Help that Doesn’t Suck
“If you need anything, just let me know”
That was one of the phrases I heard all the time from caring and compassionate friends who genuinely meant to show support but just didn’t know how. More often than not, I heard from acquaintances of mine or my husband’s, people who I didn’t really have a strong connection with, who also were meaning to be helpful.
But… (and there is a big BUT since it has become one of my lest favourite phrases apart from “You gotta move on.” but more on that on another post) the reason I dislike this statement so much is not because I think people were being fake or they didn’t mean it, but because it’s the kind of help offer that really sucks.
It sucks because all the weight is put on the shoulders of the person who is grieving. It becomes the affected person’s responsibility to reach out and ask for help, at at time when they are barely coping, and therefore it becomes their own fault if they don’t get the support they need.
It can be scary and hard to gather the courage to ask for help when you are doing okay, let alone when you are dealing with grief, financial difficulties, mental distress or physical pain. It can feel humiliating. No one likes to be perceived as weak and I don’t believe many people appreciate feeling like a charity case. Its really frightening to take the risk to ask for help when we are already so vulnerable. And in many cases having to face the possibility of hearing excuses people make about not being able to do the “anything” they had promised to is another blow to our already fragile dignity.
Of course when people say “If you need anything, anything at all…” they do mean it. When the tears are hot and the funeral has just finished, emotions are stirred and we are wired for connection, so we genuinely want to help. But the end of the funeral is just the beginning of a whole new journey for those in the centre of the death drama, and the many needs that arise in the following weeks, months and years can become overwhelming. It’s very difficult to approach people for help when we still live in the aftermath of death and everyone else have gone on with their lives. Often I felt was afraid of asking for help because I didn’t want to be a burden, or because I didn’t want to hear people saying things like “It’s been over a year, I thought you were better by now…”
I remember when I hit yet another of many rock bottoms and needed to find a way get out of government aid. I needed to make ends meet and I didn’t know how. I was struggling with panic attacks and suicidal ideation. I felt stuck in such a deep depression that I couldn’t even apply for a job, let alone hold on to one. I had some of my own paintings sitting in my garage and I needed help to sell them. When I finally found the strength and the courage to ask help of an artist friend who had offered to help me with anything, I was met with a lot of excuses and some reproach. This person was an artist struggling to to make a living, and I was told I shouldn’t be selling cheap art because that wasn’t right for real artists. I found myself apologise for asking, and reassuring her that I understood. At the end of the conversation I heard her saying “I am sorry I can’t help with you this, but if you need help with anything else, anything at all, just let me know.”
Before that I had had lots of offers of help and quite a few of them made excuses when I asked for their help. During that phone conversation I realised that a lot of the support people offered was verbal fluff and not really substantial. I wish my reply to that particular friend had been “You shouldn’t offer help that you are not prepared to come through for. I do need help with something, I need help with this something, but clearly you don’t mean just “anything”. So please don’t say things that you don’t mean.”
Even though I didn’t say any of it out loud, after hanging up the phone I made the decision that it was not my job to get someone off the hook or to take responsibility for their lack of commitment to keep their word.
In a nutshell, If you don’t truly mean it “anything”, then don’t say it! Even if you mean it in the moment, it’s better to take some time to count the cost and make sure you have time in your schedule and resources that you can afford to use if your offered is call on.
But what do you do instead?
Here are some of personal examples of help that doesn’t suck.
A friend txt me: “I am bringing you dinner, I will drop it at the front door and leave so you don’t need to tidy the house or get off your pj’s. Do you prefer Indian or Thai?”
Another friend, who owns a landscape business promised to do my lawns as a gift. And he has done it consistently every three weeks ever since Jay’s funeral.
Someone from my church paid for six counselling sessions. Someone else asked if I would like to continue seeing my counsellor and offered to pay for another ten sessions.
One of my dearest friends treats my children and I with dinner at a really nice restaurant and a movie every two months.
My boss has taken the day off to take me to the hospital without being asked. She is always checking in on me, doing little acts of kindness whenever she in the office and notices I am not okay. And she is one of my safe people, who I can call literally any time when my mental state gets really overwhelming and scary.
One of my colleagues puts little treats on my desk, including flowers.
I have received a lot of meals from various people, friends, relatives and my church community.
One of the Pastors of my church is a carpenter, and he has come to fix minor things around the house every time I ask.
An amazing couple who run a parent-child camp found sponsors for me and children to attend at no cost.
My daughters youth pastors organise people to bring them home after the youth service so I don’t have to wait 2 hours in town to bring them home.
This lovely woman often sends me vouchers for petrol, groceries and movies, every once in a while.
A couple from overseas often call to check on me and the girls. They paid for my daughters mission trip and send us a monetary gift almost every month.
One of my daughter’s teachers offers to take me out for coffee. I haven’t yet accepted but she never gives up and every time I get the offer I knows she cares.
My accountant does my taxes free of charge.
The pastors from our old church in the USA paid all the expenses for me and the girls to visit them for a month, with a stop at Dysneyland.
A group of people from my church set up a crowd funding that not only helped to pay for all the funeral’s expenses but gave me some breathing space financially for the few months right after Jason died.
I am very blessed, because these are just a few of the many examples I have to give. The truth is that although I have experience lots of crappy help, the good help I have receive far outweighs the bad. I am conscious that many people are not as fortunate as I am. They may not have the same kind of supportive networks and communities around them. But even one helpful helper makes a huge difference.
I believe that we all have the capacity to make room to help other if we make that a priority. The main thing is to ask, to listen, to be present. Most of the time, a grieving person just want someone to witness their distress without trying to fix it. But they do have practical needs too.
So what is it that you can do? What skills, resources, abilities, amount of time do you have at your disposal that you can give free of charge, or on a constant basis, or even as a one off?
Think very clearly about what kind of help and support you are able to offer, be specific, and don’t give up offering every time you see them, even if they don’t need it today, they may need it in a few months or years.
Mean what you say and do what you meant. And when you are asked, make sure you show up.