New children’s book teaches the notion of how being helpful can be healing

When someone we love is sick, one of the first questions many of us have is, “How can I help?”

But learning how to be helpful in difficult situations doesn’t always come naturally, especially for children.

A new book by San Diego author, Phyllis Schwartz, teaches the notion of how being helpful feels good. It’s called, “When Mom Feels Great Then We Do Too.”

Schwartz will be speaking and signing copies of her book at Warwick’s on Sunday, September 25th at noon. She joined Midday Edition Thursday. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Courtesy of Phyllis Schwartz

An undated photo of San Diego author Phyllis Schwartz holding a copy of her book, “When mom feels great, then we do too!”

This is a difficult topic to tackle in a children’s book, a parent’s illness, and I’m wondering what inspired you to write about it?

Schwartz: It bubbled up from my own experience as a three-time cancer survivor. I did not have small children through my various cancer experiences. My kids were a little older — teenagers and older adults. But about a year ago something just hit me that I wanted to express a simple, constructive message aimed at little kids. Not to trivialize illness or injury for a family member or loved one, but I think to show children and then their families around them that they have the power to contribute towards a more positive outcome when someone has a health threat. And I felt that small kids would feel overwhelmed by someone in the house that was sick or under the weather and be frustrated that wouldn’t really understand how they could contribute. I’m pretty verbal and I’m in touch with what I need and want, but little kids may not be able to pick up on those cues. It might be obvious if a mom or a grandma says, “Hey, can you pick up your clothes today? Because I’m feeling crummy.” But how do you get kids to feel that they can be contributors, that they can be helpful? So not only do they feel really good about it, but then the person that they’re helping — in my case this is the case for me with my friends and family and children — I feel that it was healing.

Let me ask you about that. The idea of helpfulness can be very meaningful, not just for the person whose friends and family rally around them, but also for the person helping. Can you talk about how helpfulness can be healing?

Schwartz: I think that for me ,and for others that maybe don’t feel well and are in need of healing and help, there’s something about knowing that someone wants to help that’s almost as wonderful of a feeling as the helping itself. It’s just the gesture. It’s feeling appreciated. When you’re not feeling well and you’re walking around in your crummy pajamas and I’m thinking for myself, and you feel like, “Am I worthy?” You get into these things like, “Do I deserve this attention? Do I want the attention?” And I found that even the smallest gesture and a little bit of help — it was the help, but it was the thought, too — that I found really gave me a boost. And when I first got sick, I was on my own in Chicago, and I had just gone there to work in a new newsroom. And my colleagues who barely knew me were so fantastic. I mean, they would take me to the hospital, they would bring me books, they would go get me crackers if I was going to have to go, excuse me, throw up from my radiation. So I think that there’s a few different things here. People can come up with the simplest thing to help make you feel good. Grand gestures are great, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. And going back to little children, they might not have an allowance. I’m not talking about going out and buying mom an ice cream, but they’re just doing things to make people feel loved and comfortable. But just the fact that children can come up with things that are in their power to do: go out and weed the garden — which I talked about in my book — or help grandma make the bed. I think it’s good to set people up with suggestions that are achievable.

You have a section from the book to read. Will you share it with us?

Schwartz: Thank you very much for asking. By the way.

It turned out that our Mom was sick,
so doctors came up with a fix.

They took out some bumps
and sent her home quick.

Dad said Mom’s recovery would be swifter
if you make her laugh and don’t  pinch your sister.

Granny said you can help make Mom’s bed
and not let the worries fill your heads.

We made her funny videos and colored a card,
We even helped weed daisies in the yard.

I wrote it, but it’s funny. I love it. I love this line when the granny says, “and not let worries fill your heads.”

That’s such an important part of this and one that goes back to helping children sort of work through their emotions of feeling confused and helpless. Right?

Schwartz: I’m sure everybody has many people have had this experience where your parents are kind of whispering in the other room and you’re laying down by the door. I used to do this, and you’re listening to the crack. “What’s going on?” It sounds like something important is being discussed. And so kids get, like, the tail end of things or the whisper. And by, I think, this book, I’m hoping that it helps families, and even people who don’t have families, maybe with their friends. Start a discussion about if you don’t feel well, what do you need? What would you like me to do? What are some simple things I could do? Even the simplest thing is so appreciated.