We’ve all been there when the worst has happened. We’re struggling through a horribly stressful situation at work; we’re coping with a long-term health issue; we’re in the depths of grief and mourning. The people around us feel for us, they want to make it better in some small way, and so they sympathetically utter seven, seemingly helpful words, “Well, if there’s anything I can do…”
On the face of it, this is a kind offer – but it’s one that rarely gets taken up. Either we don’t respond because we don’t want to be any bother, or we know the person offering isn’t really offering to do absolutely anything to make our day better. It’s just that thing someone says when you’re going through a hard time, but people don’t really mean it, do they? They’re probably not actively offering to help and secretly hoping you turn them down, but they’d still be a little surprised if you answered with, “Well, actually, it’d be great if you could pick up my kids, make dinner and throw a load of washing in while I sit here and cry…”
And before I sound very grumpy and ungrateful, I’ve been on the other side of “If there’s anything I can do” and I know why I say it – because what else can you say? Someone is really going through it. It’s big. It’s unfixable. There’s often very little you can do or say to make it better. And so you offer, just in case, because it’s better than reeling off meaningless platitudes or saying nothing at all.
But the problem with “If there’s anything I can do” is it puts the ball in the other person’s court. It’s up to them to work out whether or not you mean it, and to what extent. It’s up to them to then have to ask, which makes them feel like they’re putting you out even though you’ve technically offered. It’s up to them to think of something you can do so you feel better. You’re only trying to be helpful, but often you’re just adding more stress to a situation.
Instead, wouldn’t it be better to take the bull by the horns, and show practical love where it’s needed most? Instead of a vague offer that tails off at the end of the sentence, perhaps we need to respond with, “Right, what can I do? What do you need right now?” Or, to make it even easier on that person, maybe we could offer suggestions of what we mean by “anything”, because each person has a different idea of what that entails. I have friends who I know I could ask to do something for me, and others who don’t have time to give but could help with prayer or lending money or a thousand other things.
And if you really would be willing to do anything to help, but don’t know where to start, here’s a list of things I know I’ve found helpful, although another person might need something else…
- Do their admin: Often, no matter what a stressful or depressing situation might be, there’s some kind of paperwork involved just to make it that little bit worse. There might be contracts or funeral arrangements or research into treatments, which just feels impossible when you’re not feeling altogether brilliant. If you can take some of that stuff off their plate, you could be a huge help.
- Help with the house: Washing up is an odious task even on your best day, and when I’m down and out the housework is the first thing to go. Why not offer to come round and clean? If you also promise to not make the other person socialise with you if they don’t want to, you’re golden.
- Free up their time: Responsibilities don’t go away just because we’re grieving or have a huge thing to deal with, so give your friend some much-needed alone time and offer to take the kids/dog/husband (or whatever other responsibility they have) off their hands for a few hours.
- Give useful presents: If you don’t have time to do something for someone, you can still give practical support. Flowers are lovely, but giving food or money so they don’t have to cook is infinitely appreciated.
- Just be there: Sometimes there really is nothing you can do but be around for someone when they need you. That might mean having a cup of tea and a chat, or just sitting with them quietly and letting them be whatever they need to be in your company. Sometimes, just knowing someone cares is just the little lift you need.
And, finally, keep it up. When disaster first strikes, lots of people tend to come forward and offer help, but not everyone sticks around for the long haul. It’s perfectly reasonable – we all have busy lives with our own stuff going on – but stressful personal situations tend to go on far longer than we realise; grief doesn’t get any easier once the funeral is over. Let’s be the kind of friends who are there when we’re needed – not just for the initial push, but checking in over the following weeks, months, even years, just to see if there’s anything we can do.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti