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?