When someone you love has “special needs”

Last Sunday Rick Warren, with Kay by his side, returned to the Saddleback Church pulpit for the first time since April when his beloved twenty-seven year old son Matthew committed suicide after years of battling mental illness and depression. Warren wept as he confided that his number one daily prayer had always been for his son. Did God not hear his prayers? What do we do when someone we love has "special needs"? We have a special needs person in our family and I'll bet you do too, or you know someone who does.

        Living with someone with frustrating limitations they can't help can be exhausting, exasperating, and bring out weaknesses we never knew we had. Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish between the limitation and the sin nature that plagues us all, which causes confusion. At least that's my experience.  Even with the vast resources to help today (meds, therapy, available experts), I never realized the stress on a family until we entered into the tedious, overwhelming, and never-ending care of someone we love with limitations.
      Other family members must learn to sacrifice time and attention that often must go to the needier person in the family. If the family members are children they are often expected to act with a compassion and maturity far beyond their years or capability. They are sometimes embarrassed when their friends don't understand their sibling's strange behavior. Routines disrupted, nerves frayed, marriages stressed, finances focused on the needy family member when others have needs too. And grandparents who try to help but struggle to understand or to respond well–that's me, I'm sorry to say. I've just returned from a visit with our "special needs" family. As I look back on the visit, I realize that sometimes I've helped and sometimes  I've been more of a hindrance, but always with best intentions. Those days I grieve and ask for grace.
       The list is long including ADD, ADHD, sensory processing disorders, Down syndrome, Aspergers, autism, muscular dystrophy, dyspraxia, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, to name a few. These kinds of conditions add mental, emotional, and physical pressures that other families can barely understand. Hardly a day goes by without significant issues to cope with: decisions on the best care strategies, experts to seek out and figure out how to pay, administering meds and dealing with side effects, and sometimes meltdowns and drama. These caretakers are our unsung heroes who often serve within the confines of their homes where few see their daily fortitude and unending patience. Yes, they mess up, probably often under the heavy weight, but those who persevere are my heroes, and God sees them and celebrates their strength and courage.   
         Sometimes after a visit I come away grieving, asking God, "Why do my loved ones have to bear this heavy load?" I wonder what the future holds. But then You give me glimpses of Your tender care. The preacher's message eased my anxious heart this Sunday and faith flooded in to anchor me again. The song on the radio soothed my soul. And Rick Warren says he's dedicating his life now to help people and families who struggle with "special needs".
        I have to believe that God will use our special needs person to enlarge our hearts to love in new ways. I have to believe that those impacted by special needs will one day be better people, better equipped to serve and care for others. I have to believe, God, that you have a purpose for everything, including this. Help me, Lord, to believe, and sustain these beloved caretakers as they cling to You every day for strength, endurance, and wisdom. They are my heroes. Who are yours?

Dr. Edwards is Assistant Professor of Christian Education (Specialization: Women's Studies) at Dallas Theological Seminary and holds degrees from Trinity University, DTS, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She is the author of New Doors in Ministry to Women, A Fresh Model for Transforming Your Church, Campus, or Mission Field and Women's Retreats, A Creative Planning Guide. She has 30 years experience in Bible teaching, directing women's ministry, retreat and conference speaking, training teams and teachers, and writing curriculum. Married to David for 34 years, she especially enjoys extended family gatherings and romping with her four grandchildren.


  • Belle Unruh

    Special Needs.

    Thank you for this article. I am sending it to my daughter who has a girl with OCD. My granddaughter is better now, but the family went through years of pain. 

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  • Debi Morton

    Great article, Sue!  My mom

    Great article, Sue!  My mom youngest brother had Downs syndrome.  I'm sure there were times when their family of 8 other children wished he was normal, but they grew up in a small town that embraced him and helped to raise him.  He was loved by so many.  And the lessons learned by all of us in the family were countless.  He lived into his 60's, which is almost unheard of, and the entire town shut down to attend his funeral.  I have to say that I think it was because of the way my grandmother treated him that showed the rest of us how to love him.  Yes, as I said, there were challenges, and we weren't always kind to him as children, but oh, how he blessed our family.

  • Vavasview

    Yes, me too

    Thank you for speaking on this subject.  I've just done the same on my own blog…about our own son.  (www.vavasview.blogspot.com).  It's a tough road.  Blessings!