It can be a helpless feeling. Your friend’s husband is in intensive care. Your neighbor’s mother has died. A co-worker has been diagnosed with a serious illness. You want to help. But you’re not sure what to do. So you shoot off an e-mail or send a card and say, “Let me know if you need anything.”
Not many people when faced with a life crisis are able to pick up the phone and ask for what they need. They are too raw. All their emotion is being channeled into the problem at hand. Often they don’t know what they need. And if they do recognize a need, they may not have the energy or the will to ask.
Put yourself in their shoes. If they have been holding vigil at the hospital for days on end, they could probably use some groceries. Maybe their plants need watered. Is someone walking their dog? Getting their mail? Is their laundry piling up?
I have been that person in crisis. Lots of people told me to call them if I needed anything. I did not call. I did not have a single ounce of energy to pick up the phone and tell someone I was too tired to cook a meal. Interestingly, the people who showed up for me, the people who showed up with casserole in hand or ready to walk my dogs, were people who had experienced their own crisis. They knew.
One friend sent a card to my husband’s hospital room with a twenty dollar bill in it. The card said “Give this to Chris so she can buy lunch.” On that day, I realized I had not gone to the bank in ages and had no cash. I didn’t need money. But I sure needed cash. The thought of searching for an ATM machine in that big hospital was daunting. And the cafeteria didn’t take credit cards. This friend had been widowed. Her husband died in a Boston hospital after a battle with cancer. She knew. She knew all too well.
I remember one night sitting in my kitchen, looking at a lovely potted plant, fresh from the florist, and saying, “I wish this was a fruit basket.” I realized I was hungry and the refrigerator was close to empty.
At these times of crisis, when people are just getting through the day, numb with the knowledge that their life may never be the same, help them in the most practical way you can. Cards and flowers are nice, but can’t compare to really giving of your self. Think about their daily routine, their home, their family. Give them the time they don’t have, and fill in the gaps created by the event that has turned their world upside down.
Some people need to talk, to vent, to pray with someone. Others need solitude, peace, rest. You cannot decide what they need. You need to ask. It is OK to say, “Do you want to talk or would you rather be alone?”
If there are children involved, offer to help with the kids if that is do-able. Kids are sensitive to stress and may need a break from the emotional atmosphere at home. Offer to take the kids. Something as simple as playing out in the yard for a while might lighten the load for the parents and give the kids a much-needed distraction.
The life-changing events in my life have altered the way I approach friends in crisis. I will never again say, “Let me know if you need anything.” Because I know. I know better. As my hero, the eloquent poet Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, do better.”