My son has been in a health crisis for over three months. Every single day and night. We don't sleep and there are very few remnants of our previously normal daily life left. I've had to withdraw from all my commitments and responsibilities, some that I was ready to release and some that left me with a stinging bareness.
I've had to accept help. I 100% love being a helper, and I 100% loathe being a helpee. I have managed to resist help through all sorts of tough times. But here I am in a new season where I don't have a choice but to allow others in.
I wanted to share with you what I have found most helpful in the help department. Let's face it: you're busy too. If you are going to invest time, energy, and/or money into another person, you might as well maximize your efforts.
Please hear me. This is critically important. Any gesture of help--kind words, a text to check in, a hug, a meal, a ride, a gift card, a card in the mail, babysitting--is seen as an act of love. You don't have to do things the "right" way. I want to give you tips from my point of view, but I can tell you that I have appreciated every single anything that anyone has done for me or to me in order to help me on this journey.
Don't be paralyzed by perfectionism. Know that your heart will be appreciated every bit as much as your actions.
Helping Someone Emotionally
1. Try to understand what the person is going through...
Take a moment to think about what the person is experiencing. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine what they could be feeling. Observe and ask questions. Some people might like the chance to talk about what they're experiencing and some may be too tired to talk.
2. ... But don't assume that you already understand.
You can sympathize with a person when you know enough about what they are going through. But empathy comes from having experienced the same thing. I have so many wonderful people who see my pain and exhaustion and reach out to me. But I really connect with other parents who have actually experienced a child going through a health crisis.
I have also encountered many people who simply don't understand why our life is so difficult right now. They know a tiny bit of information, assume they understand the situation, and make comments that do more harm than good.
Don't be afraid to say something like, "I don't fully understand what you're going through, but I can imagine that it must be difficult."
3. Use personal experience to connect.
Maybe you haven't gone through the same exact circumstances before, but you likely have something in your arsenal of experiences that gives you some insight. Briefly mention what it was, how it made you feel, and how it helps you understand this person. You might say, "I haven't lost a parent, but my grandmother was extremely important to me. When she died, I felt like the world was a different place without her in it. I'm praying for comfort for you as you grieve the loss of your mom."
Sometimes opening up and telling how you felt in a hard time allows the other person to feel safe enough to share their feelings. Be the first one to be vulnerable. It's a great gift to offer.
Helping Someone Practically
1. Take a meal.
This is one of the most common ways to help someone. I often say that food is my love language. I love to give people food they will enjoy. It's just a fact of life that everyone eventually needs to eat, so it's a known need to meet.
Here are my favorite tips for taking someone a meal:
- Use disposable dishes--foil pans, Ziploc or Glad containers, zip top bags. Stress that you do not need any containers returned to you. Let them off the hook of washing extra dishes and returning them. Bonus points for bringing paper plates, plastic forks, and plastic cups for the actual meal to be eaten on/with.
- Be on time. Tell the person when you're coming with the meal and then try your best to be there at that time. You don't want hungry kids getting impatient or a nursing mother trying to hold a baby off until after guests have come.
- Ask about food allergies and special dietary restrictions. No sense in taking a meal that can't be eaten. You can also keep components of a meal separated for anyone who is picky.
- Offer homemade meal choices. You might offer two or three meals that are favorites or easy to make and ask which one would be most enjoyed by the person or family.
- Offer restaurant choices. I had someone send me a text saying they wanted to bring me dinner and asked what restaurant is our favorite for take-out. Sometimes it's easier on everyone if you simply pick up food from a restaurant where everyone already knows what they like.
- Offer day choices. There's a fine balance between being bossy enough to nudge the person into accepting your help and still being sensitive. The best way to handle the balance with meals goes something like this: "I would love to bring you a meal this week. I can do Monday, Thursday, or Friday. Which day works for you?" Then the person doesn't have to decide if they'll accept a meal, simply when that help would be most convenient.
- Inject something healthy. I love me some comfort food, but sometimes I need to eat something that's good for my body. A friend recently brought us a delicious salad with all sorts of yummy healthy ingredients. It was awesome. She also brought a big bowl of strawberries, which are my kids' favorite. It felt so good to have fruits and vegetables, especially when I can't get out for fresh produce.
- Give a meal for later. You can bring a meal for their freezer that can be eaten on whatever day they choose. You can also give a gift card for a restaurant that delivers.
- Make the same meal for yourself. It's easy to make a double batch of a meal and simply put it in two pans. Add the same side dishes and the same dessert (of course!) and you've got both families covered. Or purchase your own dinner from the same restaurant when you order dinner for the person/family in need.
One of my friends regularly texts me to let me know when she's on her way to Walmart or the grocery store. I tell her whatever items I need and pay her back when she delivers them. This has been extremely helpful. She always seems to text right when we have a critical item or two that we really need. I've never given anyone my full grocery list, but I'm so happy to get what we absolutely need.
3. Run errands.
This is the same idea as getting someone's groceries. You could let the person know when you are going to run your own errands and ask what they need. It's easier to accept the help when they know you already have to be out for your own errands. When a family is in crisis (or recovering from surgery or adjusting to a new baby), they might not be able to do things like return library books or pick up dry cleaning. You can clear these things off their to-do list while you're tackling your own.
4. Clean--with caution.
This one is tricky, am I right ladies? Every woman wants a spotless house, but we all feel like we have to present a perfectly clean house to anyone who comes into our home. We are a clean-before-the-cleaning-lady-comes breed. So this one requires some sensitivity. There are only a few people I will allow to see my house as it really is and even fewer I would allow to help me clean it.
Alternative ideas: Clean someone's car, rake leaves, mow grass. Stick to outdoor spaces or limited areas to avoid shame for the person who hasn't been able to clean.
5. Provide a ride.
You might drive someone to appointments simply to give them a little time off from driving. Or offer to pick up or drop off kids. When Nolan is having a really bad day, my friend will pick up my other two children from school and bring them to my house. This spares me from having to drag Nolan out when he is in pain, and it also saves me from feeling like I have to put on my happy mask in front of the other school parents. I've had another friend pick up homework and papers from the office of Nolan's school when she's there to pick up her own son. It saves me a trip and gives us what we need.
I have had friends stay with Nolan for an hour so I can go volunteer at the school for one of my other kids' classes. Family members have watched our kids so Jared and I can have a date. I even accepted an offer from someone who stayed with all three kids so I could run a few errands by myself. Sometimes I need someone to run the errands, and sometimes I just need a minute outside this house by myself! You can offer similar babysitting depending on the situation.
7. Manage communications.
When Nolan was in the hospital, my friend Michele created a group text including a bunch of our friends. I would text Michele our updates, and she would copy the update and send it to the group. It allowed me to send one text and still reach the group. Michele fielded their follow-up questions and gracefully accepted their suggestions. I was busy talking to doctors and nurses and taking phone calls and texts from family members.
Maybe you can help update a particular group of people. Maybe help manage a Caring Bridge page or Facebook updates. Organize a meal calendar or rides to chemo or dialysis or appointments. Be the one to let others know when there's a need they can fill.
8. Maintain their car.
Have you ever had your gas light come on when you're already running late and don't have time to stop? When a person is going through a difficult time, they're not thinking about things like getting an oil change. If you have time, park your car at the person's house, ask for their keys, and take their car in for maintenance. You can bring along a book or work or Bible study homework. When you return the car and keys, let the person know that you enjoyed the wait time for leisure or catching up on work.
9. Complete home repairs.
My brother recently came over and fixed a plumbing issue we've had for way too long. Between Nolan's situation and Jared's work schedule, we just couldn't get to it. Thankfully, my brother had the skills and patience to figure out the problem, and he took the time to come over and fix it. We are still delighted every single day to notice that the problem is not there. Maybe you have skills you can offer. Clean out gutters, fix a leak, paint, drywall, fix a roof, hang a shelf. Do whatever is unfinished or undone that may bring a little more peace to the person's home.
It's the Little Things
Don't think you have to make a big gesture in order to have a big impact. I'm a girl who loves the little things. Try these simple ideas.
- Send a text. I always love a quick text from someone, whether it's to check in and ask how things are going or to offer words of encouragement.
- Send a card. Oh how I love the written word, especially when it is literally hand-written. You can pick up a nicely worded card and sign your name or get a cheap blank card and write your own message.
- Offer a Bible verse. Pray for the person and ask God for a verse. You can use any form of communication to send the verse (text, email, card, Facebook, even Pinterest or Instagram). This is also a favorite of mine when people give me a verse of encouragement.
- Reach out and touch someone. Some days there's nothing you can do to help but a hug can bring comfort. If it's appropriate for the relationship, rub the person's back. They probably have built up tension that you can help relieve.
- Bring a coffee. Get one for you and one for the person in need. Tell them you're going and just need to know their order. That offer is hard to resist. Maybe grab a donut too.
A Few More Tips
- You don't have to pay for everything. Tell the person upfront that you'd be happy to get their groceries/dry cleaning/gas/prescription and they can write you a check when you deliver the goods. This helps eliminate the awkwardness.
- You will say, "Let me know if there's anything I can do," and they will likely never let you know. That sentiment is still received as heartfelt support, but it also puts the responsibility on the other person to reach out to you. So pick something to do, and do it.
- Be real. Be honest. Show up with no makeup on. Wear grubby clothes when you stop by. Let them see your home when it's not perfect. Let your imperfections show so they know they don't have to hide theirs with you.
- Keep checking. Needs change. People always have to eat again. Groceries run low yet again. There are set backs and celebrations. You can participate in different ways as their journey changes course.
- Never underestimate the power of humor. Sometimes there's nothing to do but laugh. The more stressed I feel, the more sarcastic I become. Sometimes a joke or funny card or meme can break the tension and lighten someone's mood.