When Someone Really Needs Your Help

Hands holding another's hands

Roger Reid | Season of the Lion

Sure, we’ve all had to deal with dead batteries and leaky water pipes—the common frustrations and irritations of life. But occasionally, someone close to you will experience a personal tragedy—a time of extreme distress. And when it happens, even though you’re ready, willing, and able to help, you may feel awkward or uncomfortable because you don’t know exactly what to do or say. But don’t let that keep you from helping out when others need you the most. Here are the basics, and if it helps, think of it as CPR for the soul.

1. Be there. Don’t wait to be asked. If a friend or one of their family members is hospitalized, go to the hospital and offer your undivided attention. And if death strikes, be at your friend’s side, arriving early and staying late. Your presence means you can be relied upon to help. Other circumstances where you can make a difference? Courtrooms, at church, the doctor’s office, police stations, and even accompanying your friend when returning to an accident scene for the first time.

“If you’re not making someone else’s life better, then you’re wasting your time. Your life will become better by making other lives better.”
― Will Smith

2. Let them have their emotions. Their feelings are justified, and you should let the victim work through them at their own pace. Although your intentions are well-meaning, this is not the time to tell someone to “be strong, you’ll feel better tomorrow,” or “it was for the best.” Such responses tend to isolate you from your friend when they need you most. Simply agree with their right to grieve, be upset, or vent their frustration.

3. If it obviously needs doing, take charge. There are things you can do to make the situation and the transition back to normalcy easier. For example, make sure your friend’s grass is cut and the yard is watered. If a lengthy hospital vigil is necessary, coordinate the care and feeding of pets, collect the mail, and if there are children in the household, arrange for food to be brought to the home.

4. Offer to do something specific. For example, this could include driving the kids to and from school, doing the grocery shopping, or keeping up with the laundry. The phrase “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” has become trite and vague, and is usually interpreted as meaning you’re not willing to do anything. By offering to take care of some of your friend’s ongoing life responsibilities, you free up their time so they can better deal with the crisis.

5. Avoid the temptation to be a guru. Dispensing instant advice is a real turn-off to someone in distress. You should also refrain from comparing their situation with one of your own. Telling someone ‘I know exactly how you feel, because when I lost my job, I wanted to blah, blah, blah,’ dilutes your value as a good listener. When they’re ready for your advice, they’ll ask for it. And when that happens, make it practical and specific—something they can do, or better yet, something you can do together.

6. Be prepared to stick with it. People going through difficult times can be depressed, moody, and even suicidal for a long time. This can be especially true during a divorce, when dealing with the process of physical separation and legal settlement can take a year or more. But remember, having a close friend nearby may be exactly what they need. Your presence can be especially valuable if you simply lend a sympathetic ear, letting them express their feelings of loss, disappointment, and even fear.

I’ll leave you with this . . . Knowing there is support and comfort—someone to help—can be the most important part of the transition back to a normal life. And yes, helping someone put the pieces of their life together after a crisis can take a lot of effort. But helping others, being the one who makes a difference, gives meaning to our own life, and over time, helps us build resiliency and perspective when we’re faced with our own personal challenges.

“We should be determined to live for something. I suggest that it be binging hope to the lost and love to the lonely.”

― Leo F. Buscaglia