My family’s motto is: “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”
It’s served us well. For the most part, we’re pretty blessed: barring the occasional aches and accidents, we’re healthy; we have a full refrigerator and a beautiful home; we can choose to snuggle with a fluffy cat, a fat cat, or a permanently grumpy cat; we all have college degrees and are steadily employed; we sometimes get to take a family vacation.
But over the years, we’ve discovered first-hand that there’s some truth to Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong, will. From that time our house got struck by lightning (and blew up every electronic device we owned, as well as our chimney), to multiple car crashes (none our fault), to endless surgeries and ER visits (one time even involved – I kid you not – a flying pig), and countless other more serious situations, we’ve come to appreciate that life is short, and that you can pretty much conquer anything with some humor, some prayers, and some support from your family and friends.
This leads me to my main point. . . whenever there’s a tragedy, illness, accident, etc., people want to help. This is AMAZING. The fact that there are people in our lives who care about us so deeply is something to be celebrated. The world needs more of them. But sometimes – particularly when someone’s in the middle of a personal crisis – endless offers to “do something” or “help however we can” seem simultaneously overwhelming and unhelpful.
It’s a great sentiment. Offering to do whatever’s needed is wonderful. Unfortunately, when the person whom you’re trying to help is juggling a million other things, determining exactly what to ask you to do just adds another layer of stress. The reality is that even in crisis mode, we worry about asking too much of our friends and family. We wonder if you really meant that you’d help with anything, or if you just expressed it out of social obligation. Maybe we even realize that you probably would help with whatever we needed, but we just don’t know where to begin.
Perhaps the most concrete example I can use to illustrate this point is when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I was in sixth grade, and my brother was still in elementary school. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and my dad ran his own small business . . . which didn’t really function properly with its president in the hospital. I was brand-new to public school, we’d moved just a few years prior, and we had a huge yard that needed mowing every week. My dad (who has been cancer-free for a very long time now, hooray!) had surgery, followed by the most aggressive chemotherapy that Johns Hopkins offered. Towards the end of his treatment, he wound up inpatient because he needed round-the-clock care.
I’m not sharing this so that you feel sorry for me. . . my dad’s healthy, and he’s alive. Compared to many, many people I know, we are extraordinarily lucky. If the worst thing that ever happens to me is that my dad had a curable form of cancer, I should be shouting my thanks from the rooftop every single day. So please understand that I’m not complaining. I’m just trying to paint you a picture of our lives at the time.
The Shire was in full-on emergency mode, and the best things that people did for us were. . . actually doing things. Our neighbors all hopped on their tractors and cut our grass. With four of them riding around, our five acres – which would have taken my mom half a day to complete – were done in a couple of hours. Our church made meals that could be stored in our freezer. In fact, they made so much food that we were still eating it months after my dad’s treatments had ended. My friends’ parents took care of me and my brother that summer. We went to sleepovers, to the movies, to get ice cream. We went bowling, and mini-golfing, to the pool, the park, and the library. We were constantly shuttled around, but we always felt welcomed and cared for no matter where we wound up. People did our laundry and made sure we went to bed at decent hours. When my dad was rushed to the ER in the middle of the night because he was vomiting blood, we weren’t woken up in a panic and hastily stuffed into the car. Instead, we woke up to sunshine and my uncle at the house, who calmly explained my dad had gone to the hospital, and that we were going to hang out with my cousins that day. While my dad was inpatient for the final round of his chemo, my mom would drop us off there every morning. . . and my aunt always had a lunch packed for her.
But perhaps the best – and the easiest – thing that people did for us was to send cards. We had a wall of cards – they were the first thing my dad would see when he walked in the door after treatments. It grew so large that we had cards taped onto the adjourning walls, overflowing their original space. We saved every single one, and to this day we still have them all. They are tangible reminders that we are lucky enough to be loved by many.
Looking back, I can see how the people who cared for us operated like a well-oiled machine. It was truly as if someone had mobilized an army on our behalf. Even as an 11-year-old whose life had been turned upside-down, I was aware that people were looking out for us. I may not have realized the level of coordination and communication it took, and perhaps I didn’t fully understand just how hard they were working to give us a sense of normalcy and security. My mom was the epitome of grace under pressure, a tireless advocate for my dad, and a constant source of reassurance for us all. But I was a precocious and intuitive kid, (and I was practically born forty), and so despite everyone’s collective unflappability, I knew that things were happening behind the scenes. At the time, it felt both invasive and comforting . . . and all these years later, I can still remember nearly everyone who helped out in some capacity that summer. I’m betting that many of them have forgotten entirely. I have not.
The beauty of it all was that we didn’t have to ask. Many nights my mom didn’t have to figure out dinner. . . it was already in the freezer. She didn’t have to pack a lunch to take to the hospital. . . my aunt had done it for her. We didn’t have to ask for encouragement for my dad. . . it arrived in the mail daily. We didn’t need to hire childcare. . . our friends had planned a summer full of activities. We didn’t have to think too much about taking care of ourselves, and so we were able to focus on what mattered most in those months – taking care of my dad.
I am extraordinarily guilty of saying “let me know if you need anything.” I do it all the time, and I (of all people!) should know better. It’s an easy, default response when you’re confronted with a tragedy that you ultimately can’t fix. You don’t know what to do, and so you offer to do anything. Yet often the friend whose life is in pieces doesn’t know what to do, either. And they shouldn’t have to worry about figuring it out for both of you.
So the next time you’re trying to comfort a friend, or help with a crisis, DO something – don’t just offer. Sometimes all you need to do is call them and ask how they’re doing – and then listen. Or simply say something like, “I’m running to the grocery store on Sunday, give me your list.” One of my go-to comments is, “I’m a terrible cook, but am excellent at carryout, and I’m an even better chauffeur, dog-walker, and babysitter.”
Sure, some people genuinely aren’t going to want your help. That’s OK. When my dad was sick I got so tired of people asking me how I was doing. I just wanted to be normal – to talk about anything that wasn’t my dad’s chemotherapy. And then I’d feel guilty for being irritated with people for checking in on me. But for just one day, I wanted to pretend. Sometimes that’s what you can do – bring your friend some pizza and wine and settle in for a Netflix binge. Sometimes a sense of normalcy is as important as any other kind of care you can offer.
The moral of this very long (and much more personal than I’d intended) post is: stop offering vague, useless niceties, and start getting specific. Your friends know you want to help. Sometimes they just don’t know how you can.
*Main image via HuffPost