6 Better Things To Say To A Struggling Friend Than 'Let Me Know If I Can Do Anything'

November 10, 2017
Woman Greiving
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A death, an illness, a lost job–any number of trying scenarios can inspire well-meaning folks to utter those eight words: "Let me know if I can do anything."

"On the surface, it feels like the right thing to say," says illustrator and entrepreneur Emily McDowell, creator of the popular straight-talking Empathy Cards (shown throughout this article) and co-author of There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say and Do When Life Gets Scary, Awful, and Unfair To People You Love.

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But the problem with that phrase is that it puts the burden on the person going through the tough time to reach out to you. "They probably already feel really overwhelmed, and maybe don’t even know what they need," says McDowell.

Many of us rely on "Let me know if I can do anything" because we genuinely want to help, says Kenneth Doka, PhD, professor of counseling at the College of New Rochelle. "I think people want to be there for a friend but feel powerless," he says. Instead, he recommends being specific in your offers to help, while always acknowledging the pain of the situation.

So how do you do that without feeling totally awkward and insensitive? Here are some suggestions from the pros. 

"Can I pick up the kids on Tuesday?"

Sympathy Card
Emily McDowell

 

Maybe you and your friend going through a tough time have kids the same age. Offer to drive them to or from school or other activities.

Of course, there are endless variations on this theme: Can I bring over a pizza on Friday night? (Or one of these 16 comforting casseroles?) Can I go with you to church on Sunday? Can I book a massage for you next week? Can I pick up groceries for you tonight? Can we have coffee on Thursday when things settle down? Can I call you on Monday to check in? These types of questions draw out a response that gives you a gauge for how the person is feeling, says Jill Cohen, a New York City-based grief counselor. "They might say, 'You know what, I never would have thought to pick up the phone on Monday, but I'll be lonely after my family leaves after the funeral on Sunday, so that would be great.'"

Make your friend this delicious butternut squash mac & cheese recipe:

"I'll always remember how funny she was."

Sharing personal memories of someone who has died is a unique way to connect with a grieving friend, Cohen says. These stories can be especially comforting for someone going through a tough time if they haven't heard them before. (If you’re thinking of posting on Facebook, though, read these 7 appropriate ways to handle grief on social media first.)

"Maybe someone knew her mom was generous and clever but didn’t know she was the kind of doctor who cheered everyone up," Cohen says. "It connects on a deeper level, because you get to remember something about the person together."

 

"I wish I could take the hurt away, but I can't."

Sympathy Card
Emily McDowell

Another problem with "Let me know if I can do anything" is that sometimes there's nothing to be done. (You should also avoid saying these 8 things.) In the face of grief or distress, many people search for a way to fix things, but these aren't problems to be solved, they're emotions to process.

"Try not to say something that's supposed to take away the pain, because nothing is going to," Doka says. Just like "Time heals" or "It'll be alright," you're not acknowledging how truly painful the situation is, Cohen adds. Let the person know you wish you could make things better to show your support, while also acknowledging that you know smoothing everything over is out of your reach.

Related: 4 Signs You Should Get Help For Your Grief

"Here's a glass of water."

It may sound silly, but if you're a practical person you can make yourself useful with all sorts of little responsibilities, especially at a wake or other similar functions around a death, Cohen says. "The mourner will often be standing for a long period of time, inundated with visitors," she explains. "They may be getting tired, and often nobody's taking care of them." Step in with a drink, a chair, or to encourage folks out the door if necessary. (Here, 9 women reveal the most helpful thing someone did for them after losing a loved one.)

"I'm so sorry."

Sympathy Card
Emily McDowell

It's absolutely fine to keep things this simple—and this familiar can be helpful. Saying you're sorry "validates what they're experiencing," Doka says, without sugarcoating the situation. Plus, it doesn't ask something of the other person, like "Let me know if I can do anything" does.

Related: How To Write A Heartfelt Sympathy Card

"I don't know what to say, but I'm here."

Sympathy Card
Emily McDowell

Especially if you're dealing with a close friend, it's okay to be honest, Cohen says. "Sometimes it's almost better to admit it," she says. Be there for them physically instead of verbally if you can't quite find the right words, even if that just means sitting quietly together.

"Sometimes it's more about listening than about talking," McDowell adds. "For most of us, silence is really uncomfortable. But if you're quiet, you're not problem solving or peppering them with questions. Sitting in silence can be the most supportive thing you can do."

The article 6 Better Things To Say To A Struggling Friend Than 'Let Me Know If I Can Do Anything' originally appeared on Prevention.