helping people in distress is hard

In times of trouble, at least when you let people know you’re in trouble, people who love you will say “is there anything I can do?” or “if I can do anything please call.” It is meant with the best intentions. It’s heartening to hear people declare that they are in your corner. And when your trouble isn’t really all that bad it’s innocuous. I do it. Everyone does it. It’s like asking “how are you?” in a way — it’s polite but not necessarily an actual invitation. And when you’re in genuine trouble you need that invitation to be real.

When trouble is really bad it can become a new stressor. I will decline your help for a couple of reasons.

First, I have no intention of imposing on you. You’re my friend and I feel as much compulsion to make your life easier as you feel for me.

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Couch needs a vacuuming for starters. If you can get the cat off it.

Second, the kinds of things I really need help with you don’t want to do and I would never ask you to do. I need the whole house cleaned. I need someone else to take over my household needs for a week so I can go somewhere else for a while. I need seven million dollars, give or take.

Finally, the onus is now on me to imagine things that I need, that are within your means, and that I think you would actually not mind doing. That puts an emotional burden on me that I really don’t need. It’s vastly easier for me to politely decline than to think up something in that narrow intersection of constraints that would really help.

Now, look: I love you. I understand and appreciate the sentiment. We all say it at some point and it feels like the right thing to say and it really often is. And it’s soothing to say — it releases one from a burden in a way. You know, you’ve offered, you’ve made yourself available (hypothetically). And when things are really bad, you’re kind of flailing: you know you can’t really help with things of a certain magnitude so you reach for something to say, anything, to indicate that you’re a friend and you want things to be better. I love all of that.

When someone is in dire need, here’s something you can do that doesn’t create that burden. It’s something that people used to do a lot in these circumstances but since our culture has become more about remote means of communication than physical interaction, it seems to have died off. You can just do something without asking what the person needs. It can be almost invisibly tiny and still have enormous impact.

My neighbour rang my bell the other day to say all the right things because she’d read about my trouble on Facebook. And she gave me a hug. I’ve been living alone for two weeks and I am a very physically affectionate person. I am a hugger. That hug genuinely made things better.

A friend who was in town for a visit gave me frequent hugs (because he knows) and also came with me to visit my wife in the hospital. And he didn’t ask how he could help, leaving me to invent the idea of joining me at the hospital. He said “I want to visit Jack; can I come with you?” Someone being with you when it’s hard shares the burden. It’s easier. It makes things better. He bought dinner and let me buy dinner. He let me be alone when I needed it and he respected my boundaries regarding my home and my embarrassments and my privacy. That’s some hard shit to do well, let alone perfectly. But the crux of it is: he just did things.

My mother, who lives across the country, would have been at my home every day. She couldn’t so from that great distance she found something practical to do anyway: she sent some cash. Now cash doesn’t fix every problem and in my case it’s not really necessary since I have a swell job, but cash is also always welcome. It relieves some stress. It lets me make a dumb choice with no repercussions just to make my life easier for a while. An expensive dinner, maybe, or some flowers. Cash seems crass but it’s powerful and practical.

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This is actually potatoes dauphinoise and not a casserole. Well, I guess it’s a potato and cream casserole. Fine it’s a casserole.

So next time you’re in this situation, consider not reflexively offering to help. A simple statement of solidarity, of camaraderie, of compassion is better. And if you really, really want to help, just do it. Drop by with a casserole: people under high stress are probably not eating right. This is why after the funeral everyone brings food. It’s actual help and it doesn’t require that the receiver do any work. Staying after to clean up is golden as well.

And that’s the heart of it: when the stress is really over the boiling point the one thing you do not need is more work. Everything seems like it’s too much, that it’s more than you can handle. Lift one of those things without adding any new ones. Just pick one. And if you have no idea what would help, I guarantee prepared food will never be remiss.

PS. You haven’t done anything wrong. The “how can I help” reaction is normal and compassionate. Everyone does it. It just carries a burden most people never have to think about and don’t analyze when they do. Much love to knife wife on Twitter for pointing it out — I couldn’t have put it into words without her raising it. It was like a light going on.

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