We live in a society that loves to talk. And in most cases talking about our struggles makes us feel better.
So when we see someone we care about in need of help, our instinct is often to ask them to talk about whatever is bothering them. After all, talking can serve as a release, and an opportunity to review the cause of the pain, frustration, or fears, and identify solutions. And in many cases, we ask for details about a problem so we can decide whether to help and how.
That said, sometimes it’s more effective to say, “let me help you” than to ask “what is wrong?”
Just because someone may want or need support, does not mean they are ready to talk about why. And insisting on talking before offering assistance can lead to the opposite outcome of our positive intent.
Surviving before talking – my story
When going through the hardest time of my life years ago, the last thing I wanted was to talk about my fears, though I desperately needed help. I was still breastfeeding my third child when my husband Jeremy was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer.
I was not up to explaining for the umpteenth time what I was coping with at home. Having been raised to be fiercely self-reliant, I hated needing help, and any insistence to “let it out” rubbed me the wrong way.
Instead of seeking out a therapist, I went to a nutritionist. As I quickly adapted to my new role of caretaker, I needed guidance on what to eat to keep me on my feet and my little family functioning. I met with her regularly. She was aware of what I was dealing with, but never asked too much. If I had needed to share elements that felt private as a condition of her help, I would have walked away. I told her about my schedule and she gave me sound, practical advice that worked – down to what to buy myself from which cafe in the hospital where Jeremy was treated.
I was in survival mode. Focused on what I could control physically, I would not have the power to delve into the emotional issues of my situation, let alone talk about them, until much later.
Who decides who needs help and when?
Jeremy’s Circle is a nonprofit named for my late husband that supports kids coping with cancer or cancer loss in their young families. Offering fun, friendship, and community, we understand that not everyone needs support in the same way or at the same stage. Some families come to Jeremy’s Circle when a loved one is in treatment. Some join months after treatment is over when they feel they can breathe again. Some of the kids, who developed important friendships with others who “get it” without explaining, continue to attend our events until, well, they are not really kids anymore.
While new families are briefly screened when they join, the families themselves decide when it’s right for them to participate and when it’s time to move on. No one asks them to discuss what they are going through or “prove” that they still qualify for our support – the control is in their hands.
So how do we help without prying?
I am not saying that organizations with clear and specific mandates shouldn’t ask questions to make sure that their resources are distributed to those people they are most meant to serve. Rather, I am talking about you and me in our day-to-day.
For many, the isolation of COVID-19 exasperated emotional issues, health fears, physical problems, and financial concerns. Our health systems are straining under the pressure. Many more people than ever would benefit from support from those around them.
Support can come in many forms, such as a yummy food package, a lift to an appointment, or running an otherwise neglected errand. When I was Jeremy’s caregiver, I quickly learned that the best way to care for us when we were in crisis was to help our kids. Friends and family took our kids along on their own family outings – to parks, on hikes, to the movies, and more – giving the kids a healthy break from our stressed home life.
So next time we see a friend, family member, or even an acquaintance struggling, maybe just help. No questions asked.
And if they want to talk. That’s wonderful. Listen.