Do’s and Don’ts When Helping a Friend In Need

A recent family crisis has taught me a lot about what it means to be a supportive friend.

My father, whose wife recently passed away, was briefly hospitalized in January, forcing me to board a plane, with a dog sled, to help him recover. We both have a lot of friends and colleagues who have been calling and texting to support us.

How are you? What can I do to help? Any updates?

These are the types of messages I myself send when I contact a friend in need. However, what I have learned in this experience is that many well-meaning calls and texts can sometimes be more of a burden than a help.

Today, I will share some of the lessons that I have learned from this experience. Here’s a brief guide to the do’s and don’ts of help.

What to do: Think twice before calling. I was amazed at how often my dad’s cell phone rang and how tired it was for him (and me). Usually, the calls to wake him up from his sleep were much needed. It made me realize that phone calls in times of crisis, although well-intentioned, can make me feel uncomfortable and exhausted. Obviously, phone calls are appropriate in certain situations, but my advice is to avoid calling at the height of illness or crisis if you can.

Don’t: Text for updates. Try to avoid sending messages asking for answers. How are you holding up? How do you feel? What is the latest? If your text ends with a question mark, it burdens the patient or caregiver to respond.

Do: Send a support message. Messages are less intrusive than phone calls and can be read on our own time. The best pieces of writing are those that share thoughts on support, an offer of help, or a link to an interesting article, a commemorative photo, or a funny video — and then end with “Just think of you. No response needed. ”

Don’t: Ask people what they need. Many of you have called or texted with the question: “How can I help?” But in the fog of illness and loss, it’s hard to know what you might need, so most of the time we just say, “Thanks. We’ll let you know.”

Do: Make a specific offer to help. Instead of asking what you can do to help, try making a specific offer, often describing how you can help. My colleague Karen Barrow, whose mother recently died, put it this way: “Don’t ask how to help – just help. Just send a meal or help with a chore.” Here are some examples of how to help when someone dies or gets sick:

  • I can help you write a thank you note.

  • I’m happy to pick up the kids from school.

  • I will take the dog for a walk.

  • I have a van if you need help moving or donating.

  • I can run errands, shop, take you to appointments or get prescriptions.

  • I made cabbage rolls (or stews, dumplings, lasagna, or cookies). I’ll leave them on your porch. (A lot of food arrives in the early days of the crisis; meals a few weeks later are often a bigger help.)

Do: Use mail. When you’re sick or grieving, finding a card in the mail is a highlight of your day. For carers, walking to the mailbox is a welcome respite. Unexpected deliveries, such as fruit or flowers, are also great, especially in the weeks after someone dies and the initial amount of support dwindles. Opening a package to discover a lemon cake shipped from Vermont is a real pleasure.

Do: Share a story. Social media can be a great source of comfort for a sick or grieving person. My dad appreciates reading the comments people post on his Facebook page, and especially enjoys hearing stories and memories about his late wife.

Obviously, each person has their own needs and preferences. Phone calls may not be welcome in the ward or during recovery at home, but are more appreciated a month or two later. When I ask Well readers to share their insights into care, the most common piece of advice is: Let the patient take the lead. And that’s the biggest challenge for those you want to show support for – determining what each person or family needs for their particular situation.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, my best advice is that small gestures matter. A card in the mail, a funny story that makes you laugh, or a surprise lemon cake left on the porch will always be a bright moment in someone’s day.

For more care, see the Good Guide:
How to become a caregiver

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