When Being Helpless Helps

Yesterday was a beautiful day. Not just in the sense of good weather and lovely scenery — those things are pretty much standard issue in our slice of Northern California, especially in springtime, something we who live here tend to take for granted (and, yes, we should all be lined up and shot). Yesterday went way deeper than pretty. Yesterday was about life and love, loss and hope, fear and acceptance, joy and sadness. Mostly, love.


When a dear family member gets a troubling diagnosis — and I mean a truly lousy one, the kind that elicits pity-faces when you tell people about it — a whole crowd of noisy feelings start right in clamoring for your attention, as though you’ve just stuck your head in a bag full of mosquitoes.

There’s shock and disbelief at first, swiftly followed by a host of other things you’d rather not experience: fear, sadness, an unpalatable taste of your own mortality. You have a million questions, most of which have no answer. You’re amped up; you feel the need to do something. Because the most uncomfortable thing you’re feeling is helplessness.

One of the gifts of having slogged through some decades on the planet is that you learn a few things by going through tough times, things that can wise you up when the you-know-what hits the fan for someone you love. This is the kind of gift you’d never ask for, certainly, but since you’ve earned it you may as well make use of it.

Here is an incomplete list of the things you probably feel like doing but should not:

  • call the person (or their partner) right away and tell them how devastated you are
  • and then ask them a lot of questions
  • followed by stories of people you know who have had or been through the same thing
  • along with a list of suggestions for treatments, specialists, or alternative therapies you’ve heard about
  • and a helpful inspirational message (“God never gives us more than we can handle,” etc.)

Trust me on this. I was suddenly widowed when I was 48, and all of the above, even though I knew it was well-meaning, drove me nuts and drained me of the few shreds of energy I could still muster.

Here’s the truth about why your sense of helplessness is so painful: you truly are helpless, in the sense that there is nothing you can do to correct the situation or make it go away. It’s beyond you, no matter how strongly you disapprove of its existence, and that is a very hard pill for your wee ego to swallow. That doesn’t make you petty or bad. It makes you human. 

But here’s what else I’ve learned. What you can do is show up. That may mean literally, physically, like we did yesterday when we gathered with our family and simply hung out and had a lovely time. It could mean dropping off a pot of chicken soup, or taking care of yard work or dog walking — specific things that you may know to offer (another don’t: pester the beleaguered with “what can I do to help” requests. They’ve got enough on their plate without thinking up tasks to make you feel useful). It may mean just sitting and listening. It may mean simply holding them in your thoughts and, if you are so inclined, prayers. What this requires is that you accept the reality of whatever is happening without either resisting it or forecasting its outcome. For us puny, control-addicted humans, that’s a tricky balance.

But if you can manage it, even some of the time, that balance can lend you the grace you need to be of actual help. The people going through the hard thing do not need your judgement or your opinions or, unless you’re their doctor or their priest or their guru, your expertise. They just need your presence. Your soul, if you will. Which, I promise, will show up if you get out of its way. And then, here’s what you do: use what’s happening to remind you how precious and ephemeral your own life is, and go on out and live it, with as much joyful abandon as you can summon. Seriously, that’s about the most helpful thing you can do.

This is Big Stuff, and I would so love to hear your thoughts. Please, comment and share. Meanwhile, live long and prosper, my friend.


  1. Hi Jan — Re your post: You speak from wisdom. I’ll never forget your call re Richard’s sudden passing. We left immediately for your domain — which was all we could do. Be there. You were in all ways magnificent through it all.
    All love always!!! A&B

  2. All I can say is “Yup” and I know you came to these conclusions in the trenches. My favorite line is : What this requires is that you accept the reality of whatever is happening without either resisting it or forecasting its outcome.

  3. I spent some years training as a Spiritual Director which involved Grief counseling – I have a shelf full of books on the subject. Most of them have something of value to offer. I think you captured the essence of their message Jan. My two favorites are first a book written by a friend of mine dealing with the gut wrenching loss of her only son. It is called Touching the Edge – a mother’s spiritual path from loss to life, by Margaret Wurtele, a truly beautiful and uplifting story. The second deals with a similar loss written by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Yale Divinity School. It is called simply Lament for A Son. His wisdom is profound and especially his warning that whatever you say Do not say “it’s not really so bad. . . What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.” I have always remembered his words.

    • True, but so heartbreaking. I quail at the thought of losing a child, but I know those who have had to bear it.

Comments are closed.