Be there to HELP

Be Here Now:

How to Help a Loved One


handsA few years ago, a good friend of mine underwent six months of gruelling treatment for breast cancer. Most of her pals rallied around her, but one long-time friend simply evaporated. When she resurfaced after the fact and my friend asked her why she had disappeared, the response was, “You have no idea how hard it is to have a friend with cancer!” That comment lands somewhere between funny and outrageous… and yet there is a certain truth in it.

When a crisis arises, be it physical, emotional, financial or of another sort, people in the inner circle of the person involved may experience it as their crisis…

…as in, what does this mean to me? And that reaction doesn’t necessarily arise from narcissism or simple selfishness either. If a friend’s marriage explodes or an addiction develops or there’s an accident or serious illness, it may expose thoughts and feelings that hit close to home and that you don’t even know you have. It is hard to be present and supportive through someone else’s hard times, says life coach Lauren Zander, a regular Daily Health News contributor. Another person’s problems may bring unspoken issues to the surface within a relationship — yours with your ailing friend or other relationships you have. As a result,

…you may need to dig deep inside your own psyche to be of real help to a loved one who needs you.

You may experience complex emotions, including your fears of facing a similar crisis… memories of past personal crises… or perhaps worries that this may bring trouble into your own life, adding stress or sadness or making you less available to your own family.

How Can You Connect?

As with most aspects of human behaviour, the “how supportive you tend to be” continuum runs from amazingly great to truly awful. We all know people who seem born to save the day, rushing in with offers of meaningful help, graceful gestures and a seeming endless ability to listen in a patient, supportive and non-judgmental way… and, at the other extreme, we know some who just fade from view. Have you ever put thought into where you are on that continuum?


It’s a question you can and should answer honestly because, according to Zander, this is a learnable skill. Whether your reaction to issues in someone else’s life is fear or confusion or something else, she said that merely becoming aware of feelings is an important first step.

How to Be Truly Helpful

A common offer in times of trouble is, “Call me if you need anything.” This usually is very sincere and generous but not really very helpful. For one thing, your loved one may have no clue what would help. The beneficiary of your well-meant offer may be frozen with fear or frantically trying to do 15 things at once, but it’s unlikely that he/she is equipped with an orderly list of tasks to hand you. Also, what the person needs may not match your ability or schedule. If it’s afternoon babysitting that’s most needed and you’ve got to be at work, you face having to make the awkward response, “Well, I can’t do that but…”

A better way is to make a list of specific things that you can do — perhaps grocery shopping or bringing over dinner several nights a week to a friend who is ill… taking the children for a weekend for your sister whose marriage is in crisis… or offering to negotiate a payment plan or a discounted doctor’s bill, or even pay a bill, for someone in financial straits.

A great tip: E-mail is a terrific tool for delivering an offer of such specific

favours. It’s immediate, private, nonintrusive, and you have the ability to go

into detail. On the other end, the person you’re reaching out to can absorb

the offer in his/her own time. Encourage a quick response by ending with a

reminder that you hope to hear back soon so that you can get started. If

you haven’t heard in a week or so, give the person a call to follow up –

sometimes e-mails don’t reach the recipient.


If you have mutual friends, it’s also good to band together to see what you can do collectively that will help. And, by all means, if it is your parents in need, gather the siblings to help as a team. Doing so will prevent hard feelings in the family down the road about who did and did not pitch in, notes Zander.

I Told You So

There’s another type of emotion that often gets in the way of helping other folks — smugness and anger, even the “righteous” kind. “There can be a lot of judging going on when a crisis hits,” Zander said. “If a friend gets hurt in a car accident, for example, and you have long disapproved of his dangerous driving, it’s easy to see his crisis as self-inflicted — as in ‘See, I knew he would cause a wreck one day.'” Your feelings may have some basis, but what’s your goal?

Do you want to prove he’s wrong or help him out? Judging blocks your ability to be genuinely helpful.

If you feel you absolutely must communicate your feelings before you can offer help to your friend (such as if drinking problems caused the accident… a credit card spending frenzy caused the financial woes… or smoking and too much fast food caused the heart attack)… and you honestly value the relationship, then it’s important to bring up your negative feelings in a non-judgmental way. Zander’s advice: Ask for permission to address the problem. “Be clear that you are stating your own observations… that these may or may not be relevant… and always respect that others are allowed to make the decisions for their lives,” she said.


Presenting yourself in such a respectful manner opens the way for you to offer opinions and observations that might be quite meaningful without being overly intrusive. But keep in mind a simple dictum that we all know but sometimes ignore:

Everyone makes mistakes (and everyone deserves compassion).

So when crisis hits someone in your circle, try to take a moment away from your own feelings and step into this person’s shoes…

…you’ll know what to do.



Lauren Zander, cofounder and chairman, The Handel Group,