How can I practically help someone who is struggling?

Something positive that has come out of years of caring for a chronically ill husband and then having a child with special needs is that I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of lots of people showing they are thinking of you. And I know what practical assistance helped us and therefore might help other people. It might be someone with a sick child, a family with someone in hospital or even a bereavement that you’re supporting but hopefully there will be some helpful points here.

People want to help and they want to show people that they are thinking of them but often don’t know how to do that. My personal experience has been that the vast majority of people will send messages, pray and offer meals but that practical help isn’t often forthcoming. That’s not to say there isn’t value in letting people know you’re thinking of them, and definitely the power of prayer on your side is more than welcome. But often the person needs practical support too.

I should add, when I’ve been the one on the other side – the one offering help – I know that I’ve been in the sending messages and praying camp too, so this is far from a ‘do as I do’ post! We’ve been overwhelmed in the past by friends and family who helped out – by praying, sending support AND doing practical things, but sometimes the person in the middle of the crisis can’t actually articulate what would be helpful so hopefully these ideas may help.

Food

This is definitely the one that we get offered lots, particularly when Colin is in hospital. Why do I often end up saying no though?

Firstly, the logistics.

It can be difficult when there is a family member in hospital to coordinate when someone will be in. Often I didn’t know if I was coming or going with trying to keep home life ticking over and doing trips to the hospital to pick up dirty laundry and bring up fresh clothes and toiletries.

Food can be really helpful but think about the logistics when you offer. Maybe it would be easier to call first thing in the morning when the person is most likely to be there (with ward rounds in the morning they’re unlikely to be up at hospital)?

It might be easier to leave them a range of high end easy to cook meals – oven or microwave – from a high end supermarket (let’s face it, no one fancies a 99p microwave curry) so they can use them if it’s a particularly busy day instead of worrying about cooking rice or potatoes to go alongside a casserole? One time Colin was in hospital I bought six days’ worth of Marks and Spencer oven gourmet meals and I can tell you some of them were delicious!

Secondly, dietary requirements.

Most people know that Colin has coeliac disease, which means he is gluten free, but barely anyone ever mentions this when they offer food. If there are dietary needs in the family, be specific. Don’t send a message saying Can I bring round some food? as the likelihood is the person would love the blessing of food, but doesn’t want to look ungrateful or be prescriptive by listing their food issues.

Instead, double check the allergy Can I clarify you are dairy free / gluten free / nut free? and then follow it up with a specific recipe or ingredient list and ask if this is suitable or if any adaptations are needed. If you send a link to a website they can check it and it’s much easier for them to say That’s great, though you’ll need to leave out the Worcestershire sauce, for example.

Remember, a simple dinner of mince and onions may seem fine to you but may have gluten in the stock cube you normally use, or dairy in your gravy granules. If you don’t live with the allergy, double check!

Turn up

They probably just want company. Often in times of crisis, particularly bereavement, people don’t know what to say or think that the family will need their own space, but often there is much comfort to be had in people turning up. Bring some cake, or chocolate, make them a cuppa and reassure them that your house is just as messy – even if it’s not – when they invariably make comment about it (I know I do when someone arrives!).

If their spouse is in hospital, they may well find the evenings lonely. If they’ve been bereaved, the house will seem quiet and strange without their loved one’s presence. If their child is sick, they may feel they’re going mad from being trapped in the house all day. Just by turning up you can be a listening ear and company for them. I actually cringe when I write ‘listening ear’ there as anyone who knows me will be able to testify to, I am not a listener. I’m a talker. And often, while trying to relate and encourage the person all I hear is me talking about myself. Do you do this? Please, someone, tell me you do too! I am trying so hard to ask questions and listen carefully to the responses and not feel the need to always talk. Not easy.

Help around the house

The key to helping is firstly to turn up, and then to do something that’s non-intrusive. People bristle at different levels of help so do ask first, but easy things that can be done and may be welcome:

-          picking up toys and books off the floor (makes the place seem instantly tidier);

-          folding laundry (putting dirty laundry on might be a step too far even if it’s a close friend, so ask!);

-          doing the dishes; or

-          hoovering.

People probably don’t want a friend cleaning their toilets for them, but some might be happy to accept this kind of help. For single mums or women whose husbands are unwell, maybe offer to do more physical tasks. My husband and I share the DIY stuff around the home, but when it comes to electric hedge clippers I could not be trusted, so when he’s sick the garden gets out of control. This year we paid for men to come and cut it but previously we’ve had the guys from church home group round to do it all together, then come in for beers and pizza. And I think they even enjoyed serving when it involved some craic and then pizza! Maybe a couple of girl friends could get together, head round, some of them do some cleaning while another entertains the kids and keeps the mum company?

Paid help

If you can’t help someone yourself, maybe you could offer to pay for a babysitter for them to allow them a break, even an hour to get out of the house for a coffee in peace? Or a cleaner for a few months to give them a break?

Gifts

Sometimes, better than a message to say I’m thinking of you is just a gift to cheer them up. When I left work last April at 34 weeks pregnant, my husband was in hospital with sepsis. Two weeks later he was in hospital again, this time with his Crohn’s disease and I ended up hospitalised myself the next night with severe dehydration as I was so run down. I only stayed in until lunchtime, once they’d got a few drips in to me, they were happy to let me go (madness though looking back at it, they knew I was going home to a 2 year old with Down Syndrome who needed carried lots, a husband who was in hospital and I was 36 weeks pregnant!) Anyway, I came home the next day to a hamper on my doorstep from the girls I worked with, full of chocolate treats, magazines and bubble bath and it was the most wonderful thing. It cheered me up, made me feel so special and loved and was such a practical way of saying we care. Another friend sent me brownies from a website. I’ve tried to reach out to friends who have wound up in that most awful of places, intensive care, with their children. I make up a package up with things like sandwiches, fruit, fresh fruit juice, magazines, chocolate, hand cream, lip balm and leave it up to the hospital as quickly as I can. Sadly for one friend I didn’t get there before their son died and now I try to do this as soon as I hear even if it involves changing my plans in order to buy the items and deliver them. Other gifts that might be nice to receive could be flowers, a fruit basket, voucher for a coffee shop (if they’re regularly visiting someone in a hospital and you know there’s a Starbucks on their route for example), candles, a book?

Time specific offers

My husband gets a chemo treatment every month for his Crohn’s. He goes to hospital on a Tuesday for the afternoon and is totally wiped out by the treatment. It makes him very sick for the rest of that day and groggy for a day or two after. As I volunteer at our church on Tuesday evenings we need to arrange for his mum to call in those days to give him a hand with the boys’ bedtime as I’m not there. Maybe you know someone whose child has a regular hospital appointment? Or whose husband has died and they get counselling on a Monday afternoon once a month? If you know there is a set time that you could free up yourself and offer to help that person that day every time this appointment happens – that would be a wonderful help. Some months they might just want company to go with them in the car, or to mind their kids, or provide dinner that night?

What can you do this week to help someone practically? Don’t worry if you’re having a bad week though, and all you can do is text them to tell them you’re thinking of them. That’s great too!

Have you received any practical help that was really appreciated? Please share with us all so we get more ideas!

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As an aside, if you’re trying to help a friend suffering a bereavement, the best resource I’ve ever seen on supporting them is Nancy Guthrie’s book What Grieving People Wish You Knew About What Really Helps: (And How to Avoid Being That Person Who Hurts Instead of Helps) – it’s really practical and helps. Affiliate link (I think... the techie stuff is passing me by!) below: