Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Helping Hands List

Barbara: On Deb’s Monday blog-post—her heartbreakingly beautiful tribute to a marriage through “worse”—Katie May gratefully acknowledged Sheila’s efforts and the example she was setting for her daughters, but also noted that: “One might think that her behaviour was ‘just natural,’ but believe me, it is not as common as one might assume.” It got me to thinking that sometimes we know what to do when our loved ones are going through tough times and sometimes we don’t.

So let’s powwow for a bit about what we think are the best ways—from a friendship point of view––to help each other when things are bad. (Yeah, I think it’s a rule that spouses and children do whatever they can for their ill loved ones, especially those on deathbeds. Doesn’t matter how hard it is. These are our peeps, our tribe. ‘Nuff said.}

So this is just a little suggested “bro/bra code”. Most of us aren’t called upon to help out our friends––to really be there––more than a few times a year. If times are really bad, maybe a month. And when you think of it that way, well then it’s just a handful of generosity within a whole world of it. We have it to give and it is the simplest thing, even if—for reasons I viscerally recognize but don't fully understand—we often think it is more than we can “handle”.

So while these might be painfully obvious to some, let’s offer some guidance to those for whom this is unfamiliar territory (for any reason from inexperience to self-consciousness). Some of the ways we can help each other get through the worst:

1)      *  When someone we know is struggling with a particularly hard slog, we can call and check in regularly.

2)        *  We can make a dinner. Or bring the baked goods. If we’re very well-organized or part of a bigger circle of friends, we can even time our dinners so they don’t all come on the same night (or we should make sure there’s room in the freezer if that’s where they will go). Our friend may not like our offering, they may not even get around to eating it, but even so, food is a balm and a comfort, and if it is eaten, it’s one less chore. (I once brought a few dinners to a neighbour whose mom had just died only to taste one of my usually reliable curry dishes AFTER THE FACT and realize it was actually kind of icky. Sigh. Although the pie––baked by my younger from scratch––was heavenly.)

3)      *   If we bring flowers, we could already vase and water them. When you’re exhausted, the last thing you want to do is unbundle and snip and search for stemware and … well, you get it… 

       *   We can ask our friend if there’s anything about their situation that confuses them. And if there is, we can make a few preliminary enquiries for them, or we can be there with them when some diagnosis is made or some directions are given so there are two sets of ears. 

5)       *   If news needs to be spread, be a list-maker of the need-to-knows. This is a relatively simple task but it’s often overlooked. Just like that good friend who somehow didn’t find out that your mom was in the hospital. Overlooking people makes the person who already feels bad feel even worse. Even if no one in this world would blame them.

6)      *   We shouldn’t forget that pain is incredibly cathartic—we will find ourselves laughing hysterically as often as we’re sobbing uncontrollably. Both are okay.

7)       *   If we really don’t know what to do for our friend, tell them and offer to do “whatever”. It usually depends on the friend. Some people have issues around accepting help (formerly guilty-as-charged, have since kicked that issue to the curb). We want to urge our friend to yield. Because it will be better for everyone (the giver and the givee).

8)        *  We shouldn’t be heroes. It’s not our time to shine. Fade into the background and be unobtrusive, gentle, kind.           

Add your own ideas to the list. Spread the word. We only have each other for better and for worse and no gesture will go unappreciated (even if the curry is icky). ( … I don’t think…)

Deb: Barb, what a great idea this is. I have lived and learned through too many crises to count, the things that work for the people who are suffering and the things that don’t. And given that I am doing just this right now for my dear friend, here are some dos and don’ts (in my humble opinion) for this.

* When taking food, spring for some tin foil containers or plastic containers that you don’t want back. There is nothing worse after receiving gifts of food than having to clean and figure out who brought what dish ... and RETURN IT to them!

* When visiting the home of a friend who is going through a crisis, look around. Do the dishes that need doing, check if a meal needs heating and serving. Can you clip a dead flower of a floral gift or water the fresh flowers? I always just do these things without asking because often the person will decline if asked but secretly hopes someone will do it!

* Listen.

*  Try to resist comparing crisis stories unless you think what you have to add will be helpful.

*  Human touch is welcome––hugs are worth millions.

* I am not a cook. I have one dish I make and cookies, so with my wonderful and talented friends who do cook, I do the pick-up and delivery.

*  If you have a gift to offer, it’s great to think outside the box.

* Do a phone chain or an email chain. Sometimes with older people who need to know what is happening, we forget they are not on email.

* Don’t forget that laughter is the best medicine!

* If your crisis involves a funeral or travel in anyway, offer to pick up people who may need a ride.

That’s all I can think of right now. I am sure you guys out there have a million others? 


  1. Just be there in case they need a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes you just have to let it out,and when you have someone there to cry on it helps.

    Another thing is,making sure that if they have pets like a dog or something that the pets are being took outside. No one should have to be up set and worry about having to take take their pets outside. That can take a big chip of their shoulder when they don't have to worry about that.

    Going grocery shopping for them is a big one as well. It's always nice to know that you don't have to worry about going to the grocery store when you are in a time of worry.

    The only other one I can think of is just letting the person know that they are not alone. When your going throught some bad sometimes you feel like no one in the world can relate so when someone can related it makes you feel like you not alone. This one is from my own experence.

  2. Ooh, excellent additions, Lyndsie. Didn't even think of the pet one (walking dogs, etc). Thanks!

  3. Wonderful suggestions Lyndsie. Can't believe I didn't think of the animal one. Thanks!

  4. Hmmmm, more will probably come to mind as the day passes (y'all's posts have a remarkable knack for being the sort of thing that rattles around in my brain all day), but this is what comes to mind right off the top of my head:

    1. I always tell folks, "I answer my phone at 2:00a.m. Insomnia? Long, dark night of the soul? Scared? Crying? Lonely? Angry? Being really, really bad for yourself in your own mind? Raw rage and hatred coursing through your veins? Call me. When I say it doesn't matter what time, I mean it. It's far too easy to catastrophize in those wretched hours after midnight. I will sit with you in the dark on the phone till dawn if need be." (Hard lesson learned, though: After staying up all night on the phone with someone and being so tired the next day that you don't have much of an appetite so you only have a salad on your lunch break and have pretty much just gotten by on highly caffeinated sodas all day, do NOT go and give blood in the Red Cross Blood Mobile after work. You will pass out cold by the end of the bag and stay that way long enough to scare the phlebotomists. It's icky.)

    2. I always offer distraction. "I'm here if you need to vent and cry. But, I'm also here if you're just sick and tired of dealing with it and need a break. Need distraction? Need to shed your burden for a couple of hours? Want permission to laugh? Want to pretend that things are normal and fine for a little while? OK. We'll watch a funny movie and eat junk food. Or, we can go fill a friend's minivan with 100 balloons. Whatever. When you've had ENOUGH and need permission to laugh and feel human and unburdened, I'm your accomplice. No judgement. I'll help you get that millstone from around your neck for a little while. Laugh? Cry? Scream? Whatever."

    3. I always offer to do the scut work. (And, if the person is a close enough friend within a tiny certain core circle of trust (e.g. one whose house key is on my key ring), I just do the scut work without discussion - mysterious, magical fairy style.) One of my very most favorite books in the world is the memoir Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. I first read it in the summer of 1994, and ever since then, one of my favorite passages in that book has forever stayed with me and influenced me. *rummages about on the narrow bookcase in the living room* Lamott wrote (page 70):
    "Then something truly amazing happened. A man from church showed up at our front door, smiling and waving to me and Sam, and I went to let him in. He is a white man named Gordon, fiftyish, married to our associate pastor, and after exchanging pleasantries he said, 'Margaret and I wanted to do something for you and the baby. So what I want to ask is, What if a fairy appeared on your doorstep and said that he or she would do any favor for you at all, anything you wanted around the house that you felt too exhausted to do by yourself and too ashamed to ask anyone else to help you with?' 'I can't even say,' I said. 'It's too horrible.' But he finally convinced me to tell him, and I said it would be to clean the bathroom, and he ended up spending an hour scrubbing the bathtub and toilet and sink with Ajax and lots of hot water. I sat on the couch while he worked, watching TV, feeling vaguely guilty and nursing Sam to sleep. But it made me feel sure of Christ again, of that kind of love. This, a man scrubbing a new mother's bathtub, is what Jesus means to me. As Bill Rankin, my priest friend, once said, spare me the earnest Christians."

    I totally learned from that.

  5. 4. Usually, I just end up taking care of the person's (grand)kids. Someone in that wretched of a situation barely has the energy to minimally take care of themselves. It often falls to me to take care of the kids. Feeding them, driving them to school, picking them up, helping with math homework, taking a shift with a colicky or teething baby, sleeping on the couch overnight. Whatever's needed. Sometimes, it helps even to just take the kids out to Burger King and the park for a couple of hours so the person can have some private time at home to completely freakin lose control briefly after struggling to keep it together and put on a brave face for the children.

    5. Make sure the person is staying hydrated and has at least a little, bitty bit of food each day. Of course, it would be ideal that they'd eat healthily and have something with protein and all that. Whatever. When things are that bad, who cares? Just hand them a cup of water or mug of tea every little while and watch to make sure they take a few sips. Swing by Sonic 1/2 Price Happy Hour and bring them their favorite flavor of slush. Conveniently be munching on a handful of almonds and casually hand them 5 or 6 and watch to make sure they eat them. Whatever. Be sneaky. Just get some glucose in that bloodstream. Sure, their hands may be shaking from being upset. Just make sure their hands aren't shaking because they're about to pass out because they haven't been able to bring themselves to eat in 3 days. Physical yuck aside, everything emotional seems 10,000 times worse when your body's running on fumes. Physical fragility feeds psychological fragility. I learned this one first hand the hard way. Very shortly after the end of my marriage, I also lost a job I was devoted to. In the wake of that, I lost 9 pounds in 4 days and was getting very weak and dizzy. My closest friends caught onto the fact that I was feeding my son but not myself and began, well, basically kidnapping me. They passed me around amongst themselves and made sure I ingested at least one small meal a day. Anyway, lesson learned, suffering not in vain. Now, I watch out for that when a friend has been knocked hardcore wonkity. A well timed milkshake can make a powerful difference.

  6. Excellent, Rigel!! (I don't mean losing 9 lbs etc), but your comprehensive additions to the list.

    Dehydration!! Yes, yes. So important to look out for that. I think it's probably more natural for us to look for if a person is eating, but not necessarily if they're drinking!

  7. Go for a 45 minute walk with your friend.

    If it's cold and blustery and windier than hell, all the better; you can say things while trying to remain upright in the howling wind that you CANnot say sitting in a hospital room or at the kitchen table.

    Some exertion. Fresh air. A change of scenery.

    Follow it up with a good hard hug, a "we can do this ANY time you want", then leave.

  8. I do whatever I see needs doing. I am a big cleaner upper so there is always something to do. I have read aloud funny stories and helped to lighten the heavy burden through humor. Reminisce about funny times.

  9. When my mom was sick, my dad tried to shoulder the responsibility for her care on his own. I had to be a little bit pushy and say Well, I'm coming over every day at such-and-such a time no matter what, unless you choose another time, so you can get out of the house. I then insisted he show me how to give Mom her pain medication and so on. This gave him some relief even though he was reluctant to share the load, and it did him good to get a breath of fresh air.

    My two sisters were also in the city (two of us took our kids and moved from Saskatchewan to Kelowna to be there for our parents during Mom's illness, which turned out to last one school year) and it seemed that we each had a natural function. One sister would walk in there and do some cleaning or make a meal that could be eaten and/or frozen or bake bread or buns. I'd always massage Mom's feet and just sit and talk with her for hours, and we'd often work on the quilt she was teaching me how to make. My other sister brought her three-year-old which, Mom said, "pleases me." Mom and I talked about death a lot and my sisters wished they had the same conversations with her, but I assured them their own way of being with her was equally important, as surely Mom didn't want to talk about death all the time.

    On the final day, when Mom was in a coma and we were all at the house attending to her, a neighbour had an entire hot meal sent over for lunch. I have never forgotten that very kind gesture, as this lady was employing my sister a few hours a week but didn't know any of the rest of us. We needed that food and it sure made all of us feel supported at a very hard time.

    When giving flowers, don't go in for the big bouquets. Mom found them, though lovely and appreciated, a pain in the ass because every surface in most people's houses is already full; there's no room for a big bouquet that has to be moved off the table when you need to use it. Take over a small vase with just a couple bright flowers in it, that doesn't take up much space and is easy to move if necessary, and can be set within view of the bed as a little bright spot of beauty.

    My mom's big concern was my dad. Anything we could do to lighten his burden, lightened hers. Things that she had always done -- the housework, the cooking -- now became his domain. He surprised everyone by doing it admirably well, but Mom worried about the strain on him, on top of his concern for her. Helping him, helped her.

    One last thing. I'm not religious in the institutional way, but I talk to the sky when the chips are down. When Mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I asked the sky to help me be and do whatever would help Mom through. Almost magically, Mom said, all I had to do was walk into the room and she would relax and feel better. This was a surprise because of all four or her children, I was probably least expected to be such a strong support during crisis. So ... maybe it's worth asking whatever higher power you talk to, to help you be whatever is needed. Worked for me.

  10. Beautiful observations, Kate. It reminds me that in my circle, we often tell people we're sending them "healing light" or "peaceful thoughts". We all seem take comfort in it no matter how religious we are. Interesting, isn't it? Spiritual sympatico, definitely good.

  11. This post is a great help. I hang back sometimes when I should help because I'm afraid I'll bumble it. I'm not confident that I know what to say or do. I realize one size doesn't fit all, but this post offers wonderful ideas. Thank you.

  12. Lisa, I think that's how a lot of people feel. I TOTALLY hung back back in the day, for exactly that reason. But I've learned to embrace my bumbling -- and have learned so much from the process. Especially, as you say, one size doesn't fit all. Any bumble is better than no bumble at all :)

  13. Lisa many years back we lost a dear friend at a young age. another friend of ours planned an intimate dinner party with his widow and our friend. It was her first outing since his death and it was three months after. The host, with good intentions asked all of us not to mention anything about the death of our friend. I certainly did not agree with this but had to go along as I was a guest. The widow, in the middle of the meal, just lost it on all of us saying she was hurt and confused as to the purpose of the evening if not to talk about her husband. It was an awful moment. Best intentions-bumbled. I will never ever forget it. It was I think, intended to have her forget for a night but what our dear friend and host failed to realize, is that you don't forget for a second, let alone a night.

  14. GREAT GREAT idea. I think the most critical piece is to know everyone is different--we all process differently and cope differently. For instance things I would LOVE (coming in and cleaning up) my husband finds intrusive and offensive. I guess I figure if it were MY grief issue, I trump. If it was HIS, he would.

    And the best meal we ever had brought to us? I big jar of SOUP for the one meal at a time stuff. (this was when we had our first baby, but I think it generally applies... often nobody wants a sit-down meal, but DOES need to eat.)

    And for younger families--CHILD CARE--take their critters out to expend some energy and let the adults sort as they must.

    My experiences with crises have typically been fewer but more sustained.--

    Oh! one of the healing and helpful things... when my grandpa died--sorting photos of him and the family for use at the funeral, but also making good qualities colored copies so all the cousins got pictures and such--that helped my grieving process TOO and I think others appreciated it.

  15. One thing that I learned from loving on some of the widows at church is, especially if their children live out of town, to make sure the newly widowed have someone to spend the holidays with when they roll around after the death. I have a cluster of dear old ladies who have a standing invitation to spend Christmas morning with me and my son if need be. This isn't an immediate crisis care tip but more of a longterm care one.

    I've found that my dear widows need caring people to be intentionally present more in the months after the death than during the crisis. Everyone closes ranks and takes abundant care when the bad thing has just happened. Family hurries into town for the funeral, etc. But, once the initial hubbub settles down, that house gets awfully quiet and lonely when everyone else has "gotten back to normal" and the widowed person is trying to figure out a new normal once the shock has worn off.

  16. When my dad died, while I was out with family making funeral arrangements, a dear friend (with a key)let herself in, stocked the fridge, did the dishes and made up the spare bed for my brother who was arriving from out of town. It was wonderful and if she'd asked me what she could have done, I'd have replied "nothing." Just do it!

  17. YOU are so right Susan. Just do it! Everyone will say "no that's okay!"

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