can buy a t-shirt and donate to show your support for the family.

I think you assume way too much here. You don't know how much this has sapped their finances. Not everything is covered, even under good health care plans. While it's not necessary for you to buy a shirt or to donate money, they're not mandating you do so. It's friends who are doing this any way to help out their friends. They're really not going to notice if you don't buy a shirt. They have a child who has cancer.

Should I ask my aunt if they need anything or if there's anything we can do to help?

Absolutely do this.
posted by inturnaround at 10:25 AM on July 1, 2014 [13 favorites]

You should buy the t-shirts. This extra money will help so much with expenses that are too numerous to count. If I'm understanding this correctly, this is something that their friends have done for them, not that they have done themselves, and I think it would be nice if you joined in. Your instinct to do something for the other children in the family is a good one as well, though. Taking them out for a special ice cream treat sounds like a wonderful idea.
posted by backwards compatible at 10:26 AM on July 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you don't want to buy a t-shirt, don't buy a t-shirt. If you want to send food, or a pacifier or whatever, do that.

Sometimes people don't know how to handle bad news, and being able to buy a t-shirt makes them feel like they're helping or doing something and they feel less useless. Also, it may be that a bit of extra money will be helpful. You don't get paid when you take FMLA, you may need to rent a hotel room near the hospital which can be pricey. The other thing is, insurance is okay, as far as it goes, but some of us have high deductibles.

So is the thing that you think they don't need the money, so why are they taking up a collection? Because that may be faulty thinking on your part. And really, if they were doing okay, but were hit with unexpected expenses, does it harm you to give them some money? Are you struggling and would purchasing a t-shirt, or better yet, sending a contribution to the fund, break your personal bank? If so, and you can't afford it, no need to apologize. But if you think that asking for money is tacky, and that's your only objection, I'd suggest thinking a little harder about it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:27 AM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I bet they could use babysitters for their two other kids. They're going to be going to a lot of doctor's appointments, spending time in the hospital, needing time to have emotions, etc. Can you babysit?
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:29 AM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Please don't follow through on the Christmas gift idea. It could go wrong in so many ways, e.g., the gift recipients:

  • already bought their own;

  • read it as a gift that's more about showing off your generosity to the cousin's family than about them, much as it's weird to get a "gift" that is a donation to some charity that doesn't matter to you and provides a tax deduction to the originator;

  • bum out because the baby is now much sicker, or hopefully;

  • are confused because the baby has been out of danger for months.

  • posted by carmicha at 10:30 AM on July 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

    posted by buzzman at 10:33 AM on July 1, 2014

    (I'm sorry - the end of my last comment comes off a little harsh. Cancer is incredibly scary for pretty much everyone it touches, especially in someone so young. I think it's admirable that you're trying to be thoughtful and helpful, but I do think you are overthinking.)
    posted by muddgirl at 10:34 AM on July 1, 2014

    Unfortunately, I live maybe 500 miles away so I can't babysit or drop off food. Right now I'm thinking of sending a card and making a small donation. I thought it'd be nice if I could do some small type of gift package, like hand sanitizers and lotion that don't smell like gross since they might need that when they visit her (right?). And maybe get a small fun baby gift, like a onesie and a book?

    No worries, muddgirl. You're right, I'm sure I'm over-thinking, partly because I'm not nearby so I can't just go give them hugs. In many ways, it seems like this side of the family has led a charmed life but when I start to think like that, I try to remind myself how unbelievably awful it would be to find out your baby has cancer.
    posted by kat518 at 10:44 AM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

    Their friend started the t-shirt business, so there's no way of knowing if they need the money and their friend knows, or if their friend wanted to do a nice thing and just went off and did it without asking. If you don't want a shirt, don't get the shirt, or give it as gifts, either. I think a card and a small donation would be really nice. Gift cards to their favorite restaurant that delivers, or to restaurants near the hospital, and a note that says "I can't cook for you, but please have dinner(s) on me" might be a good way to give food if you can't be there.
    posted by umwhat at 10:54 AM on July 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

    I think sending something specifically for the two other little ones is a great idea. My brother was really left out when I was sick and no one paid him much attention. That is really hard for a kid.

    I would without question contact the aunt and uncle and ask what they need. Tell them you're sorry you're not close by and you want to help and then listen to what they say they need.

    A gift certificate for a babysitting service might really be great if you can find one.
    posted by sockermom at 10:54 AM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

    I would go the donation route just because if you spend $10 on a t-shirt, most of that goes to some company and they get may 50 cents but if you donate $10, then they get $10 (or maybe slightly less due to a paypal fee). I think a card or other expression of sentiment would also be great.

    I worked in insurance for over five years. Even a well off family can be ruined by medical bills in the U.S. Most families, even well off families, do not have tens of thousands of dollars sitting in the bank. They may have assets worth all kinds of money but liquidating those assets could mean selling a beloved boat in order to try to save a child. If the child then dies, now you have two losses.

    A single hospital stay can be tens of thousands of dollars, especially if there is surgery, intensive care and that sort of thing. When it drags on for months, the bills become just nightmarish.
    posted by Michele in California at 11:01 AM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

    The t-shirt thing is probably to get the awareness and help of friends and aquaintances.

    As you're family, I think a direct donation would be more appropriate, as would a card or short note offering support and whatever help you can provide (can we make some calls for you? Follow up on email or your FB page so you don't have to deal with it? etc.)
    posted by vignettist at 11:11 AM on July 1, 2014

    I thought of buying books for the children but then I worry the kids will be like, this is the book we got when our baby sister had cancer.

    Eh, this would maybe be the case if you got them iPods. Books are safe.
    posted by cjorgensen at 11:23 AM on July 1, 2014

    My brother's bills for his cancer treatment neared $1 million dollars. A million. And insurance doesn't just magic it away--you get bills and they're stupid huge and then you fight with the company and eventually they get only moderately huge.

    There's almost nobody who can absorb that cost without help. And that is just the treatment itself, and the hospital stays. It doesn't count the hours (weeks, months) of salary my folks lost, it doesn't count the cost of pet- or babysitters needed while the adults are at the hospital, it doesn't count overpriced food you buy so you don't have to leave the get the idea.

    Whether you buy the t-shirt or not will probably make little difference, but please don't make your decision based on begrudging them extra funds because you *think* they don't need them.
    posted by like_a_friend at 11:28 AM on July 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

    Since the t-shirt site is their friends' idea, don't read too much into it: for all we know, your cousin's family could find it embarrassing or tacky, but are too overwhelmed/exhausted/gracious/grateful to turn it down.

    I'd suggest either donating without buying a t-shirt, or directly asking the family what they need that you could help out with, or both. Maybe assembling a gift basket with various things for everyone in the family? It sounds like they're not the type to go grubbing for attention or money, and a newborn with cancer is about as bad as you can get in terms of stress and financial strain, so there's no downside to being generous here.
    posted by Metroid Baby at 11:33 AM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

    [Folks, please answer the actual question in a helpful way. Scolding does nothing useful. ]
    posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 12:03 PM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

    Your card and gift package sound lovely.

    You might also consider an amazon gift certificate (often available at drugstore checkout counters if you want a physical "thing") so that they can have things delivered to them as needed.
    posted by samthemander at 12:16 PM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

    The tshirt to support the cancer patient seems to be a thing where i live right now. I know of several cancer patients who have done something similar and i live in a small town. Sometimes its a fundraiser, sometimes its a "we are all in this together" thing. I wouldn't read too much into it, it seems someone wanted to do something for the family and this is how they choose to do it. And it is a kind, visible way for people to help without the awkwardness of handing someone money or food.

    The only thing i think it is really important you do here is acknowledge their stressful time, whether that is monetarily is up to you. If you want to take some financial burden off, have meals delivered or if they are having to spend time in hotels and eating out all the time, offer to pay for a night or two in the hotel or get them a gift card to a family friendly restaurant.
    posted by domino at 12:19 PM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

    Your instinct to do something for the other children in the family is a good one as well, though.

    This. Or send something that would help the family as a unit.

    I know T-shirts are a thing now, but I personally think they aren't the greatest idea. What would most people do with a shirt like this? Sure wouldn't be their favorite. Somehow if/when they're turned into rags or donated to the thrift store it seems kinda weird. Not to mention, as Michelle in California said, they don't get all that much of your donation.

    Give your contribution directly to the family. Your dollar will go further.
    posted by BlueHorse at 12:45 PM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

    Only part of the cost of a tshirt you may never wear will go to your cousins. So, if you know which friend is coordinating the tshirts, send a check. It might feel awkward to send a check to your cousin, so send gift cards to places in or near the hospital - Starbucks or whatever. Maybe the hospital cafeteria has a gift card. Sending books, dvds, magazine subscription, or other gifts to the other kids is a great idea - more likely to be thought of as 'cool cousin kat518 sent this' but even if thought of as 'gift I got when Baby Sister was sick', that's not a big deal. Write a note and send it. The parents might also like some music to listen to while waiting in offices, hanging out at hospital, etc. Your kindness will be appreciated.
    posted by theora55 at 3:04 PM on July 1, 2014

    Other side: we help people here with fund raisers and some people are just extremely against receiving money with no strings attached. Often a photographer might donate a calendar or book to the cause to help with donations because the people who are donating money then receive a thing. This may be similar with the t-shirts, which might be an in-kind donation to ease the acceptability of the generosity. Since they are right there and available, buy more than one and take a picture wearing them and forward that with your heartfelt wishes.
    posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:04 PM on July 1, 2014

    My little one is a 3-year cancer survivor at age 5. Luckily we had great jobs and Canadian healthcare and we didn't need donations. A ton of people brought us food and little C was showered with presents.

    But living in Ronald McDonald house on and off for almost a year exposed me to many people less fortunate that myself. From their experience and my own, my advice is,

    1. Give them some money if you can. Make it a gift to the baby if you feel awkward about it. If you don't want to buy a t-shirt then don't. Trust me, no-one is counting. Money can be a tremendous worry and they will have all kinds of unexpected expenses - even if only, as in our case, it meant a lot of eating out.

    2. Send them supportive cards every once in a while - keep it up. The reverb of this event will be with them forever, and as relatives, you can be there with them in spirit long after the t-shirt.

    3. Sending gift cards or whatever is less optimal than sending money. At Ronald McDonald house there were tons of gifts and ridiculous opportunities but I know many families needed the flexibility that financial support gave more than another event or a pre-scripted (e.g., spend this card at Starbucks or Baskin-Robbins) donation.

    4. You're overthinking the associations part - they know their kid has cancer and the book or the cookies will be part of their overall experience. Not all associations will be negative. My little one ate up the "Snowman Flying" video for months of chemo. If I catch even a titch of it now, sure it makes me a bit teary, but also grateful. If someone gave us cookies, it was "great cookies" not "cancer pity cookies". Positive moments are to be savoured during the process. Don't overthink it, just pitch in.

    My strongest advice is to do what you can, but keep doing it, not be one-and-done. Meet the issue head on - cancer is their new reality and can't really be avoided.

    Anyway, my heart goes out to your cousins and you are a mensch, or womensch, for stepping up anyway you can.
    posted by Rumple at 5:36 PM on July 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

    « Older An English speaker's Univision World Cup Primer?   |   Vermont getaway accessible by train (and no car)... Newer »
    This thread is closed to new comments.