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What Can I Do to Help a Friend in Need?

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When we hear a friend is in need, whether stricken with illness or grief, faced with a military deployment or blessed with a new baby, it is natural to wonder what we can do to help out. If you’re like me, you first come up with grand plans or gestures that, upon deeper reflection may be too difficult or too intrusive. After all, it’s a fine line between helping with day-to-day necessities and inserting yourself into someone’s private, personal moments. As for me, once I dismiss the grand plans, I’m at a loss for ways that I can help that aren’t too invasive or too little of a gesture.

Unfortunately, over the past three months, I’ve had to learn the hard way how to help friends and family in need. First, a sibling faced emergency surgery with a secondary follow-up surgery. Second, a neighbor’s young husband suffered a stroke from an injury. Most recently, a close friend, far away, had cancerous tumors removed from her brain. All parents. All peers. All adults used to fending for themselves with others relying on them. All needing help just getting through the day. And with each piece of news, I was faced with the question of what was the least and the most I could do to help. Here is what I discovered:

First, as soon as you hear the news, think of one small thing. The very least you can do. A phone call, email or text message. Do that. One small thing will make a difference. It lets the person in need know you are there for them and opens a dialogue to let them express their needs, fears and hopes to a friendly ear.

Next, ask what you can do to help. Or just listen to see what may be overwhelming or worrying your friend. Little things like remembering to bring in the mail each day, running to the grocery store or taking out the trash are easy to lose track of and just as easy for you to pick up if you’re in the neighborhood. Do they have relatives staying over to help? Bring over extra pillows and blankets, disposable plates and cups, and staples like coffee and milk to take the stress out of hosting.

Then, check to see if someone has set up a helping chain or calendar. Often a close friend or relative will organize an email chain or coordinate meals, as well as send any necessary updates. Several online services can help you create a community calendar with volunteer signups for dinners, carpools, lawn mowing, and other day-to-day services. Often, one person will become the point-person to help coordinate volunteering efforts and will be the best source to find out what services are needed. The least you can do may be to make extra lasagna when you’re preparing dinner for your own family, or order in a meal from their favorite take-out place if you’re too far away to stop by in person.

Finally, keep in touch to get updates. Sometimes the hardest stretch to go through is after a few weeks when offers of help fall off but the needs are still there. Listen carefully to learn what help will be welcome and what help isn’t necessary at the moment. And remember, needs change so don’t be afraid to keep asking how you can help.

Bottom line: flowers are nice and brighten up a space, and a card is a great way to let someone know you are thinking of them, but a personal gesture, no matter how small, especially when it fills a need, isn’t just the least you can do. It could mean a world of difference.


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