Stop Asking How You Can Help And Do This Instead

by Katie Cloyd
Originally Published: 

I live in the South. Tennessee, to be specific. This isn’t just the land of country music, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and the Smoky Mountains. It’s the home of rich, buttery casseroles. And it’s the Volunteer State! Tennesseans love to help.

If you have a baby, are recovering from a medical procedure, move into a new home, or experience any kind of loss, a born-and-raised Southerner is going to show up with something involving creamy sauce and cracker crumbs.

This isn’t just a Southern tradition; it’s one of the better parts of human nature. It happens in almost every culture in the world. We see a person going through something difficult, and our desire to make it easier for them kicks in hard. We want to do whatever we can to lighten their load and show them that we care.

So, what do we do? We might just show up with something covered in cheese and baked to golden brown, as is the Southern way.

Or we might do the least helpful thing anyone has ever done: Ask what we can do to help.

I think we have all done this. I know I have. Every time I have asked “What do you need?” I have meant well. I really want to do whatever I can to make things easier.

The problem is that when we approach our friends in their time of need and ask what we can do to make it easier for them, we are essentially adding one more thing to their overflowing plate.

It puts the pressure on them to identify what you could do to help, determine if the size of the need is in line with the closeness of your relationship, then work up the courage to be vulnerable enough to tell you what they’ve come up with.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a nightmare to me. I’d rather just muddle through on my own.

Clearly, the answer to this is not to stop offering help. Maybe we can just try to rethink how we offer help, and make sure that it’s, ya know, actually helpful.

“I’d love to bring your family a pot of beef stew on either Sunday or Tuesday evening. What night is best for you?” is probably a better question than, “Can I bring you dinner?”

Mubariz Khan/Reshot

“I’m taking my kids to the movies at noon. Is your son available to come along?” is more helpful than, “Do you need any help with the kids?”

“Would it help you if I came by and washed your dishes?” is a great question. “Do you need help around the house?” Not as great.

It is really thoughtful to offer specific help that is in line with what you are able and willing to provide.

Another great idea is to have some supplies delivered right to your friend’s door. Same-day delivery services are becoming more widely available, so in many areas, you can have some helpful items sent over even if you’re far away or don’t have the time to shop. My friend Amanda once ran out of clean towels when her family had the flu, and her friends had brand new towels sent over that same day. She felt really supported, and they got to help her out without catching the flu. Everybody was happy.

So, what can you do if you offer to help and the person resists?

First, consider that they might actually need space and time more than anything else. If you offer specific help and the person says no thank you, it’s okay to give them some time to work through it and offer your support again later. They might be more open to a show of your affection down the line.


If you’re really close to the person, you could try asking their partner for suggestions. When my second baby was about a week old, my best friend of 25 years recognized that I was really suffering with postpartum anxiety, and instead of asking me how she could help me, she reached out to my husband to see how she could help us instead. Maybe skip this approach for a colleague or acquaintance, but in the case of close friends, reaching out to their partner can make it easier for you to identify and fulfill a need.

If they’re still resistant, consider that your friend might really have all the bases covered. Don’t necessarily assume that “no, thank you” secretly means “try harder.” I’ve been there! Last summer, I had to have surgery on one of my ovaries. My mom stayed with us and had all the meals, childcare and housework under control. My husband also had plenty of time off, and the surgery recovery was short. We just didn’t need any of the usual things.

The night before surgery one of my friends asked if she could stop by, and she showed up with a home-made piñata shaped like an ovary and a bottle of wine. I had no idea I needed an ovary piñata, but it made me laugh, and it was a perfect distraction. Sometimes just showing up is the help someone needs- but you should probably call first.

My favorite way to help when everything practical seems to be covered is just to send a gift card. All I have to do is make sure the business exists in their local area, and in 5 minutes, I can have a gift sent over. I can even send it via text so they can use it immediately. I think a gift card is just as helpful as a gallon of sweet tea and a casserole.

Even if it’s not quite as buttery and delicious.

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