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In times of crisis, loss, and heartbreak


Excerpted from
"If There's Anything I Can Do..."
A Helpful Guide to Showing You Care

If There's Anything I Can Do...

. . . 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.

Instead 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.

But no 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.

# # # # #

O.K., 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.

Maybe 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.

"My pen won't write more than . . . Love."

"There is no joy in/on _________ [your town or street]."

But what 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.

Just remember 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.

"My love . . ."

"Night or day, my thoughts are with you . . ."

# # # # #

Granted, 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."

# # # # #

All answers 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.

After 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.

# # # # #

After 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.

Even if 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.

And if, 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.

So please 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.

The best 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:

A late breakfast, or afternoon tea at a favorite spot

A shared drive upstate or "down country" to see the autumn leaves or spring blooms

An outing to the Art Museum to see the Chinese exhibit

A tennis game, or a bucket of balls at the driving range, or a scrabble match or bridge foursome

A walk with your dogs

Whatever 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.

One of 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.

"Well, 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.

# # # # #

There's 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.

Maybe 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.

This is 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

"I think of Amy so often. I remember once . . ."

"My brother and your Jon were the greatest friends a younger guy could ever have had. I remember the time they both . . . "

And then 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 lost.

"I never knew anyone else who could stay wide awake through an opera and snore through James Bond."

"Mary taught me most of what I know about sticking to your guns -- that awful car salesman -- remember how she . . . "

No topic 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.

You can 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.

# # # # #

The starting 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.

You start 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 . . ."

True, 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.

Your 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.

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