How to Help a Friend
Throughout my teenage years, I started to notice something new and different emerging within my closest friendships. I seemed to be spending a lot of time engaging with friends who were coming to me for some kind of help. Whether they needed me for a rescue mission, as a partner in crime, or simply for a listening ear, I noticed a new purpose developing in my young life. I even contemplated choosing psychology as a major in college until I realized that emotionally engaging in deeply personal issues with others might feel like too much in addition to my own. So instead, I chose the unofficial role of the friendly neighborhood support system, choosing quality of life over a paycheck.
I do believe we are capable of helping those who mean the most to us, even if we find ourselves feeling at a loss of what to do or say. On the flip side, some people don’t want or know how to accept help, so there will never be a life manual of instructions on how to navigate this tricky territory. As someone who has a hard time allowing anyone to make my life easier in any way, I feel like I have a dual vantage point. How do you help someone who doesn’t know what they need? Here are some tips to help you avoid finding yourself within the disappointing majority of people whose response to that question would be, “you don’t.”
The first step is to gauge the situation with the response. Are we dealing with a full-throttle emergency, or would the less-is-more-reaction be just as effective? Most people are surprised to know that a small gesture can feel massive to someone in need. We’ve all seen the meal chains that are put together for families grappling with illness or tragedy, but I’ve discovered that something personal can be even more meaningful.
Covering the Basic Needs
Having simple, daily needs covered can hold so much value when we’re in a situation where the basics become difficult. I’ve learned to think about ways to offer helpful solutions with that reality in mind. I watched a friend spend two exhausting years caring for her terminally ill mother, so shortly after the funeral, I gave her a gift certificate for a day of spa pampering. Another woman whose chronic illness left her housebound was thrilled when I picked her up one day and took her on a beautiful drive. The new mom up the block was grateful when I took care of her newborn and laundry for a few hours so she could take a much-needed nap. I must admit that the best help I received was having a friend come over to walk my dog after breaking my foot. Little things can feel much bigger when you’re in distress. A person can make a huge impact just by showing that they care, even in the smallest of ways.
Offering a Heavier Lift
Of course, there are also extreme cases where a good friend might feel the need to cross a potentially uncomfortable boundary. In most situations, I feel it’s probably better to be asked for that kind of help. I once impulsively offered a full weekend of cooking, company, and support, and I was given the go-ahead to step in. The family was in crisis, but by the end of our time together, I felt they weren’t the only ones who received something positive out of our time together. My assistance made a difference in their stress relief, and seeing them in a better place when I left made me feel rewarded, too.
As much as I will be there for my friends no matter what they face, the good times will continue to be important, too. The “Lucy and Ethel” moments with my best friend from third grade stand out in my mind as some of the best times of pure joy. But we all know it can’t always be that way, and we serve ourselves and those around us better when we don’t run away from life moments that feel uncomfortable or challenging. Even worse would be avoiding a friend because you aren’t sure what to do. Like the traditional marriage vows, sometimes you too can make a difference in sickness and in health. And when you really care about someone, it’s always helpful to remember that even the smallest gestures can mean the most.