times of crisis, loss, and heartbreak
"If There's Anything I Can Do..."
A Helpful Guide to Showing You Care
. These are the kinds of rough going that bring out in all
of us a desire to help, to pitch in and DO something for others
in times of crisis and heartbreak. But all too often the news
of illness among friends or reports of shocks to their inner
and outer worlds finds us uncertain, fearful of saying or
doing the wrong thing, worried about seeming intrusive or
about getting in the way. Just plain at a loss as to how on
earth to help.
of putting our concern into action, we resort to the feeble
offering, "If there's anything I can do . . ." We
mean, of course, I want to help. I'm willing and ready. But
I can't think of how. And that's where the ball usually drops,
with a thud.
one needs to go on like that. We may not be able to undo accidents
or heal the sick, but there are easy, manageable, even enjoyable
ways to give a lift of spirit or a leaning place when needed.
Many ways, within the reach of all of us.
# # # #
you agree: personalizing your cards with a brief message is
a great addition. But for a lot of us, the thought of delivering
a snappy, creative phrase on cue brings on a major case of
the uh . . . uh . . . uh . . . paralysis. How many times have
you stared at one of those little blank cards at the florist's
(or over a card thrust forward by a co-worker for "all
of us" to sign) wanting to write Something, and coming
up with . . . Nothing.
that doesn't happen to you; maybe your mind flows with originality
on command. But if not, the sample one-liners and quotations
that follow may help spark your own ideas, or they may work
just as they are.
pen won't write more than . . . Love."
is no joy in/on _________ [your town or street]."
do you say when you know the situation is bleak? Surely, you
think, a casual one-line message is not sufficient. I think
that's not the case.
that the purpose of the card is only to make a warm connection
with your friend or relative, not to shed light on how one
meets death, or how one maintains dignity, or how one faces
a new day of pain and hopelessness. My best advice . . . is
to keep your message simple and manageable.
love . . ."
or day, my thoughts are with you . . ."
# # # #
the gift of your time will make the largest intrusion into
your own schedule. Here, even more than with other gifts,
the trick is to think yourself into someone else's skin --
not just shoes. Shoes aren't enough. When I'd ask, incredulously,
"How did you ever think of doing THAT!" the answer
was always something like, "I figured what would help
me most if I were where you are."
# # # #
to "If there's anything I can do" start with being
thoughtful. It's thoughtfulness that gets you "inside
the skin" of the friend you want to help so that you
can find the right responses to fit that particular friend.
It's thoughtfulness that points you toward gestures and actions
that are natural, useful and kind . . . in short, that make
you a good friend to have.
a death, you will redouble every earlier effort at inside-the-skin
thoughtfulness, feeling with your friend in grief. In many
cases, though, you too are feeling the blow -- you as well
as your friend are stunned and saddened by the loss of her
husband/his wife/your best friend's sister or son who has
long been a part of your own life. Even if not -- if it is,
say, a neighbor or co-worker you don't know very well who
has died -- the matter of a death among your community of
friends and acquaintances is shattering on a deep level. It
can be difficult to reach out as your best self.
# # # #
the funeral is over, you can begin planning your doing-gifts
for later on . . . for the following week . . . and for the
next one after that . . . and three weeks or sixteen weeks
later. Decide now how you can best reach out to your friend
after the bustle of activity is over.
he or she has a large and willing circle of friends and family
to lean on, your efforts will never be redundant -- the empty
space left by the loss of a dear one is vast enough to hold
all the sympathy and caring gestures in the world.
on the other hand, your friend is mostly alone and lonely,
your continuing support in doing things for and with that
friend is a crucial lifeline. You know that, of course. But
it can be all to easy to "slide" that vague promise
you made yourself to keep in close touch.
don't think you somehow demean your sincerity if you put your
friend's name down on your calendar several times over the
months ahead. It doesn't mean you have to be reminded to care
or sympathize; it means you are realistic enough to know that
your best intentions can get buried -- if not by your daily
load, than by an unexpected surprise from left field: a child's
chicken pox . . . a blown transmission. Plan now, so you'll
be sure to make the time in your busy life.
doing-gifts for a grieving friend are go-and-do gifts of your
time -- gifts that cost almost nothing, but can be priceless
help. Consider an invitation to have:
breakfast, or afternoon tea at a favorite spot
drive upstate or "down country" to see the autumn
leaves or spring blooms
to the Art Museum to see the Chinese exhibit
game, or a bucket of balls at the driving range, or a scrabble
match or bridge foursome
with your dogs
fits for you, I don't think I have to make another plea to
KEEP AT IT. If you can't go-and-do -- because of your schedule,
or distance, or some other reason -- at least be sure to keep
in careful touch with small gifts, e-mail, or the telephone.
If I hadn't
had so much first-hand proof of how much these contacts help
at the receiving end, I wouldn't hammer so hard on the ongoing
part of your reminders of caring. But I have, often, and I
can even give you a first-hand example of my own.
my own closest friends now is a woman thirty years younger,
a former student with whom I have almost nothing -- zero --
in common. Different interests, different tastes, senses of
humor, value structures even. At first, when Kathleen began
dropping off little gifts of flowers and baked treats, once
even a needlepoint, another time a book I would never have
chosen for myself (this during the months after I returned
from my sister's funeral in Cleveland) I was puzzled.
isn't that nice," I thought to myself, truthfully thinking
hardly anything at all on the subject. I assumed she would
back right on out of my life again. But she kept on. She called
and invited me to dinner several times, and over the course
of the next months, as I got know her much better, I realied
what a caring and steady person she is. She turned out to
be positively delightful, and we would probably never have
grown close under other circumstances. But when my state of
mind was hitting bottom, and she stepped forward, it put her
in a light that it would have been hard to miss.
So I hammer.
Otherwise you might miss out on a vital way you can put extra
meaning into what it is to be a friend. Everybody has friends.
But not many of them are up to taking an active part in navigating
the long road toward starting life anew.
# # # #
one more BIG way you can reach out a hand in sorrow -- and
you're the only one who can do it, so I hope you'll take on
the job. There aren't any formal guidelines, but it does take
quiet time for reflection about the friend who has died, and
a willingness to let your mind go back over the years as you
remember how having that friend was a very important part
of your everyday world.
you first knew him in elementary school, maybe she was your
best friend in college, maybe you worked your way up the ranks
together at your accounting firm, or you met when they moved
in next door and the moving van flattened your flower bed
. . . some place the friendship started that leaves you now
with great memories and a large lump in your chest. Let those
memories count now.
a "remembering" letter. You write it for the parents,
wife, children, husband. And you write it for yourself, as
your personal tribute. This gift is made to order for those
who admit that the dash is their favorite punctuation mark
-- or even their only one. And if you never really bothered
to get the hang of paragraphing, this writing job is for you.
You can start with something as easy to put down as
think of Amy so often. I remember once . . ."
brother and your Jon were the greatest friends a younger
guy could ever have had. I remember the time they both .
. . "
you'll find this letter almost writes itself as you recall
the fine and funny moments, the loved qualities, special clothes,
favorite expressions . . . every kind of memory that surfaces
in your mind as you let it turn toward the friend you have
never knew anyone else who could stay wide awake through
an opera and snore through James Bond."
taught me most of what I know about sticking to your guns
-- that awful car salesman -- remember how she . . . "
sentences, no brakes on your heart because of the structural
requirements you learned in English 101. You just write as
you think, picking out brief moments, small bits and pieces
in no particular order of time or importance.
write this letter weeks or even months after a death. Sharing
your memories with the family is a beautiful, one-of-a-kind
gift, and a gift to yourself as well.
# # # #
point is a constant, whether your concern is with a broken
bone or with a broken heart, or with a friend who has suffered
the cruelest break of all, a loss to death.
from this: someone you care about is hurting, and you are
unwilling to stand on the sidelines, helpless witness to that
pain. You know now, I hope, that you can help, that in fact
there is so much you can do that you need never resort to
that sad old catch-all, "Well . . . if there's anything
I can do . . ."
you can't make an illness go away. None of us can change death.
But we all have the capacity to make a big difference in how
our friends cope with the inevitable breakdowns of their frail
human selves. We have our voices, our written words, the warmth
of our presence, our offerings of time and energy, food, gifts,
a listening ear . . . an open mind.
teamed with your heart -- it's a great combination! And great
to be able to call on as you grow in ability to help your
friends, after a death and for all times.