I’d like to hold forth a little on a topic brought to mind because of my own recent experience:  I had surgery last month (a cervical fusion to alleviate horrific pain). And my experiences with those wishing me well and wanting to help compelled me to review some guidelines for helping those in need, whether they’re dealing with surgery, illness, injury or grief.

Here is my favorite, number one, over-riding guideline:

Make specific offers. I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough, especially if the one in need is someone you know fairly well. Many people, before and after my surgery, said or emailed to me: “Call me if you need anything” or “Let me know how I can help” or “What do you need?” I know it’s meant well but I can tell you that I won’t call you or let you know if I need something. When we don’t feel well, or are hurting, or are going through grief, we may be too embarrassed to ask for help or we frankly may not even know what to ask for. A specific offer is so welcome. If you have a conversation with the one in need, you will learn exactly the level of need so you could figure out what would be an adequate offer. Let me share some of my favorite offers that came through before and after my surgery:

  • “I’m picking up a pizza after work tomorrow. Let me know what you want on it, I’ll bring it by around 6:30”
  • “I just tried a new recipe and you get to be the guinea pig. I’m bringing it by this evening.”
  • “The girls and I have decided to set up a hospital care team to give Jim a break and ensure that you are never alone in the hospital. After you find out how long you’ll be in, let me know and we’ll coordinate the watch.”
  • “We’re going to bring you lunch. If you’re just not up for company, we’ll just show up, hand you the lunch, and give you gentle hugs if you can handle them, and be on our way.”
  • “I’d like to bring you lunch. I can do it this Wednesday or next—which one would you prefer?”

Do you see the pattern here? These were specific offers. I had the option to say ‘no thank you,’ but I was not put in the awkward position of asking for something. The offer was made, I could accept or not. Of course the nature of the offer will depend on a number of things—how well you know the person in need, how serious the incapacitation is, and whether the need is long- or short-term.

There were a few other gestures I have deeply appreciated before and after my surgery.

  • Phone calls. So often our tendency is to think we’re bothering someone if we call. But I simply can’t tell you what it meant to me to have people call just to see how I was doing. If I couldn’t talk because of pain or sleeping, it was still heartwarming to hear someone’s voice mail message asking after me.
  • Cards or notes. I admit, I’m a sucker for this kind of gesture. In today’s overwhelmingly digital world, a card or hand-written note is really a stand out caring gesture.
  • Visits. My pain sidelined me a good bit before the surgery, and since then I have been housebound because I can’t get in a car for several weeks. So having visits from friends is really a balm.

Finally, don’t forget the care giver—the person doing most of the care-taking. It could be a spouse, a parent, a child or another family member. Caregivers could need a break. Whether you offer to spell them for awhile or make them a meal or run an errand for them, don’t forget to make them a specific offer.

By the way, my surgery was a success—it got rid of the pain I was experiencing. I spent about two days “under water,” but then I was up and about, gradually increasing my strength every day. I am feeling whole and healthy, and most importantly, pain-free again!

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