I’ve been there. And if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ve probably been there too. You hear prayer requests at Church services, or maybe you read it in your congregation’s weekly update.
That family is going through so much. You think helping out would be a good idea. You may even write some notes about it in your notebook during the announcements at church. You know someone has to do it. You have every intention.
And yet another week goes by and there you are. Still not serving.
You don’t know what’s needed. You’d feel awkward. You may even get in the way. You have your own housework to do on Sunday. You’re just not a people person. It’s not your “gift.” There really isn’t anyone to watch the kids while you’re gone.
Sometimes these reasons are valid and worth considering before serving someone going through a difficult trial—but other times they’re just excuses.
I have a theory that sometimes we fail to serve because we fear not knowing exactly what to do. No one specifically gave us the job to do and asked us to take care of jumping in and serving those who need help. There isn’t a title. There isn’t always acknowledgement. Often there’s not even guidance. What do you say? What do you do? Could you even be helpful?
You may not be able to find someone to walk you through and ins and outs of serving others, but some basic principles may help you understand what’s important to consider before showing up at someone’s door and offering to help.
Here are three.
1. Don’t assume
We all process grief differently, and even with the best of intentions, we can unknowingly make things more difficult. This may seem like the first and easiest step in helping someone going through a difficult trial, but it’s often overlooked.
Some of us process grief by talking it out, others turn inward, and some of us have to physically move about while we process. The latter are probably the most often who are affected by our forgetting this first step. Don’t assume that by showing up and tackling their to-do list you’re helping. You may be taking away someone’s ability to process their grief.
I’ve seen it before: If you knock out their list of chores, they’ll start working in the garden or take the car to get gas. In grief you may see that pile of dishes as a necessary task, but someone else may see that as an escape from feeling useless and a precious sense of control in their disrupted lives.
You may be well-intended, but be careful that you aren’t stepping in where you’re not needed and unintentionally making a trial more difficult for someone you care about.
2. Be specific
I’ve done it. And I’ve meant it. I meant it sincerely and I believe they knew that, but it was empty all the same. I’ve said the classic, “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.” The gesture was kind and well-received, but it ended there. It always ends there. Not once has anyone ever called me to say, “You know, you said if I needed anything to call, so I did! Would you please come over for a few hours?”
Even though we say it with love and sincerity, the truth is that such an offer is too vague and often unhelpful.
Being specific shows that we understand there are needs to be met and communicates that we’re willing to meet those needs for them during this time of struggle. It shows we have empathy and are able to put ourselves in their shoes and see what needs to get done.
What stops when tragedy hits? Some may be able to take some time off from work, but what about everything else? Dishes don’t stop needing to be washed. Laundry doesn’t stop getting dirty. Toothpaste doesn’t stop sticking to the bathroom sink. Food crumbs don’t stop falling on the floor. In difficulties, we may find ourselves hugging a heating pad on the couch or spending our afternoons at a funeral home making hard decisions. But eventually, we run out of spoons in our kitchen drawers. Our socks begin looking mighty pitiful and lose their bright white bottoms. The milk in our fridge sours.
Let’s be the people who instead of saying “Call if you need anything,” say, “Hey, I’m going out tomorrow. Can I grab some groceries for you?” or “I’m driving right by the pharmacy, are there any medications I can pick up for you?” or “You know, it’s laundry day in my house. Can I run by and pick up yours to do as well?”
They might say no, but you know what? They might just realize they really do need clean clothes. They just might need a box of cereal and some fresh milk. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to have an extra bottle of aspirin just in case.
In being specific in our offers to help, we may just find ourselves having more opportunities to help.
3. Be on time
This may seem super obvious and a good life rule in general, but being on time is even more important when helping someone through a trial. Yes, there may be traffic. Yes, your kid may take 20 minutes to find his shoes. Yes, you may remember you forgot your wallet ten minutes into your trip. Plan on it. Plan on something going wrong—because it likely will.
Just because the person we’re going to help may be completely understanding doesn’t mean that we didn’t just make their day harder by showing up a bit late.
It’s important to remember that their day might be filled right now, and that doesn’t change because we’re coming over to help. If they’re struggling with health issues, maybe the time they gave you to come over is when they know they’ll be feeling their best and up to having company. If they’ve taken in a sick or struggling family member, maybe the time they gave you works best for that person and coming at another time would make things so much harder. If they’ve lost a loved one, they probably have appointments with lawyers to go over wills and funeral home directors to make plans for the funeral. If family members are coming in, their days may be filled with airport runs and guest bedroom prepping. Coming in late or in the middle of their schedule has the potential to actually make their day harder and have us stepping in at a time when we’re not needed.
If they’ve given you a time to come over, plan for the trip to take longer than expected and show up on time. Even if you get there early, there’s nothing wrong with driving around the block a few times until they’re ready for you.
Just like catching a ball without dropping it, riding a bike without falling over, or washing your clothes without turning everything pink, it takes practice. The more you serve, the better you will be at serving.
Maybe you’ll have to schedule for someone to watch the kids while you’re gone. Maybe that Sunday task will need to become a Monday evening chore. Maybe you really aren’t a people person, but you’ll have to take a deep breath, say a prayer, and put yourself out there anyway. Those are choices you’ll have to make if you want to serve your brethren in their time of distress.
It may not be easy, but keeping some basic principles in mind can help:
Don’t assume your help is wanted. Show you’re aware of their needs by being specific. Be on time.
Who knows? You may just feel less awkward and more like family when you do.
Until who knows,