"We each have gifts that we can share with one another. Sharing them with someone at their rock bottom might be just what they need to stay afloat."
“Let me know how I can help.” Chances are you have offered this incredible kindness to friends and family during difficult times. When my husband was arrested, leaving me and my two sons shocked, hurt, and confused, countless angels in my community suddenly emerged, offering this phrase and a supportive hug. I’ve never felt so incredibly fortunate, even while facing what felt like disaster.
And then I was diagnosed with MS. The generous offer “Let me know what I can do” turned into a huge question mark: What can anyone do to help? What do we really need?
I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t think clearly and I was struggling to delegate effectively. I knew my boys needed support. We were all desperately trying to keep our heads above water emotionally and still make it to afterschool activities. I knew maintaining a normal and healthy routine would get us through things, but it was hard to see how I could do that while I was heartbroken, worried about my kids, and feeling exhausted from a chronic illness.
This is when I learned: When people are really struggling, sometimes the biggest help you can give them is a specific offer. That’s what many members of my circle did when they saw me falter, and my family was rescued as a result. Whether it’s a job loss, a terrible diagnosis, a divorce, or some other awful event, there are so many things that you can just go ahead and do—without asking—when someone you know is in a difficult time, and none of them are wrong.
However, some of them proved more useful than others for us. All help helps. But below are some helping hacks I learned from the incredibly generous members of my community as they lifted me and my sons up:
Grocery gift cards are sometimes better than casseroles. Grocery gift cards are a wonderful way to tell someone that you are thinking of them and offer a concrete form of help, especially if someone is struggling with a job loss. As a rule of thumb: Giftcards are better than making a meal unless you are certain that the fridge is empty. We had so many casserole dishes at one point mid-crisis that we ran out of room in the freezer and I was giving away food to neighbors. It was a great problem to have but I think gift cards are a bit easier for the user. You can always check before you cook. A simple phone call: “Hi! Do you have freezer space, or would a grocery card be easier?” would clear things up in five minutes.
Offer a specific outing. Another great way to help is to offer a friend or a family in crisis an outing. When people are going through a crisis, sometimes it is helpful to pull them out of it and into something distracting and fun. A dear friend took me and my kids to feed the ducks one afternoon amid the chaos. She had it all planned out, with duck food and kid snacks. It was an easy, quick outing that brought us a much-needed change of scenery.
Try a fun (and planned) drop-in. Just dropping in on someone in crisis isn’t always a great idea unless you are incredibly close, but outings can also be too big to plan and execute. So strike a middle ground: Opt for the planned drop-in. Planning a fun drop-in can be equally distracting and even more relaxing for those who are struggling. A teenaged friend of ours brought water balloons over one hot day and he played in our yard with my kids. Everyone was soaked and cooled off, and watching my boys have a blast running around and playing in our backyard gave me a feeling of warmth and normalcy for a moment.
Send an old-fashioned greeting card. These days most of our messages are electronic, but I still think that an old-fashioned greeting card, the paper-and-envelope kind, can brighten someone’s day. Mail a card with a quick note to someone, or leave it on a co-worker’s desk, and I guarantee that the recipient will be pleased with the thought. In the card, you can offer to babysit or do yard work or if you’re not close yet, give your cell number and offer to listen anytime your acquaintance needs to vent.
Whatever you do, don’t do nothing! My dad died when I was 21 years old. I recall so clearly being frustrated when well-meaning adults said things like, "I wanted to ask how you were but I didn’t want to bring it up and make you cry.” I had just lost my dad. Of course I was sad and of course I was crying a lot. It takes courage to ask someone how they are when they are mourning, but please be brave and ask! Bring up their loved one or their troubles and ask them to tell you about them. When my family went through crisis, our friends checked their shyness at the door. It helped immensely on our healing journey.
There’s no wrong way to help people in crisis, and the bottom line is: Stay close. Stay in touch. Even if you feel like your connection is distant, it’s possible that that person is struggling alone today. Reach out. Offer support in a way that feels authentic to you. We each have gifts that we can share with one another. Sharing them with someone at their rock bottom might be just what they need to stay afloat.
Read our article, "Do No Harm to Those You Love."