Guarding Family Relationships in Crisis
by Mesu Andrews
It was mid-December when I received one of those pre-dawn phone calls everyone dreads. It was my mom. “Your sister took Dan to the VA hospital. He thought his chest pains were pneumonia. He stopped breathing on the way, and it took them over thirty minutes to get a pulse back.”
The doctors performed a heart cath and inserted several stents into my brother-in-law’s heart, but Dan’s brain had been deprived of oxygen for over thirty minutes. The medical team gave little hope that he’d ever come off the ventilator or show any cognitive function again. My sister Susie called her ten children—adults spread all over the country—to come home.
Six weeks later, I was visiting my mom in Indiana, and we got another one of those phone calls. My brother had gone to a routine doctor’s appointment but was sent directly to the ER and admitted. His heart was in A-fib (an unsteady rhythm). He had a leaky valve and three blocked arteries. Surgery was imminent, so his six adult children were called and came quickly.
I’d like to say that both my sister’s and brother’s families sailed through these crises without arguments or hurt feelings. But anyone who has endured catastrophic illness, financial ruin, fatal accidents—or any other crisis too big for human emotions—has probably experienced the family struggles that often complicate crisis events.
What I love about Scripture is that every issue we struggle with today is fleshed out in a Bible story. People are people, and their families were just as hard to deal with four thousand years ago as they are today.
Let’s look at Miriam, for example, the sister of Moses and Aaron. She was the oldest of the family, the only daughter and (by most accounts) she’d never married. My research suggested that her parents were likely still living—her father 137 years old, and her mother over 100—when Moses returned from Midian to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
Enter the first three plagues—all affecting Israel as well as the Egyptians. The Nile turned to blood for a week—think of the widespread dehydration. Frogs covered everything and then died everywhere—think of the decay, the smell, the disease. Then came gnats, or what most commenters believed to be lice—think of the discomfort, the itching and the resulting wounds. How would Miriam and her brothers have cared for their aging parents? Who would have been “in charge” of making hard decisions? Who would have provided for their needs?
God’s Word gives us no specific answers to those questions, but we get a glimpse of the tension in the family of Israel after Moses first spoke to Pharaoh about releasing the Hebrews—and the king penalized the slaves, saying they must gather their own straw for making bricks.
“When [the Hebrew overseers] left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, ‘May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.’”
– Exodus 5:20-21 (NIV)
When tensions rise, families fight; whether we’re talking about the ancient Twelve Tribes of Israel or a modern family of four. Anxiety rises. Emotions constrict. And, in most cases, everyone’s passion is driven by their deep desire to do what they believe is best and right. So how can we keep from hurting each other—and in turn, ourselves—at the very moment we need our family most?
My husband was a pastor for fourteen years, so we’ve ministered to many families in crisis. Witnessing it in other families, however, is quite different than experiencing it in our own. I’m thankful to say that my brother-in-law, Dan, is a walking miracle. He not only was taken off the ventilator, he is now walking, talking and regaining much of his cognitive ability. It will be a slow process, but God is restoring his body and brain.
My brother, too, had a successful surgery and will leave the hospital with a good prognosis. But what has our family learned during these medical crises that might help other families? Here are a few key principles to ponder:
1. Establish a form of communication that includes the established family group.
This can be tricky with blended families, but it’s not impossible. Perhaps the one in crisis has all the phone numbers in his/her cell phone, and it would be easiest to create a texting group from his/her contact list. Use that phone to send updates to all concerned parties in a group text so everyone gets the same information (privately, rather than a public forum like Facebook or other social media).
2. Discern what you can do to help the primary caregiver—but don’t overdo.
In our family’s cases, both situations involved husbands’ medical emergencies, so the wives bore the burden of making major decisions, spending long hours at the hospitals, and greeting concerned visitors who wanted to show support. Though the whole family is hurting during crisis, it’s generally the primary caregiver who feels not only the moment of crisis but will also be most affected by future fallout. Give the caregiver time to gather his/her thoughts, express concerns, and maintain their position of authority. Even when adult children take good care of their parent-caregiver, that parent must still make the major life decisions that fit his/her future needs. This is an area where best intensions can quickly turn into family tensions if clear and gracious communication breaks down.
3. Give every family member a job/task that fits his/her personality or expertise.
Family members who help row the boat are less likely to rock the boat—this from my sister with ten adult children. With their large family, a pastor’s help to assign tasks was essential. Here are a few of the jobs that were very helpful: family text group for updates (medical and spiritual); 24-hour prayer chain; meals for the family; family member at the bedside 24-hours/day; and a “moving-home” committee to renovate the house for my brother-in-law’s new physical limitations.
4. Serve each other—letting actions speak louder than words.
Though communication is an important part of guarding family relationships, too much talk can create more mayhem. Some people process their stress verbally in a group—these would be our beloved extroverts—but the introverts of the clan may withdraw and need time to process their emotions alone or with one or two others. The one thing that unites both groups is serving the person in crisis and/or the primary caregiver. Whether it’s simply taking off a day of work to be present for surgery, mowing their yard, or bringing an elderly family member to the hospital for a visit—practical acts of service can become the positive topics of conversation that overcome family stressors.
My sister said this about family crisis management: “Don’t kill the eternal over something that will burn.” Most of the things that destroy a family in the midst of stress will pass away when we open our eyes in eternity. Why not guard those eternal relationships?
A family member who doesn’t follow Jesus Christ may be won over by his believing family’s kind and gracious attitudes—or be turned away by their selfish and negative responses. The medical teams, emergency responders, help-agencies and your co-workers are also watching the way you and your family respond in crisis.
When we believe that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sin, and we accept the name, “Christian,” we don’t get to set it aside during hard times so we can act ugly. The comfort and strength we receive as a part of God’s family comes with a responsibility to honor the One who sacrificed His life for us.
In the end, it all comes down to that eternity thing—seeing the crisis and our family members through the lens of eternity. Of course, there are decisions to be made, people to care for and lives to be lived here on earth, but ultimately, the key to guarding family relationships during any crisis is to keep our eyes firmly fixed on what will never pass away.
Mesu Andrews’ deep understanding of and love for God’s Word brings the biblical world alive through her highly-acclaimed historical/biblical novels. Her sixth book, Miriam: A Treasures of the Nile Novel, releases March 15, 2016.
We’d like to hear from you. Please share your comments below or like us on your Facebook page. Be sure to check back each month for more articles and products available at your local Christian bookstore.