I like to give gifts to people, and I put a good bit of effort into trying to think of a gift that is special for each recipient. One of the things that I think is the most fun to give is a gift for a new baby. A thought that strikes me, though, every time I am giving a baby gift is that it's kind of ironic that giving such a gift to the new parents generates work for them, based on social obligations: after they receive the gift, they expect and/or are generally expected to write a thank-you note, which, as anyone who has ever been a new parent knows, is one of the many things for which they really don't have time at that stage of their lives.
When someone has cancer or another serious illness, people are often eager to do something to help out. Having been on both the receiving end of that equation as well as the "What can I do to help?" end, there are a few things that I have learned about supporting individuals in need, the most important of which is probably this: Don't just ask the person or the family if they need anything; ask them what they need.
Admitting that help is needed can be really hard, and so it's best not to wait for them to ask for assistance. Assume that they need help - and ask what kind they need. In some cases, it may even be a good idea to think of specific things to offer, like doing their laundry or their grocery shopping, providing meals, babysitting, pet sitting, etc. One friend of mine paid for a house cleaning service to go to the home of someone she knew while that person was in the hospital; another one sent her husband over to that house to cut the grass - one less thing for that family to worry about. There are lots of things that can be done to take stress off the family and to allow them more time to do whatever needs to be done to care for the person who is ill - or just to spend time together instead of running errands or cooking. If the person who is sick and/or the family say they don't need anything, I recommend respecting their wishes but checking back often to see if that changes. Sometimes people are too proud to ask or they can't think of anything at that time - but situations can change in an instant and the need for help can arise overnight. Sometimes it's good to establish contact with a member of the extended family - or a close friend or neighbor - and let them know you are willing to help. One of my parents' neighbors saw me pulling out of the driveway of their house early one morning when my dad was sick and flagged me down to exchange cell phone numbers with me. Later, after Dad had been taken to the hospital by ambulance in the early hours one morning, that neighbor texted me to say she had heard the sirens and would be happy to walk my mom's dogs or whatever else we needed.
Another thing that can be good to do is just to let the person or the family know that they are being thought of, especially if whatever you do to convey that message comes with no strings attached, like the "No Thank-you Note Policy" for the baby gift. There are many different ways to go about doing this, ranging from texting or mailing a note to that effect (adding "no response required" if appropriate) to sending an anonymous gift or card.
Or here's another idea (and this brings the topic back around to ... CANDY!): Sugarwish!
When my dad was sick, I came across a website with a program similar to the concept behind Sugarwish; the idea, shared by cancer patient Jerry Kline in his blog, was that a pager (also known as a beeper) could be purchased and given to the person who is sick, with the phone number given out to any interested parties so that anytime someone prays for or thinks about the sick person they can call the number of the pager and enter "777" or their zip code followed by the "#" key to indicate their intent to that person, without requiring any response on his/her part. I found the concept of the Prayer Pager to be brilliant; it allows people to send a message to let the person who is sick know they are being thought of, at any time of the day or night. The pager can be turned off if the person wishes not to be disturbed during a certain time, and a page does not obligate the person to do anything in return.
After reading what Jerry had to say about the program, I contacted the program administrator and asked if I could sign up for my dad. Unfortunately, though, the program had run out of funding and was no longer being offered.
Since then, though, I have come across a website that offers something similar to the program Jerry used; it's called Pager Prayer.
I guess the point of all this is that there are things that can be done to help an individual who is sick and/or his or her family and that sometimes even the little things can be helpful and meaningful in such a situation.