• Betsy Fitzpatrick

“Let Me Know If There’s Anything I Can Do”

How many times have you said those words, or had them said to you when experiencing hard times? It’s probably the most common phrase we say to colleagues, friends, and family when they are in pain. Whether we are talking about illness, tragic loss, or just the struggles that can come from daily life, we are often at a loss of what to say or do.

The offer of help, physically or emotionally, is most likely very sincere. The problem we run into, especially when we utter those words to someone suffering, is that we have just placed one more thing on their overflowing plate…the burden to reach out and let you know if in fact they do need something. That’s way harder than you can imagine.

With the recent high profile deaths by suicide of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, there have been countless news stories and discussions about suicide. Much of the focus has been on noticing those around us who may be going through hard times and asking what we can do to help. That’s a great idea, in concept, but the concerted effort is usually short lived and it may not be as effective as we might hope.

You probably know friends or family members that you can instantly tell when something is bugging them or they are sad. At the same time, I’m sure you have been caught off guard many times when you find that someone you know or love has been suffering and either you had no idea, or you certainly didn’t realize the extent of their pain.

When we hear of a tragedy, you often hear people say, “Oh if I had only known,” or “Why didn’t anyone see the signs?” Not just signs of someone who is at the edge of considering suicide, but really anyone in our lives hurting to any extent. What can we do to really make a difference?

I wish I had a secret formula to give you right now, that you could jot down and carry it with you and use it anytime you know someone is suffering. The truth is, there are no perfect words.

Yet I’d like to offer a few thoughts that may resonate with you.

--Your words are not meant to “cure” the person of their pain. They are simply meant to say, “I care” and “I’m right here.”

--We often have the urge to share a story that we think is similar to the suffering the person is experiencing. Hold that story! Comparing whatever their pain is to your experience just took the focus off of the one in need.

--It’s really OK to say, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I want to understand as much as you will share.” This invites them to open up, and validates their pain.

--“Is there anything you need?” While the offer is sincere, a person in pain is having trouble making it hour to hour. They DO need something, but it’s not often that people can verbalize or really even know what will help.

--Just because they can’t tell you what they need, doesn’t mean you can’t help. Talk with friends and family and brainstorm what you know from past experiences that may be helpful to the person right now.

--Whatever you come up with that you want to offer as “help,” be sure it really is helpful. By that I mean make it as least intrusive as possible. If it’s bringing meals, arrange it so if they don’t want to see anyone, you can just drop it off on the front porch. Or perhaps it’s providing transportation for them or their children. Give them a list of days and dates you’re available to drive where they just have to check off which ones they need. The goal is to take the burden off of them.

--Make yourself available to listen, or just sit with them, as much as they would like. You’re not expected to be their therapist or solve problems they are having, but just being heard by someone goes a long way

--Know your limitations. With everything listed above, it’s really important that you understand that when it comes to the emotional needs of a friend or family member, they truly may need professional help. When that’s the case, offer to help them find professional in any way possible.

The list could go on and on. The message I want you to carry away is to pay attention to the cues you receive from someone who is in pain. When you heighten your awareness to the cues, and get comfortable with just being with someone in their pain, without having to have the “right” thing to say, you can be a tremendous help.

And a gentle reminder, don’t be so busy looking out for everyone else that you forget your own needs. None of us can always be in a good place to help others, but if enough of our community of friends and families are listening more, perhaps we will catch someone who is in pain, and be able to truly help.

In future blogs, I will talk more about grief and loss, an area I am deeply passionate about. In the meantime, I invite you to watch this short video by Dr. Brene Brown on Sympathy vs. Empathy. It’s a great example of how simply by creating space to be with someone in pain, we can make a huge impact.