If there’s anything you need…

One of the most common responses when someone is sick or bereaved is “if there’s anything you need, just let me know”. Well-intentioned as these words may be, it is unlikely the person will let you know what it is that they need for three simple reasons.

1. It is difficult to distinguish genuine offers of help from simple politeness.

When I first became ill, friends, relatives, doctors, colleagues and virtual strangers would pat my arm and say ‘if there’s anything you need…’ but it was rarely possible to tell who really meant those words and who proffered them as meaningless platitudes when they didn’t know what else to say.

On several occasions I plucked up the courage to ask for help only to realise the friend in question had never really expected to be held to their offer. Once asked for help, they would feel obliged to deliver, but would often do so with such bad grace I would wish I had never asked them at all. Such experiences were utterly humiliating and made me less and less likely to ask for help the next time.

2. Even when an offer of help is genuine, it is difficult to know what sort of help a person is willing to give.

It is horrendously embarrassing to ask someone to do your laundry when you’re stuck in the hospital, only to discover that washing dirty knickers wasn’t the sort of help that they had in mind. Even the most willing of friends may have tasks that fall outside of their comfort zone and it is incredibly awkward when you gauge this wrong. Some friends are more than happy to do laundry or change bed-linen while others would far rather post letters or babysit kids. Without some indication of individual preferences it is very hard to know which friend to call upon.

Grief and illness can be so mentally draining it can be hard to think of ways for others to help you, even when you really need their help. It can be a huge relief when someone makes a specific suggestion that removes the responsibility of having to think of everything yourself. Some of the best offers of help I’ve had over the years were things I would never have thought of myself. One friend who worked part-time would drive me to medical appointments if I booked them on days when she wasn’t at work. Another friend would text when she went to the shops so I could let her know if there was anything I needed. When I was struggling to work part-time, a stay-at-home mum froze left-over portions of family meals so I had home-cooked food to reheat in the microwave on days when I was too exhausted to cook.

I could always say ‘no’ to someone if their offer wasn’t needed but if people let me know what they were willing to do I never had to worry that I was asking for something unreasonable.

3. Other people lead busy lives and no one wants to be an inconvenience.

Even the most selfless of people will have work and family commitments that limit the time they can dedicate to helping others. One of the best ways to resolve this is indicate not only what you are willing to do but when or how often you are willing to do it.

I have no idea what time of day to phone a busy friend without disrupting them as they prepare to go out, sit down to a meal or oversee the children’s bath time and homework, so mostly I opt for not phoning at all. Like many people I forego much of the help I need for worry that I might add to someone else’s stress when they may already be struggling to get their own tasks done. If however I know that a friend doesn’t work on Thursdays, does their supermarket shop on a Tuesday or does a weekly cook-and-freeze on a Sunday afternoon and would be happy enough to cook a little bit extra, I don’t have to worry about sending them out of their way or putting them to enormous trouble and expense.

So if you have a friend who is living with chronic illness, recently bereaved, going through a messy divorce or parenting a child with special needs, and you really want to do something to help, my advice would be this:

  • Let them know what you are willing to do and when you are able or unable to do it.
  • Be prepared for them to say ‘no’ to your help and don’t take offense if it isn’t what they need at the current time.
  • Remember it’s ok for you to say ‘no’ too or arrange to help out on a different day if what you’re asked to do today just isn’t feasible.
  • And never say the words ‘if you need anything, let me know’ unless you’re certain you mean them.

Over to you:

Do you find it easy or difficult to ask others for help?
Why do you think that is?
What have you found helpful or unhelpful when going through tough times?

This entry was posted in Hidden Disability, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to If there’s anything you need…

  1. nicolanoo says:

    I often find it hard to ask others for help because I feel like I am putting uon them whem, but my close friends are always willing to help me out when I need it, in pretty much any way I need.

  2. dawnhosking says:

    I have had to learn to ask for help when I have to. It’s never easy as I’ve always had an independent head on my shoulders and have always been dependable and reliable. The thing that I need and that is of most help when I’m having a relapse or flare of symptoms is space. I find the most therapeutic thing for me is peace and time for myself. I find it so difficult to try to pace my self when in company. This is a challenging illness full stop – we should all get a gold star 😉

  3. MCS Gal says:

    You have said it well. It is hard to ask for help and it is also hard to know what kind of help is needed and what help will be received. Follow up phone calls can help reveal real needs. If nothing else, that phone call lets the person know you care and are thinking about them.

  4. Miss Soul says:

    Everything you wrote is so true, as for me, asking for help is still hard for me, it’s like I admit defeat. I have a problem with it sometimes, I am at the point now where I can not open a bottle or a can and it stinks.

  5. tlohuis says:

    I find it very difficult to ask others for help. I already feel like such a big burden on everyone around me. The things I find most helpful for me during my toughest times is to have friends that will stop by just to visit, even a phone call works. But, the thing that works best for me is practicing mindfulness and meditation. It takes a lot of practice and patience, but I do benefit from it and I’m still learning a lot about it.

    • Claire says:

      Hi tlohuis, I’m trying meditation too and I’m finding it a huge struggle, but well worth it.

      • tlohuis says:

        Hi Claire,
        My name is Tammy, I guess my name only appears on my gravatar. Meditation can be very rewarding, so don’t give up. It does take a lot of practice, patience and belief in yourself. Because of my pain, I do it laying down. I was told you don’t have to be sitting. Stay strong and keep practicing every day and it will get easier. I’m still learning more each day about meditation. I’ve only been meditating for a few months and only seriously for about a month and it is really starting to pay off. good luck.

  6. posipesi says:

    I find it very hard to ask for help, and I often am left with a feeling of owing. Like I am using them for their abilities, while I lay curled up on the couch. As a single mother with three children, a chronic illness, and still working full time, help is needed more than I would ever want to admit. I don’t know if I will ever be comfortable with asking for help, but maybe one day.

  7. sarsrose says:

    Such a good point. It is far too much of a throw away line. I think sometimes people get scared. They want to be caring, but they’re scared that if they offer something specific and it’s taken up, they will become the go-to person for everything and not be able to ‘escape.’ I think there can be two negative types of unwell people: those who never ask for help when they need it, and those who constantly ask for help when they could do it themselves.
    I think we live in a culture though, that is too individualistic. We’ve lost a bit of that sense of community. If we lived in a world where everyone was giving and sharing, we’d all be helped and provided for.

  8. Claire says:

    As MCS gal says – you said it so well – not only is there reluctance to ask for help because of the simmering resentment at ourselves that we are no longer as independent, but we also don’t want to be a burden. And if things are really bad, then my brain just isn’t clear enough to think what sort of help I would want or need.

  9. Frances Wookey says:

    As always Sarah, your points at the end are really good advice. It’s also interesting to read the comments of your other correspondents.

    The first thing that I always ask a friend in hospital is “do you need any washing done?” unless I know that they have family doing it. The next thing that I do is to tell them that washing is fine, but my iron never sees the light of day!! (I serioulsy don’t even know where it is since we moved 9 months ago.)

    I do however fall into the “is there anything I can do?” trap in other situations, since I often really have no idea what someone might need, but am willing to do what I can. The problem can then be that someone asks for something that is, for me, not possible for whatever reason, and they then assume that I didn’t mean it, and never ask for anythng else. Clearly, we all need to try to communicate with one another as effectively as we can.

  10. saxoma says:

    Dear Sarah Another insight into the mind of the chronically ill and the things they have to face. As for me – if you ever think of anything I can do for you (you are already on the prayer list) or want a visit then you only have to ask. If you can cope with me then I would like to think that I can cope with you!! Much love Serena

  11. E. Milo says:

    Reblogged this on Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart and commented:
    Sarah, at Dead Men Don’t Snore, always writes pointed insights into living with this disease and chronic illness, in general. Reblog:

  12. E. Milo says:

    Great post, as usual. Reblogged on Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart:

    Sarah, at Dead Men Don’t Snore, always writes pointed insights into living with this disease and chronic illness, in general.

  13. You said it well—- I have always been very very independent– & was the “Care giver” to EVERYONE ELSE!!!!

    • I posted before I was ready– 🙂 It is very very very hard for me to ask others for help– because I also have found before I was really sick when I asked others for help– they always had excuses whey they could not do anything– so when I am really sick & need help– & have to force mysel to ask for help— it is not knowing if — you will receive the help you really need– or another excuse as you have always heard or just be ignored!!!

  14. Reblogged this on sondasmcschatter and commented:

  15. Colleen says:

    I agree with what you said. The other tough thing to answer is “how are you feeling?” I hate lying and saying fine when I’m not but if I even mention a little bit of what I’m going through, people just look at their toes. I finally started asking, “do you want the truth or the socially acceptable answer?” This makes people laugh and gives them the out if they were just being polite. It takes a lot for me to ask for help especially when I asked my union for help for five years and got no backing. I do appreciate the friendship filter of being disabled with MCS. Only the people that really, really care about me are still in my life.

  16. I have no idea of how to ask for help or even what help I really need but I do always say to others ‘if you need any help…’ and I’ve always meant it. The worst problem is that I now don’t think that I’m in a position to offer this anymore and that’s such a horrible idea. Thank you for writing such a clear guide, so many of us will benefit! 🙂

  17. Pingback: The Help Conundrum |

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