You’ve probably heard this phrase a few hundred times since your loved one’s death…
Let me know if there’s anything I can do.
Expert advice suggests that those wishing to support grieving individuals should not make such generalized offers because it puts the burden on the griever to identify their needs and ask for help. This is really good advice, yet many people hesitate to make specific offers because they don’t know what their grieving friend or family member needs or they don’t want to overstep their boundaries.
Sadly this often amounts to grievers and helpers meeting at an impasse. For grievers, this is an unfortunate outcome because (let’s be honest) many of you could use the help. I don’t mean to be condescending, I just know that experiencing the death of a loved one is a logistical and emotional nightmare.
Of course, there are a million reasons why people don’t like asking for help, number one often is that you worry about intruding upon or inconveniencing others. This is usually a reasonable concern, but as I’m sure you’ve noticed these are special circumstances. Chances are the people who’ve offered help since your loved one’s death actually want to give it.
If you regularly read this blog you know a few years ago my brother was in a car accident and spent several weeks in a coma. During that time my sister-in-law had some lovely young men come to her door to talk to her about their faith. She kindly told them that she didn’t have time to talk because she has 3 kids and her husband is in a coma at the hospital. As we’ve established they were lovely young men, so of course, they asked, “Is there anything we can do?”. My sister-in-law said, “Well, my toilet is broken and my lawn needs to be mowed”. The next day they returned to the house and again for several days after that – by the end of the week they had mowed the lawn, fixed toilet, and repaired the ceiling.
How many of you would have politely declined their offer and then stressed about the house falling apart? I would have! I’m horrible at asking for help. Watching my sister-in-law made me realize just how horrible. To do this day I continue to try and get better at 3 things.
1. Being open to asking for and/or accepting help.
2. Identifying my needs.
3. Identifying the best person to help me with my needs.
Let’s assume we have accomplished #1, you are now open to asking for and/or accepting help. You still won’t get anywhere until you actually know what you need (#2). It can be hard to step back from a situation and say, ‘I can’t do this on my own’. It can also be hard to understand what you need when you’re stressed, emotional, and overwhelmed.
Imagine you are walking up a hill carrying a carton of milk, a box of eggs, a loaf of bread, and a really squirmy cat (No, the cat can’t walk up the hill. He’s very lazy). If only you didn’t have that dang cat you’d probably manage to get up the hill without dropping your groceries. A man comes along and offers you help. Do you immediately ask him to carry the cat, do you stand there unable to decide if and how he can help or do you defiantly say “no, I can handle the load on my own”? I know, weird story. I think what I’m trying to say though is if you didn’t ask the man to carry the squirmy cat you need to work on identifying your needs.
Once you’ve identified your needs you can worry about task #3, assessing the best person in your life to ask for help. Think of your friends and family as a toolkit, it’s important to find the right tool for a job based on their unique characteristics (their personality, strengths, abilities, etc). For example, when you want to talk about how you’ve been questioning your faith, don’t call your blindly religious aunt Rita. If you need someone to babysit your kids for a few hours, don’t ask your flaky and irresponsible teenage brother.
This is a journal exercise for anyone who struggles with identifying their needs and utilizing their resources. Many people know they have family and friends in their corner, yet often feel utterly alone. Mapping out your support system can be a reassuring way to assess who you can call upon if needed. This activity can also be adapted for children who have had a shift in support system or aren’t sure who they can rely on.
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Psst! If you prefer to listen to your grief support, check out this podcast discussing effectively using your support system after a death.