6 Good Answers to ‘How Can I Help?’

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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.

Hanna Cooper, of St. Paul, MN, is a wife, mom of two, friend, neighbor, and leadership and executive coach. She is in the process of turning her CaringBridge Journal entries into a book.

Comments (4)

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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!)