This blog was born out of my own feelings of inadequacy to know what to do in situations when I really wanted to help – and my admiration for people that I have known who seem to know just what to do or say. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but as I have looked for ways to help and asked people what they have found helpful, I have come up with a list of things you can do in almost any situation. I would love to hear feedback on this list. Are there things you agree or disagree with on this list? Is there anything you would add?
Send a card or an email.
Often people are inundated and overwhelmed when a crisis hits and would prefer that you not call or visit. But sending something written is something they can look at when they are ready.
In Beyond Words, a breast cancer survivor talks about the cards she received. She set them up on her dining room table and looked at them frequently. She said those messages of support lifted her and helped her through some dark moments. She found them so helpful that she suggests to others going through cancer that they find a place to display the cards they receive so that they can read through them on hard days.
Listen more than you talk.
I always worry I'll put my foot in my mouth -- and I have certainly done so on occasion! But you can't go wrong by listening.
Often people need a kind ear. However, don't push someone to talk. If they aren't ready to talk, let them know you will be available if and when they would like to talk.
Ask before you do.
In most cases, I recommend asking permission to perform service for someone. There are so many factors you may not be aware of: dietary restrictions, what other people have already done, etc. There is also a higher chance of the service being misinterpreted.
So take a minute to call and say, "I'd like to bring you a meal. Would Monday night be okay and, by the way, does your family have any food allergies?" or "I’d like to come visit you in the hospital. Is this a good time and is there anything I can bring with me?" or "I was thinking it might be helpful to shine your family's shoes for the funeral -- may I do that for you?"
Sometimes the person in the situation is being inundated with calls, etc. and it would be better to check with a family member instead of the person directly. For instance, my sister had a friend that lost a baby in a preterm birth. She called the mother of her friend to check to see if she thought it would be appropriate/appreciated to send a bouquet of flowers or if there was something else she could do that would be more appreciated.
Offer a specific service.
People often say, "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help." I believe most people mean it when they say it, but they don't usually get taken up on their offer. It is too vague. Instead, offer something specific. They may take you up on it - but even if they don't, your offer of help will be more memorable when there is something they need.
Look through the posts on this site to find some ideas of things that might be helpful for the specific situation you are dealing with. Some things that are almost always helpful:
Often you can find a specific, helpful service just by paying attention as you talk to or visit with someone.
I recently watched this in action. When a mother in my neighborhood passed away, several people reached out in a variety of ways to help. Neighbors took in meals to the father and children at home as well as to adult children living nearby. Her teenage daughter was taken by her choir group to get her hair done and a new dress. Mariana thought to ask about another daughter at home, a young adult daughter with Down Syndrome. She took this daughter to get a new dress. She watched and listened to what was being done, then identified something specific that she could do to help.
Bring a notebook.
I think the most useful tool in almost any situation is a small notebook. It can be used to keep track of food/meals/services/visitors/cards for later thank you's or just as a reminder of the outpouring of love and service. It can be used to keep track of medical information. Consider taking a notebook and pen to someone who has recently had a crisis, along with a suggestion of how it might be used.
Continue to offer support.
Long after a hospital stay is over or a loved one is buried, those affected are likely to still struggle with grief and emotions. Letting people know you are thinking of them – and being willing to talk about what happened is helpful.
I know that on at least two occasions, I have marked dates on my calendar intending to reach out to someone I care about as they go through those first anniversaries without a loved one: the holidays, the birthday of the person they lost, the anniversary of the person’s death. On both occasions, when I noticed the dates come up on my calendar, I wasn’t sure how to handle it and did nothing. Since then, I have observed others handle this by sending a short note remembering the person that was lost. We just passed the anniversary of my husband’s aunt’s death and I was so touched by a short video that was posted, and reposted on Facebook by many family members, celebrating her life.