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?

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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 (40)

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DALE R BURNETT Jul 04, 2019 10:45pm
I loss my husband in 2017 and then my mother 2019 and I have been on a emotional roller-coaster. sometimes I feel so along even when I am around people or family members. I pray and ask God to just taking care of me and help me cope with my feelings of grief in healthy ways.
Kayla Moore Jun 05, 2019 2:29pm
Griefshare.com go to the website and type in your location and it will bring up all the different places with support groups around you
joanne reising May 26, 2019 2:31pm
I lost my husband 9 months ago and Iam struggling big time. So alone with little support. Don't know where to turn to.
Gerald H Bokor May 16, 2019 8:41am
I lost my beautiful ex-wife to suicide little over a week ago. Are there any groups in Clear Water Fl ?
Stefanie Stroud Feb 20, 2019 9:17am
Hi my name is stefanie I lost my husband last week and I'm still in stock in a lot of support please let me know
Allison maynard Feb 10, 2019 12:02pm
Hello again is there any Grief counseling or meetings in Fairfield County
Allison maynard Feb 10, 2019 12:01pm
I lost a mother best friend she did everything for me and my sisters lost her in dec 212018 I don’t know how to put them in words I’m so lost and sick over this ! I know it takes times but how do u move on I lost a father July 2010 of a suicide !! I don’t know what to do my name is allison
Brandon Mundy Feb 05, 2019 1:43pm
Hello, my name Brandon and 4 months ago i lost the love of my life Karla at the age of 32. I think about her every second of the day. I can close my eyes and still picture her standing in front of me ready to give me a hug. I feel so empty in side and lonely. Im just going through the motions and life is a blurr. Everything happened so fast that i couldn't do anything myself to save her and its tearing me up inside. Going to the gym and my faith in god had been my therapy but i miss her dearly.
Sheena Anderson Jan 09, 2019 12:20pm
Hi All- My name is Sheena My Best friend lost her 2 old daughter April of 2018 . This was her only daughter. Her in her husband has a 11 year old son. I check on my best friend everyday. I feel so bad for her. Sometime I even get sad myself because I feel I cant do anything for her pain. She sad all the time. I pray for her EVERYDAY. I told her to give it time. Time will heal. If there anything else I can do. Please let me know. Thank you :)
Dionne Jan 07, 2019 8:30pm
I lost my mom in August and I am having a hard time moving past it. I miss her every day and I just don't know how to begin again without her. I feel guilty like I didn't do something for her I was supposed to, I feel alone like no one else cares eventhough I'm married and have kids. It's as if A part of me went with her and I don't even feel like myself anymore. My health is not going well, I am a diabetic that is not being managed properly and I am afraid.
angeleina fattaruso Dec 30, 2018 8:29pm
hi my name is angeleina and in march of 2018 i lost my great grandmother, i loved her more than words can say and its been months and i still cry myself to sleep i am 14 years old and i obviously dont know how to grieve and its really hard because i miss her so much and i just dont no what to do.
Georgi Haynes Oct 08, 2018 12:14am
Patty, 20 years ago my husband was killed while working - he was an ironworker.. My 3 children and I were in total shock for four months. Friends, ironworkers and municipality helped us create a very small beautiful memorial garden in my husband's name. This garden has helped so many people. WE live in Alaska, so there are many, many tourists who come by the garden, read and take photos of the poems. Everyone comment s about how beautiful the garden is, how soothing it is, many people tell us that they come by and sit on the bench just to contemplate their lives. My kids and I always go to the garden just to communicate with dad. Then when my mother passed away, I knew she loved roses. So, by the handicap ramp, I planted a rose garden for my mom. When I look at my mom's garden, I talk to her all the time. If butterflies are around, that's even better, because then I knew my mom and my husband are always there close by. Patty, healing does take time, but soon you will continue to live and love for your daughter, because she wouldn't want you to. Make a beautiful memorial garden that you can work in and still be close to your daughter. And always talk to her - she is listening.
Patty Trapanu Oct 01, 2018 11:27pm
Hello my name is Patty. I lost my 34 yr. old daughter on 9/3/2018. She was my only living child. I lost her baby sister 7/9/1992 as a new born. My daughter Brandie 34 died 20 days after being diagnosed with metastatic internal melenoma. I am having a difficult time eating sleeping showering and I cry continously. My husband has had to take me to ER three times. I just don't know how to move forward.
June Thornton Aug 30, 2018 2:19pm
Thank you so much for reaching out to me. Also share with others what not to say to parents who have loss a child or loved one: 1) They are in a better place than we are. 2) You will see them again 3) What happened to them? 4) I don't know how you are making it? 5) You are so strong - (no I'm not - I'm thinking inside) These are just a few things people say, and I know they mean well. Here are things that people who lost loved ones want to hear. 1) Is there anything you need? 2) I'm here for you if you need anything. 3) Surprise them - even way after the funeral l- give them a card that says' "Think of you" with just a $20 bill in it." It's the thought that counts! 4) A Scented candle. 5) A book with words of Encouragement and Inspiration. 6) Bring food to the house - even way after the funeral has happened. 7) A visa gift card 8) A body massage or spa day - nail and pedicure 9) Ask them to go see an uplifting or funny movie. 10) Go on a boat ride or a nice vacation. (It does not have to be extravagant) That's what I want to share with people as to how they can be more helpful!
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!)