Sooner or later, it happens to everyone. A friend gets sick, loses a loved one, gets fired, or something else just as terrible. They need your help and your support, and you want to give it. When I talk with people about it, however, most say something like this: “I want to help, but I don’t know what to do.”
We know that texting “thoughts and prayers” isn’t enough, but what should we do? I grew up in a small, rural town. My parents were on a phone tree for our local church. When someone had a baby or was in the hospital, we’d get a phone call. My mother would promise to pray for them, and then she’d make a lasagna. When it comes to being there during a difficult time, we can learn some lessons from the meaningful, practical habits of generations before us. They didn’t have texting or social media, so they used more hands-on methods for showing they care. Here are some old-school tips for supporting our friends.
Send them a handwritten card
One of the best old-school ways to support a friend is also one of the easiest. Pick up a greeting card from the store, find a pen, and write a short note on the inside. You don’t need to write beautiful literature, because the time you take to express your concern matters more than what you write. If you’re really low on inspiration, try something like this: “I was saddened to hear that your grandmother died. I know you were close, and she will be missed.” It takes a moment to zip out a text, but your friend will see how much you care when you make that extra effort. It might just brighten their day.
Drop off food
When you’re overwhelmed, mundane tasks can be a huge challenge. One of the best ways to lighten a friend’s load is to bring them some food. Make something large enough that they can get a couple meals out of it and easily reheat. Where I grew up, we all had huge casserole dishes for this purpose, but stews, soups, and baked pastas work great, too. If you’re not handy in the kitchen, pick up a large pizza. Bring disposable plates and plasticware to make cleanup easy.
When you’re dropping off the food, be sensitive. Your friends may or may not invite you in to eat. Sometimes people need the company as much as they need food or they may not feel up to having guests. If others want to help, you can use sites like Meal Train to organize friends to make sure those meals keep coming.
Do something to lighten their load
Just like cooking can be a chore, going shopping for everyday supplies can be tough, too. Send a quick message, “I’m going to the store, can I pick you up anything?” Paper products like plates and napkins, or supplies like dish detergent and hand soap are very useful. If you want to do something more exciting, offer to walk their dog, clean up their yard, or take their dry cleaning out. Whatever takes a chore off their shoulders will give them the time and space to deal with the pain they’re facing.
Take your friend out
A bit of fun can make a tough situation feel much better, and that is something any friend can provide. Plan a time to go out to lunch, grab a coffee, or have a drink. When you do, let your friend take the lead in the conversation. If it’s time to vent, let it happen. If the conversation turns to the latest episode of whatever, that’s fine, too. You just want to be there. If your friend has kids, an afternoon alone might be the best thing, so offer to babysit for a few hours.
Don’t wait for them to contact you
I used to tell my friends, “Let me know if you need something.” They never would, because that kind of sentiment actually puts the responsibility back on them to initiate a request for help. Now, I take a cue from the friends who just show up at the door. Instead of saying, “let me know if you need something,” I tell them what I’m going to do instead. “I’d like to stop by with some food. Is tomorrow okay?” or “I’ve got the day off. Can I run an errand for you?”
These acts of kindness can make a big difference for someone who is struggling, but it’s important for you to take the initiative. When someone is grieving, sick, or facing some other challenge, they won’t have the time to arrange your help. If you want to support your friends, put your concern into action. That will help you be the kind of friend you want to be.
Originally published on August 1, 2017.