“Let me know if you need anything.”
Seven thoughtful and well-intentioned words.
We hear them spoken by people who truly care about us. They are said out of love. They are said to provide comfort. They are said in order to help. It’s hard to question the good in these words.
“Let me know if you need anything.”
Seven extremely ineffective words.
When tragedy hits, people respond. We pay our condolences. We give our hugs. We say we’re sorry. If we’re Christian we offer some Christian cliche about giving it to God, letting God take our pain, or God getting another angel or having a plan (which usually is much more hurtful and confusing than comforting when you think about the message). Everything is offered with a sincere heart and the best of intentions. And then we offer these seven words, “Let me know if you need anything.” That is where it happens, the shift of responsibility. In an instant of love and concern, the responsibility of getting the help that is needed is passed to the person in pain, to the person whose world has just been thrown into turmoil, to the person who is in no mental or emotional state to identify what is needed.
People who are hurting cannot think clearly. Even if they can, they don’t have the energy or the time to think clearly. What they truly need is for others to think for them in some areas, and that’s where the help really comes in.
A few years ago, my pastor had knee replacement surgery. He shared with us how miserable he was after. He was in pain. He was mentally unhappy, frustrated, and drained. One day, there was a knock on his door. It was one of his best friends. He hadn’t been invited, but he came. My pastor was a bit surprised, maybe even irritated, but also comforted. His friend barged his way into the house. He walked to the back of the house and found a spot in a separate room from where my pastor was. The friend pulled out his laptop, set it down, and said, “[Pastor], I’m going to sit right here and work. I’ll leave you alone, but I’m going to be here with you.”
WOW! How rude! How intrusive! How arrogant! And how appropriate and loving.
Obviously there is a fine line with people who are coping with a tragedy. Where is that line between helping and loving versus intruding and sticking our nose in where it doesn’t belong? That’s where relationships kick in. The deeper the relationship you have, the more involvement you can have.
In the past five years, I’ve had two surgeries and three funerals for loved ones. I’ve experienced firsthand people who understand, “Let me know if you need anything,” and those that don’t. Please don’t take anything I am writing as a negative criticism of anyone. I have no negative thoughts about anyone who offered their prayers, their thoughts, and their help. Everyone’s concern is appreciated. Rather, please see how certain people perfected the act of helping in a positive and usually tangible way.
My first surgery was a complete surprise. A trip to the doctor to diagnose some cramps turned into a trip to the ER. While at the doctor, and ultimately the hospital, my wife and I did not have the time, energy, or ability to worry about our children’s care. Thus, the first opportunity to help (O1) appeared: Although I don’t know the exact details, (hospital drugs kicked in quickly) I know of at least three different friends that took my boys to their house at various times while I was in the hospital for a week. These were all extremely close friends that I have no doubt would love on my kids and keep them safe and healthy. I don’t imagine many of us would let just anyone watch our kids. These three friends are our closest friends, so there was no question about their care, and they stepped right in to keep our boys while Erica and I were at the hospital. If I may jump ahead to my second surgery for one moment, another dear friend came to our house while Erica took me to the hospital. This was a one night stay, elective surgery. The urgency wasn’t there, but needing someone to care for my boys while Erica was with me for the surgery was still important, and a big relief.
Back to my first surgery…
Upon waking up from my surgery, Erica was visiting. Very quickly, she told me what true friendship, love and service was, and this O2 was one that made me cry when I heard it. Upon hearing the news of my surgery, a dear friend called Erica to check on me, and to check on her. While having that discussion, our friend learned the surgery was happening at that time. Her next question was the key, “Who is with you Erica?” Erica told her no one. An hour later, this friend and her husband walked into the waiting room to sit with Erica. This dear couple sat with Erica until I was out of surgery and she was allowed to see me. They stopped their life. They came. They comforted her. They cared. They listened. And then they quietly left when the time was appropriate.
Throughout the next week at the hospital and the following weeks at home I saw a lot of boredom, a lot of care needed from Erica to me, and a lot of mental breakdowns. I remember a few things clearly.
- I enjoyed having access to cable tv again (no help needed from anyone there). But even cable tv can get boring after a while. (O3) Having people visit gave me a chance to feel normal, to chat, and to laugh (although that was painful).
- I enjoyed having the nurses bring me my meals and doing my dishes for me (no help needed from anyone there). But Erica needed to go home and sleep in her own bed, to see her sons, and to eat. (O4) She needed rest. The boys need their mother. And I needed them happy.
- I needed my spirits lifted. (O5) The pain, the worry, and the constant poking, prodding, and sticking was painful. Not being able to see my family was depressing.
- I was mentally broken. I missed my wife. I missed my boys. I was in pain. And I was absolutely at my lowest point with needles being stuck into me at least twice a day. (O6)
Luckily, throughout that week, I learned that people had already begun filling our kitchen with meals for Erica and the boys. And I had some wonderful friends come sit with me at the hospital. One brought a great meal for me (which unfortunately did not sit well given my current condition…but it was a great meal and company). And I thought I had popped my stitches from laughing so hard with my friends. It hurt terribly, but it felt so good.
With the support of my wife and my friends, I made it through the week at the hospital. However, upon discharge I still had three weeks of an IV medicine, multiple checkups, and a broken spirit. I was weak. I was tired. I was supposed to be taking my real estate exam that week. And I was supposed to be leading my home. But I was still broken. I wanted to ask a friend to come hang with me. But I was scared. I didn’t want to impose. I didn’t want to be selfish. But I needed something. Erica was there, but she had the boys. She had the house duties. She had my medicine duties. She had enough on her plate. Luckily, one friend picked up on my not so subtle hints, and came to sit with me for a bit. (O2, O5, O6) It was a tremendous help, and set me up for a successful recovery.
Moving ahead a few years…We had a few deaths in the family, and once again some friends understood, “anything.” Upon hearing of the death of my mother, and preparing for the 11 hour drive home with my family, a dear friend immediately jumped into action. Just before leaving, she presented us with a travel bag (O7) for the car. Inside was food, travel games for the boys, and cash for gas. All three things were important and necessary, and all three things took a lot off our plates and minds as we prepped for the trip. Jumping ahead a few more years to the death of my mother-in-law, the same dear friends jumped into action again. Along with simply calling my wife and allowing her to talk without interruption, going on walks with my wife, and asking questions about positive memories with her mom (O5, O6), there was one new thing. (O8) While we were away for the services, these friends broke into our house (ok, they had our key…but still) and cleaned it. This allowed us to come home to a clean house and not have to worry about little things like dishes, dust, etc.
So what is “anything?” What can you do to help? I would suggest that you be very careful with words. Even though well-intentioned, many words can actually hurt. Every reference to a loved-one lost just reminds the person of that loved-one, and when every person you see talks about it, it is a constant hurt. Cliches about God wanting another angel just makes a parent question why, and it doesn’t represent any Biblical truth that I have seen…God taking babies to gain another angel. Here is the list of the truly helpful things I’ve compiled from firsthand experiences.
O1: Everyone needs to know their children are secure and safe. If someone you love has a tragedy, don’t ask them if you can take their kids and give them an out. TELL them you WILL take the kids. Tell them you can pick them up (one less burden). Tell them exactly when you can keep their kids. And then go even further. Find another trusted friend who will take their kids during those times that you can’t. Imagine the relief of going to the hospital and knowing that my kids were secure for the next week. No phone calls needed. No extra trips. Just our closest friends loving on them, and getting them from place to place.
O2: Everyone needs an armrest. We all need someone to talk to, someone who listens. We don’t need someone who’s going to talk a lot and give advice. We need someone who will listen to our story, to our hurt, to our needs. And we need someone who we can simply sit with, who will put an arm around us without any words, and just hold us up. BE WITH your loved ones. Like my pastor’s friend, be there. Stay out of the way. Don’t expect conversation. Don’t expect fun. Don’t expect anything. But GIVE everything. Give yourself. Be the one who your loved one can lean on. Be the one who will get a glass of water. Be the one who will ask questions about positive memories of loved ones lost. Be the anchor.
O3: Everyone needs entertainment. Anything that can help take a mind off the loss/illness and possibly add a laugh is great. Books, games, puzzles, etc. All are good.
O4: Everyone needs to eat. This one is pretty commonly practiced already. But if you sign up for a meal, please remember to deliver the meal. When you forget, it puts the family in a worse bind than before.
O5: Everyone needs their spirits lifted. This one is tough. Everyone is different in how their spirits are lifted. You have to be careful with jokes and stories, and you have to really know the person. But similar to being an armrest, just being there and listening is often enough enormously helpful.
O6: Everyone needs to be carried when they are broken. This one is also tough. This takes a strong person. You get down in the mud with your loved ones here, and you may sacrifice major chunks of your personal life to give to your friends. You have to be good at identifying needs that aren’t spoken because they’re unknown, hidden behind pride, or too big to be asked for. You have to be a listener, not a talker. But you are vital to the person you’re with.
O7: Everyone needs the necessities. Food, entertainment, money. This one’s pretty simple. Anything can help.
O8: Everyone needs a clean house. Again, this one is pretty simple, and makes a tremendous difference.
So next time someone you know has a tragedy, don’t place the burden on them by asking them to let you know if they need anything. Take the initiative, dive in head first, and fill the needs that they don’t know they have yet. We are so grateful to our dear friends who have done this for us. It makes a tremendous difference.