How Can I Help?

George MacKay IMG_1687We often ask “How can I help?” when someone we’re close to—a relative, friend or neighbor—loses someone to a death, or is burdened with caring for a convalescent or terminally ill loved one. How can we help?

We ask this with sincerity, but people burdened with caring for a loved one are often so overwhelmed they cannot concentrate on what other people could do for them. On the other hand, some of us find it difficult to ask for help. We don’t want to impose, or can’t even imagine what someone else might do to ease our burden.

Instead of asking what you can do, think about what you can do, then do it. Right now.
Here are a few ideas:

Fix a meal. This is a huge time and expense saver for the person responsible for feeding a family.

Prepare a goody bag for those waiting at the hospital. Those in all-night or all-day vigils hesitate to leave to go to a hospital cafeteria (if there is one). A selection of sandwiches, crackers and cheese, cut up vegetables, nuts, apples, bottled juices, and even a thermos of coffee is a welcome and healthful treat, and beats eating junk from a dispensing machine.

Consider a gift card. It’s expensive to have a family member in the hospital. Consider giving the caregiver a prepaid gas or parking card. It’s not only the money, but the thought that means so much to a stressed family member.

Find a helpful job. Look around and see what you can do to make a grieving family’s life easier. I once read of a neighbor wanting to help a family who had just lost a beloved relative and were preparing for a cross-country flight to attend the funeral. The neighbor took his shoe-shine kit to their house and said, “Bring me all the shoes that you’ll be taking.” He shined five pairs of shoes, filling a real need while at the same time showing his love and concern.

Maybe mowing a lawn would help, cleaning a house, or making a needed repair. Washing windows could be a blessing for someone short on time or energy.

Fill an urgent need.  A friend of mine took on the care of an adult son who was suddenly a quadriplegic after a diving accident. Her brothers stepped in to build a wheelchair ramp, redesign the bathroom and adjust doorways to accommodate a large wheelchair. This resulted in huge savings, but even more important, gave emotional support when it meant the most.

Offer to babysit or adult-sit. People can only be in one place at a time and it’s stressful to be concerned about children or an elderly parent at home while being needed at a hospital. If it’s too much for one person, organize a team who will take turns taking care of the child or person in need of attention at home.

Give a caregiver a break. Offer to stay with the patient for a few hours or overnight while the caregiver attends to her own needs, or just takes some time off. Everyone needs time to themself and this break can go a long way toward giving needed relief.

Offer transportation. Getting to a hospital or health center can be daunting to someone who doesn’t drive. Offer to drive, perhaps setting up a schedule so you can be counted on. If the frequency is too much for you, organize a team to provide transportation on a regular basis.

Give them a reason to laugh. Laughter is healing and relieves stress. Reminisce with a grieving or burdened person, recalling the good times, the funny times. Laughter also helps to bring life into perspective.

Express appreciation. Let the family know how much the patient has been admired and what good things he or she accomplished. It’s comforting to a family losing a beloved member to know how much that person meant to others. After my father’s sudden death, I delivered a promised set of tellers’ floor mats to a bank, a long-standing customer of my father’s. After the workmen unloaded the items from my car, they gathered around and told me how much they had admired my father, his steady good work, and his wonderful sense of humor, even telling me some of the funny things he had said. Of course, it brought fresh tears to my eyes, but I’ve always been grateful and touched that they shared those feelings with me.

Keep the family in your prayers and thoughts. No matter what the family’s or your religious affiliation, offer your prayers, or concerns and thoughts if that’s more appropriate. Letting someone know you’re praying for them, or thinking about them, offers moral support. Illness can be a lonely battle and it’s comforting to know others are rooting for you.

Whatever you do, be assured that you’ll be giving a grieving or anxious family a lift that will touch their hearts. Knowing that other people care helps lighten a difficult burden.

10 thoughts on “How Can I Help?

  1. Good advice, Mary. Also just a “thinking of you card can lift spirits.” And if someone is dealing with long term illnesses, they will appreciate several cards sent over time.

  2. This is great, Mary. Before my husband died, I would also make these vague “Let me know if I can help” statements, but you have no idea until you’ve experienced the loss or situation. I’m not good at asking for help and I don’t know what to say to the question. Your suggestion of “just do it” (ala Nike) is most helpful. I was so appreciative of a neighbor who brought a meal and one who mowed my acre of weeds and trimmed my trees. They are angels!

    • Thank you, Heidi. When my father suddenly died, his neighbor came over and asked if he could pick up people from the airport or train. What a blessing! We had people coming by air, bus, train and ferry. He picked them all up! I can’t imagine what we would have done without him.

  3. These are really practical and thoughtful suggestions. I really appreciated such helpful gestures when my husband was at Harborview Hospital in May and part of June. Thanks for giving these specific suggestions.

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