Wellbeing

6 Good Alternatives to ‘How Can I Help?’

Hanna Cooper and her husband, Tom Moberg, of St. Paul, MN, with their kids, Emilia and William.

When I was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer in 2016 at age 48, my family, friends and community were as shocked and bewildered as I was. With no time to prepare, we were suddenly facing loss of life as we knew it, and grief, too.

Cancer felt like a tsunami hitting shore, shattering plans into bits and tossing the fragments around like debris. Everyone rallied around us as we prepared for a future we no longer could predict or anticipate.

When someone you care about has been hit with a “rug-pulled-out-from-beneath-you” experience, it can be hard to know what to say, or do.

You wonder: “How can I help? I love this person, but I’m scared and don’t know what to do. If nothing else, I don’t want to make things worse.”

It can be bewildering to be plunged into a supporting role for someone whose life has been turned upside down.

Here are six pragmatic and caring ways to be helpful:

1. Show up and be present, within your own limits. It’s OK if you don’t know what to say: simply acknowledging what’s happening, as horrible as it might be, matters. Know that your presence alone can be very comforting. Even admitting that you don’t know what to say is better than ignoring or minimizing the unanticipated and unasked-for reality.

2. Ask the person, “How are you, today?” Then be sure to listen to the answer. The response might change, from day to day. While it can be exhausting for people in crisis to repeatedly talk about their trauma, asking “How are you doing, today?” allows them to share as much, or as little, as they wish.

3. Listen more; talk less. There are no prizes for dealing with grief or loss “well” or “gracefully.” Mostly, people in the midst of a health crisis are just doing what they can, putting one foot in front of the other.

4. Practice empathy. Put yourself in their shoes for 1 minute. Let yourself actually imagine being in their situation. If you’re struggling with your own emotional reaction to the other person’s loss, find someone who can be a buddy for you. With this person, you can process your feelings, rather than looking for comfort from the person with the loss.

5. Offer to do something tangible and useful. Be specific: “I can drop off some soup on Thursday. How would that be?” While it may feel presumptive to make suggestions, offering something concrete, such as cleaning, cooking, or errands, simplifies things during a very overwhelming time. Your offer might also identify a need they didn’t even know they had.

6. Keep the invitations coming. People with cancer still like to go to coffee. And to the movies. And out to eat. Be flexible and understanding if they decline, ask for a rain check, decide to leave the event early, or change their mind at the last minute. They’ll still likely appreciate being remembered, even if they aren’t ready for group activities yet. Know that if they don’t respond to your offers immediately, they’ll get back to you when they can/are ready.

While you can’t take away their pain or fix their loss, your care lets them know they aren’t alone. By showing up with care and concern, taking care of your own emotional needs, and providing concrete support for the grieving person, you’ll be providing both tangible care and meaningful comfort that will help them get through the hard times that are an inevitable part of being a human being.

New to CaringBridge and wondering what we do?

CaringBridge is a nonprofit social network dedicated to helping family and friends communicate with and support loved ones during a health crisis through the use of free, personal websites. Know someone who could benefit from starting a CaringBridge site to keep loved ones informed and get the love, and support they need?

Learn more

Hanna Cooper, of St. Paul, MN, is a wife, mom of two, friend, neighbor, and leadership and executive coach. During her health journey, Hanna used CaringBridge to process her diagnosis and the Ways to Help section of her site to activate a GoFundMe campaign for financial support and the Planner to coordinate her Care Team of friends. Hanna is in the process of turning her CaringBridge Journal entries into a book.

Comments (26)

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Pirmin Aug 12, 2018 5:32am
Hey Michelle, Please don't feel that you need to get over it and move on. Your grief is powerful and letting yourself feel is important. If you live in a city, try to find a support group you can meet with. We're all in this wild thing called life together.
michelle Jul 23, 2018 12:42pm
My dad passed with pacreatic cancer 2016, he didnt even know he was stage 4 he was a singer full of life ,and i was so close to my dad i can't seem to get passed it i miss him so much from morning to night he is in my head thoughts prayers i cry alot alone i can't seem to ajust i am on lexapro 10 mg because it just hurts so much my dad my best friend 57 years of him it's like my arm is missing. how do ya cope i know others loose a child or much more and much worse things in life, who am i to complain! He was my dad i love him so much, and i feel lost Mrs Florio 2018
Bonnie Parle Apr 27, 2018 3:44pm
The people who helped me the most, after my husband's death, were the people who sat with me, and cried with me. Words weren't needed. Hugs, tears, and company are always needed.
Lin Fredrickson Apr 11, 2018 4:37pm
It's not a good thing to recommend alternative treatments to someone who has already chosen the way they want to be medically helped. Folks think they are being helpful when they insist you have naturopaths, and herbalists rather that conventional treatments, they really are creating a huge anxiety in their friend. Most treatments are very unique to each individual.
barbara Loh Apr 07, 2018 6:40pm
It would be nice for affected person/family to receive a gift card for a restaurant that delivers food for a meal. Grubhub.com offers a variety or restaurants for deliverable food. Establish a schedule for child care, school drop offs and pick ups.
Sheilah Pickard Apr 07, 2018 10:12am
If you do not live close, then send cards with a note regularly. Call regularly. Send a gift card to a restaurant. Later on, send a gift card to a favorite store so a little retail therapy can divert the mind for a while. Send a gift card to a florist so the bereaved can pick a gift that will be a memorial. Florists have more than flowers.
James Keener Apr 06, 2018 5:28pm
Thank you.
Charli Apr 06, 2018 2:44pm
Timely! I always tell my clients, when someone asks "what can I do?" or "call me if you need me" this is the time to bust out the I NEED THIS list. Think it out, print it out, then hand it over and say, one of these things would be GREAT, THANK YOU! You find out who's willing to put their time in quickly. The "list can be 5 min. tasks all the way up to a meal.
Jacqueline UMUTONIWAYEZU Apr 06, 2018 11:06am
Beautifully written and practical. Sending a hug and love and care to you, Hannah
Barbara Gavin Apr 06, 2018 8:58am
Four and six!!!
Veena Kulkarni-Rankin Apr 06, 2018 7:20am
Great article! Thanks so much.
Caprice Mayhew Apr 06, 2018 12:30am
Just a little help goes a long ways. It can be going to the grocery store or sitting with the ill friend while the spouse goes to do an errand.
Denise Apr 05, 2018 11:40pm
Thank you so much Hanna. I am a mom whose son died recently and your tips apply to grief beautifully. Best wishes in your long journey...
Kim Apr 05, 2018 9:39pm
It is so hard to know exactly what to do in these situations. Appreciate you sharing your thoughts!
Carole ( retired hospital chaplain) Apr 05, 2018 8:50pm
For Kathy who lives far away, tell your friend that you are thinking of her and praying for her, and you are willing to drop everything an listen any time she needs to talk. Then send cards, meaningful, funny - whatever. It's nice to know that she hasn't been forgotten, and a card can brighten the day.
Kathy Apr 05, 2018 8:11pm
I love these ideas but what if you live hours away but want to help? I want to send something to the whole family because they are all battling but as much as I search, I don't find anything that can help all of them, or make them all smile? Thoughts?
Kathy M-R Apr 05, 2018 8:09pm
Thank you for taking the time to note these helpful tips. Good luck on your book writing journey.
jane Goldman Macdonald/Robbie Macdonald Apr 05, 2018 7:38pm
excellent article. I'm so sick of 'how can I help!?!' which encourages 'Oh, we're fine.' Thanks
Jimmy Franklin Mar 29, 2018 7:45am
Hello Spencer I’m James Franklin, Austin’s dad. I hope you are having a good day. Austin gets out of the Marine Corp at the end of June. I will be glad to see him out. It’s so much stuff going on in the world today. The next time he comes home I hope we can visit you. I pray for your family and loved ones daily and will continue to. God Bless
Gretchen Griffin Mar 27, 2018 2:37pm
Wonderful photo!! I love your smiles and your hands all intertwined! Very helpful message and useful in so many contexts. Thank you! Gretchen
Debbie O Mar 23, 2018 4:38pm
Beautifully written and practical. Sending a hug and love and care to you, Hannah.
Joe Fleischman Mar 22, 2018 2:38pm
Thank you.
Chloe Mar 09, 2018 6:03am
Brilliant! So helpful to know this Hanna, from someone who knows. Whilst it's a totally different situation, I remember being in complete overwhelm after my mum died 12 years ago. None of my friends had ever lost a parent, so they were really struggling to know how to best support me. We were also all used to me being in charge (I'm that kind of character after all!) and I remember thinking 'please stop asking how you can help or offering general support, I don't know what I need!' All of the above points would have been so helpful at that time, especially no. 5 where I just wanted someone to take charge and make tangible offers. You are spot on, as ever, and love that your wisdom is being shared more widely. Great news for the world! xxx
David Mar 08, 2018 6:41pm
This is incredibly helpful and beautifully written. I think most people want to help their friends, but they don't know how. Caring Bridge is awesome and no, I don't work for them.
Laura Hutton Mar 08, 2018 5:08pm
Excellent, Hanna, excellent!
Paul Mar 08, 2018 4:29pm
Great post! (And great pic, too!)