You have a friend in crisis. She has cancer and is going to the hospital weekly for chemotherapy treatments; or she has a 3-year-old daughter and has just delivered twin baby girls (and her father-in-law has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer); or she has just delivered a premature baby. Any number of scenarios fit the bill. They may not be life or death, but there are countless ways life gets disrupted. The most common reaction to such situations is for you to call and express your feelings – “Congratulations on the babies! But twins! You poor thing.” or “I’m so sorry to hear about the illness.” Then you automatically say into the phone, “What can I do to help?” Your question is heartfelt and sincerely meant, but probably, ultimately, not going to be helpful to the person in crisis.

When was the last time someone actually called you back when you made such an offer, and asked you for a favor? In the long run, the most likely response you will get to “What can I do?” or “How can I help?” or “Call me for anything,” is an appreciative thank you at the time of the offer, and silence after that. You will call again, and your friend will update you on her situation, but it is unlikely she will call back and ask you for anything. She will feel like she is imposing on you, or may be too overwhelmed to know what kind of favor to ask for. Who really answers your question with the truth: “What I really need is for someone to come and clean the bathrooms in my house. They are disgusting and I just can’t get to them because I have so much else going on.” Your friend won’t be able to say, “I am barely putting one foot in front of the other,” because she is probably trying to be brave or appear competent as she attempts to cope with her situation.

If she doesn’t tell you what she needs, what can you do?

Sit quietly for a minute, put yourself in your friend’s running shoes, and think about what she might need. What would you want if you were in her situation? Then call her and make an offer. Better still, make two offers, giving her a choice.

1. To the mother of the twins: “I have Fridays off. I can watch the babies on Friday mornings while you go out and get your errands done.” Or, “If you make out your grocery list I can do your shopping every Friday morning.”

2. To the mother of the preemie: “I know I can’t help with the baby while he’s in the hospital, but I love cleaning the kitchen. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to take a disaster zone and make it all shiny.

When you go to visit the baby in the hospital I will come and clean your kitchen.”

3. To the friend with cancer: “I always make a big dinner on Sunday evenings. I’ll double the recipe each Sunday and bring dinner to you.”

4. Tell your friend she is lovely but could use a haircut, then ask her when you can schedule an appointment for her. Take her to the appointment and drag her to lunch while you are at it. She still needs to eat.

5. Offer to take care of your friend’s children so she and her husband
can have a night out.

6. Tell her to do all the laundry on Friday evenings and you will be over to fold on Saturday morning.

Be specific. Make the task something you like to do so it isn’t onerous for you, but a labor of love. Perhaps you are a vacuuming addict and there is nothing that makes you happier than seeing the perfection of pile carpet with those nice wheel marks going back and forth over the pile. Tell your friend that. It will make her feel better and she might laugh and say, “All right already. Knock yourself out! Come and vacuum my floors.”

This helping can apply to your siblings, parents, neighbors, co-workers, or anyone in need. If you draw a blank when you are trying to think of how to help an acquaintance you may not know very well, call someone who was in a similar situation. Ask, “What was most helpful when you were sick?” Call hospice if you know someone who is dying or the senior center if your friend is elderly. Such organizations will probably have a number of ideas and resources you wouldn’t have thought of. Then rework their ideas for your particular situation.

Lending a helping hand benefits both the helper – you – and the recipient.
It is amazing how much better you feel when you know you have done a favor for someone. You can’t remove the burden of your friend’s illness or crisis, but you certainly can put a check in the plus column for that friend on that particular day. Your efforts will be much appreciated.

About the Author:

Susan LaScala, RN, MS is a Family Nurse Practitioner and the author of Small Wonder, the story of a child born too soon (Barton Cove Publishing 2009). You can visit her website at