Help me out here.

Without going into confidence-betraying specifics, at this moment there are people in my life who are very important to me and who are facing down some serious, and I mean truly daunting, challenges. Health challenges. The kind that threaten a person’s independence, future, sense of agency and identity. Real game-changers; tough stuff.

And since these are people who are central in my life, their troubles rock me back on my heels. I want to help. I need to help. In fact, I’d like to step in with my sword of light and righteousness right now and fix the whole thing. Say the perfect words, locate the perfect specialists, commandeer the attention of the perfect clinic. Address all the attendant issues, transportation, finances, family dynamics, with such authority and skill that all the attendant issues go quite away, so that all may be made smooth and whole and happy and we can all go to Disneyland. And stay there.

It’s been long years since I read How Can I Help: Stories and Reflection on Service by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman. I’m putting it on my Kindle today because it’s high time I read it again. Perhaps the whole topic of helping, or service, is one that puzzles you too, when you find yourself called upon to help someone else, or when you feel that oh-so-tricksy need to feel helpful.

Even trickier is when you face the painful reality that it is you who are in need of help. It’s a tough thing to admit.

Right now I could use some help with helping.

I bumble along, doing what I can and hoping to not make things worse. It’s not so easy. I have seen and experienced helpfulness go drastically off the rails, and I’ll bet you have too. Once a person dons the mantle of The Helper, they and their good intentions can so easily head straight to you-know-where.

For one thing, The Helper by default tends to see the object of their intentions as The Helpless, not just in the area of the person’s current challenge but in all aspects of life. The Helper, filled with a sense of mission, blazes forth, firing questions at The Helpless, looking for what needs fixing.

When my first husband died suddenly, I had so many people trying to help me with such fervency that in the days leading up to his memorial service, I literally could not get through my own living room without being peppered with questions about what I needed next, and what they should do about it. Had I eaten? What could they fix me to eat? Where would they find that? Had I decided about the flowers? Should they order the flowers? Who should they call about the flowers? Had I thought about suing the doctor? I might want to think about that. Did I have a good lawyer?

One dear lady made a series of phone calls to the house over a two day period to find out how exactly she should prepare the shrimp casserole she had determined I was in need of. Back then I didn’t eat shrimp.  I pretty much wasn’t eating anything at all. I didn’t have the heart to tell her this; she so clearly wanted to be helpful. Making a casserole (and phone calls about the casserole) made her feel better.

No, thanks.

Meanwhile I was neck-deep in unsolicited advice, largely having to do with how I shouldn’t make any sudden decisions. Even in my half-crazed state I appreciated the irony. There’s nothing like a sudden death of a spouse in mid-life for prompting hundreds of decisions, right away quick. However, my advisors had many thoughts on how I should proceed.

These were not mean or silly people. They were people who cared, who were distressed and pretty freaked out by the situation. They wanted to do something, and they didn’t know what that something was. We’ve all been there. It’s painful. So I don’t mean to be snarky; I’m merely pointing out how quickly The Helper role takes over the person who sincerely wants to make things better.

I was blessed to have a few people around me who truly did help. They were the ones who simply showed up, who were in it with me, all the chaos and uncertainty and surreality. The ones who were willing to withstand the deep discomfort of not being able to fix what was wrong, because that wasn’t possible, but who could fix me a cup of tea and not say a word when I let it sit next to me, cooling and untasted. The ones who didn’t insist that I cry or “let it out” but who held me together when I did. The ones  who created a space for me, where I could begin to face the impossible thing that had just happened.

Among these extraordinary people, those who were there for me in the fullest sense of that hackneyed phrase, are two who are beleaguered now. I so, so want to help.

And it’s so, so not about what I want. That much I have learned.

While I dive back into Ram Dass’s wisdom, I beseech you for yours: what have you learned along the way about what true service looks like? Please comment! Help a gal out.


  1. Check in every day. Just say “I am checking in.” Don’t ask “How are you.” They are probably not okay but will say so to make the caller feel better. Learn about condition for yourself, not to share with them but to back them up when it is needed. Do small things without asking. Wash dishes, throw out trash, pick up clothes, straighten up couch, make the bed, sweep the kitchen, any task that makes the space less cluttered and messy. Send a card of encouragement. There is something quite wonderful about a card in the mail. Old fashioned but viserally satisfying. Don’t suggest reading material, they have no brain for processing anything more than the problem at hand. Listen; Intentional, quiet, empathic, deep listening is the most transformational process for both people. Listen your people in need back into existence. May Grace surround all.

  2. All of the above, plus, call when you are heading out to do errands, “Hey, can I pick up anything for ya while I’m out? or something to completely distract, “I’m heading out and thought I would drop off some of these lovely blooms I found near our house, not even sure what they are, maybe you will…”

    I took mulberries from our garden to my friend dying of cancer and she loved them. She wasn’t eating much, but these were gobbled up! An avid gardener herself, she had NEVER HAD THEM. I thought it was pretty cool that she was able to discover and enjoy something completely new, less than two weeks before she died.

    Sometimes those who need help can use this reminder, if they are reluctant to ask: asking for help from others is actually a GIFT you are giving THEM. Helping others gives us the opportunity to be our best selves: generous, thoughtful, compassionate, loving…

    And if you have a solution for something specific, go 100% into delivering it. Another heroic cancer fighting friend was struggling with nausea and lack of appetite from her treatments, so I offered some of my medical cannabis to try. She said it literally saved her life. I had a CA Medical Cannabis card, so I provided all she needed, so she didn’t have to go get one herself.

    I am very sorry to learn that someone you hold dear is suffering, but they are lucky to have you as a caring friend!

    • Thank you. I especially like (and will hang onto) the thought that asking for help is a gift you give to others 🙂

  3. Very insightful post.
    I’m sorry you’re going through this Jan. (And what on earth is a shrimp casserole, who eats that?!)
    I think Janet has wonderful points above.
    Checking in. Being without all that talking. Keeping sad messes and junk cleaned away, just removing clutter in the living areas will make someone feel less hopeless, cared for and loved.

    • Thank you so much. Another thing I could do more of: hang out with horses. As you know, their ability to root the mind in the present moment is extraordinary. Especially if you don’t want your toes stepped on by your 1,000 lb. friend!

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