Things can be awkward at the hospital or funeral home. You want to visit and support family and friends there, but it can feel uncomfortable. You may not know what to say or how to act. It’s important you come anyway, spending time with your hurting family member or friend in person.
Your presence and a big hug can do wonders! Ask how they’re feeling and if they’d like to talk. Listen well, and honor their feelings. Give another hug before you leave (if they’re the hugging type!)
Listening and offering sympathy is a great start, but as author Amy Bloom writes, “If you really want to be helpful you do something helpful, not say you’d be happy to do something. You make the casserole; you walk the dog.”
When your friend or family member is exhausted and overwhelmed, they can’t give much energy to your well-intentioned “tell me how I can help.” Make an effort yourself to determine the best way to help.
Like any good gift, it’s best to tailor your offer so it fits just right. Are there pets or chores they could use support with, additional children or other people not getting the attention they typically require, or ways you can fill in for work or volunteer activities they’re missing?
Offer Specific Options
Make a definite proposal instead of asking “What can I do?” Here are some examples:
- “Can I drive you to your doctor appointment tomorrow?”
- “I’d like to mow your lawn Tuesday or take out the trash Thursday.”
- “Would you prefer chicken soup or tetrazzini, and is Saturday or Sunday better?”
- “I’m going to Target/near the pharmacy tomorrow. What can I pick up for you?”
When people are struggling, your offer may get lost. If you don’t get a response, ask again. And maybe another time. If you’re offering to help someone who’s not used to asking for or accepting help, it may require several asks.
Sharing food brings people together. Of course, it’s best if the food you provide is something your friend or family member likes! Are you aware of allergies and restrictions? If they already have six pans of lasagna in the freezer, can you bring something different?
If you don’t know food preferences, ask someone who does. Give your friend clear choices (“How about A or B or C?”) rather than forcing them to come up with an idea.
It may be great to bring extra food or snacks they can share with others who will be visiting or food to share with the nurses or other care staff. There are endless ways to succeed with food, so think creatively.
Act or Get Permission?
Sometimes — when you believe you know your friend well enough to just do it — you may choose to take helpful action without the opportunity to ask first. Give it your best shot, but don’t be offended if it’s not received the way you expect. They are under significant stress!
Everything can change for a person who is grieving or dealing with a health crisis, so it may be wise to ask first. When a neighbor was struggling through cancer treatment, I saw him outside examining a project that looked to include heavy lifting. I bounded out, declaring I was there to help. He said, “Thanks Mike, but I haven’t accomplished anything the last three weeks. I need to do this alone to feel good about myself.” I agreed and was thankful I hadn’t gone out the day before and done something on that project to “help” him.
No “Thanks” Needed
Double the impact of your help by making it clear that you do not want a “thank you” note. Having another thing on the to-do list, even if small, adds weight to the load of someone who is hurting or grieving. If they’re the kind of person who simply must send a proper “thank you” note, perhaps you can volunteer to write the notes on their behalf or help with that task in another way.
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There’s a book I recommend by Bob Goff with the beautiful title Love Does. The idea is that doing, rather than words or thoughts, is how you show love. We all know what often happens after someone says “let me know how I can help” — a big nothing! It’s better to “do” almost anything than to say those words and be finished.
To help in the best way, think carefully about the person facing illness or death. Then show your love by actually doing something for them…something they really need.
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To start you thinking creatively about how to help, below is a list of memorable ways people provided a lift when our 20-year-old daughter was in treatment for stage III.b ovarian cancer. (In October we’ll celebrate her five year cancer-free anniversary!)
Set up an online Mealtrain to organize delivery of home-cooked meals.
Provide gift cards for nearby restaurants.
Share gas gift card or plane ticket for the boyfriend to visit.
Go on weekly Target runs…get their list and deliver.
Handwrite heartfelt notes of care & concern.
Arrange special time you can be with the other kids.
Offer to take over leadership of a recurring small group meeting.
Bring your pet for a visit (to a pet-deprived daughter) at home.
Offer a professional photography session for the family at home.
Ask if they can take a break from the hospital so you can take them out for a nice meal.
Arrange to spend time in the hospital with the patient, giving caretaker a break.
Encourage/help others to visit.
Participate willingly in a head shaving party/similar activities.
Bring a Jimmy John’s Party Box assortment of sandwiches to the hospital for them to share with visitors.
Give gifts to help with hospital time (cozy sox, blanket, cuddly animal, pillow).
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Mike Rinke worked as an attorney for 26 years at the headquarters for International Dairy Queen, Inc. Since retiring, he’s been involved with a variety of non-profits as an employee and a volunteer. Mike is growing a personal consulting business that helps people get their affairs organized, express their wishes, and plan for end-of-life transitions . . . all as a supplement to traditional estate planning. Mike’s website is www.IntentionsMadeGood.com, or you can reach him at Mike@IntentionsMadeGood.com.
The material contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to create or constitute an attorney-client relationship between Schromen Law, LLC and the reader. The views expressed in this article are not a statement of support or endorsement by Schromen Law, LLC. The information contained herein is not offered as legal or medical advice and should not be construed as legal or medical advice.