Caren McLane has a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Community Health Education from BYU. She met her husband, Todd, her freshman year while at BYU. They are the parents of 5 children and live on a 4 acre “hobby farm” with chickens, cows, and dogs. She volunteers at the library and hospice and has blogged since 2014. Caron has served in a variety of callings in the Church and is currently serving as the Relief Society President in her Montana Ward.
King Benjamin taught, “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” This scripture is also true in reverse. When you are served by your fellow beings, you are being served by the Lord.
Sometimes we worry too much about what we can do or say to help someone. This insight was stressed by Jennie Taylor in her Liahona article, “Finding Blessings in Tragedy.”
“After Brent died, people who just showed up were the most helpful. They were not pushy, they paid attention, and they saw a need. If you feel prompted to serve, do not overthink it. Show up. Drop off a quick note. Don’t worry that your efforts aren’t perfect. Help anyway. Even if you say or do the wrong thing, those you serve will know that you meant, ‘I love you.’ We can all do better at letting people serve us imperfectly.”
Ask anyone who has been through a rough time what has been helpful, and the answers will be as varied as the personalities and circumstances. There is no standard as to what is needed and no guideline as to what will be appreciated. While it’s helpful to have some ideas to consider, ideally, we’d want to act in ways that show our friends we truly know and care about them and that we see their needs.
It’s Okay to Express Love Clumsily
Sometimes we act hastily rather than really taking time to discern what might be lacking. Yet other times we hang back, hesitant, almost paralyzed by overwhelm and indecision about what to do. I remember a friend telling me that in her experience, the worst reaction was her indecision. It is almost always better to express love clumsily than to wait until we can execute service flawlessly.
An Inner Circle Friend or Associate
It can be hard to know not only what do to but even to know if we’re someone who should do something. What if it’s a ward member or neighbor or teacher at the school, someone we don’t know that well, but we know, how involved should we be? A few friends mentioned that it makes the situation even more difficult when people outside of their normal circles want to be up close and ask personal questions. They wonder where these “friends” have been under normal circumstances. Additionally, it’s awkward for those wanting to help because we haven’t maybe connected more intimately with this family and yet we want to do something to provide support.
There are some people, like my sister and others, who have written blogs about their tough experiences and see this as a way to educate and include others in their journeys. I’m also in this camp, very open and not the type to get offended if someone wanted to touch my belly when I was pregnant. I didn’t care who knew about my health issues and never minded answering personal questions. I thought it was all so interesting and wanted to invite everyone to learn from what we’d been through. However, others prefer to keep things quieter and to have just their closest friends and family involved, this is totally understandable.
It’s been tricky as I’ve had to ascertain if I’m an inner circle friend or just an associate. I honestly don’t always know, and so maybe we just send a note or a text and allow others who are closer to the family do the more intimate work or service. If the person wants more, we can follow their cues.
However, there have been other times I’ve been very surprised that I’ve been able to be a resource to someone I didn’t know that well. Their trial created a way for us to become better friends, or maybe I just didn’t realize that we had a relationship that they valued in that way. We’ve all read stories of ministering sisters or brothers who had visited them for years and met on the doorstep to drop off cookies or to simply speak through the screen door only to be called on when a spouse dies or some tragedy strikes. Stories like those remind me:
- Be kind to everyone,
- Follow through on impulses to create relationships,
- Be consistent,
- Check in on people,
- Find opportunities to develop friendships,
- Respond to promptings no matter how odd or unexpected.
We may have an opportunity to be an answer to a prayer. Or maybe it will be someone else’s turn.
Observe Before We Serve
Often when we hear new of a challenge, we’re antsy, anxious to move forward, and wanting to do something. I wonder if we sometimes default, unnecessarily, to going big to show the depth of our love for our friends. We might think we need to bring a meal, when really picking up a soda or pint of ice cream and sitting with them for half an hour on their bed would be more meaningful. We might feel like we need to organize a cleaning group to get their house in order, when really, they want their kids to pull together and learn to be self-sufficient; all they want is to laugh and talk about what’s going on outside in regular life. We may think we need to create an expensive gift basket when really they love the origami Christmas garlands you make and would love a little something beautiful to look at from their bed. We might think we need to make a blanket when really, they just want the lawn mowed. We’d be wise to first pause and observe before we serve.
Mourning With Those That Mourn
We can all recall the sentiments of love expressed during challenges, whether we’ve had a major or long-term illness, struggles with depression, a move, complications with children or childbirth, or an emotional or spiritual hardship. The details vary, but we all take turns being on both the giving and receiving side of things. I drew on the experiences of many friends, asking them what has been helpful as they’ve faced difficulties or as they’ve found creative ways to “lift up the hands which hang down…and [strengthen] the feeble knees.”
As covenant members of Christ’s church, we have promised to look for ways to “mourn with those that mourn…and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” As we strive to keep our covenants, we’re entitled to the Lord’s spirit to guide us as to how and when to serve in meaningful and needed ways.
Based on what I’ve heard from others and experienced myself, I realize there’s no formula for dealing with sad times. But I’ve learned that we can ask for help to see their lives through new or clearer eyes and to notice where we might be able to fill a need using our own strengths and resources.
We can pray to be sensitive to ideas that come to our minds and to be willing to act. But, as with most inspiration, it’s helpful to gather information. It’s generally better to proactively offer a few suggestions of specific help rather than leave a conversation with a vague invitation to have them call you if needed. Coming up with a couple of suggestions can relieve the pressure of having to think about what would be helpful. What sounds perfectly delightful to us might take too much energy or mental exertion for someone who’s not quite their self.
To Cook or Not to Cook
So, do we cook meals or not? Among my friends, there was no consensus. And I can understand this. For some, it’s the ultimate gift of sacrifice and nothing could make them feel more loved and lifted. They may enjoy the daily connection with visitors and look forward to trying new foods. But for others this could be anxiety-inducing. They might feel guilty that others spent time and money on them. They might worry that the kids won’t eat it. They might feel self-conscious about how they look, afraid they will be scrutinized or need small talk or have to answer uncomfortable questions. Maybe the suggestion of a gift card, a food basket with an easy to prep meal, frozen meals they can cook themselves, take-out from a favorite restaurant and left on the porch would ease any trepidation.
A friend who is an excellent cook brings tacos as her go-to. She can make anything, and yet she does tacos because most everyone likes them, and they can be personalized. Brilliant. Pizza was my favorite brought-in meal. Several friends mentioned how much they appreciated lunch and having friends stay and eat with them. They said their families could help at night, but it was a welcome diversion to have a friend come mid-day. For some it just feels good to be with close friends and to break up the monotony of convalescing alone.
We can start by at least saying something. Maybe a text, a call, a voice message, an email, a note, but some type of acknowledgment that we’re aware, concerned, and available to talk when they are ready. Some people want space, but we need to keep in mind that that can change with time. Maybe at first, they want privacy or some time alone to process things or to just heal a bit. But knowing that a friend is there, even in the background, can feel so strengthening.
A text with the clause to not worry about writing back, just wanted to say hi, could honestly be just what they need. Eventually they may feel like talking or may need broader support or more interaction with people, but for now we can show that we will continue to be here by tiny check-ins now and then rather than taking offense that they “don’t get back to me” or “they said they’d call me if they needed me, I’ve done my part.” We want our friends to feel our loyalty and for them to know that we will be around for however long we need to be, yet we want to be respectful and tuned in to what that might look like because for some all the attention can feel suffocating.
One friend told me how much she appreciated the visitors who came regularly, even weekly, to see her mom over a span of years as she resided in assisted living. That kind of constancy gave them something to count on and to look forward to, and it showed the depth of genuine friendship. Conversation was important to her. Others might just need companionship without words. Some don’t feel comfortable engaging in person but would appreciate notes or other non-demanding communication.
A friend mentioned how hard it was for her niece when well-meaning people talked about all the things happening in their lives because she couldn’t participate in life the way she used to. This friend kept that in mind and tried to talk about subjects her niece could comment on or have an idea about. She stayed away from things that would make her feel like she was missing out on life because of her illness. And yet others want to hear about the world and what others are doing and what’s going on in “regular life.” And so, once again, we’d be wise to be sensitive and simply ask.
Service That is Needed
Just as with meals and conversation, we’d want to get their input because it’s almost always too overwhelming to know what we need when we’re in the middle of something heavy. Creative, personal suggestions that show insight and thoughtfulness are usually welcome. Ideas can come from virtually walking through their lives:
- What it might be like in their home right now,
- What has changed,
- What does their daily schedule look like,
- What might be some tricky times of the day,
- How is daily care being handled,
- How is transportation working,
- What are some current limits,
- What might lift the spirits of the family?
When I was recuperating from giving birth or having a C-section or my mastectomy, I honestly didn’t feel comfortable with how I looked; I didn’t feel that great and was a little self-conscious. I didn’t want people looking at me and analyzing how I was doing. But a few close friends came by the hospital and to the house in the ensuing days, and that touched me so much. I was overwhelmed that they would make that effort and didn’t realize how much love those visits would convey.
I was especially touched that my sisters and mom would take time out of their busy lives to travel across the country to be with me; I can’t think of anything more selfless. People were so generous, not only with their time, but also with the gifts and tokens of thoughtfulness they sent. Here are a few ideas to consider as you strive to meet someone’s needs in a meaningful way.
- Dropping by plants and flowers,
- Giving a soft fluffy robe if they are recovering from an illness,
- Make hats if someone is going through cancer,
- Offer to wash their hair if they can’t do it themselves,
- Paint their nails,
- Have a small group come do brunch and visit,
- Write a letter of encouragement and love or arrange for others to write them also,
- Take one or more of their children to the park or on an “adventure”,
- Take their garbage to the curb,
- Sit and talk,
- Give them or their kids a ride to school/appointments,
- Check-in periodically, when they aren’t ready for an in-person visit,
- Bring a lunch and stayed there to eat with them instead of just dropping it off,
- Hold their hand,
- Play music,
- Watch their baby,
- Go for a walk with them.
Make Time for Them
“Some people talk to you in their free time, and some free their time to talk to you.”
Different love languages mean people will appreciate different things. I think no matter what you do to reach out, it will be noticed that you have an attitude that the person being served is not an inconvenience and that you made time for them because of love.
I really appreciated when people followed spiritual promptings. I can’t tell you how many times we needed help and the person best suited for that task showed up on our doorstep. The ways we show love can be so simple yet so meaningful as we use our own abilities and personalities to follow through on inspiration we get.
As a side note, we need to realize that not everyone is filled in the same way, but we all appreciate being thought about and knowing that people want to help. We can be gracious receivers as we humbly accept even awkward attempts to serve us, knowing that most of the time people are genuine in their attempts at showing love.
Throughout our life, we will be presented with countless opportunities to use our talents and blessings to ease the pain and discomfort of those within our circles of influence. As we continue to rely on our covenants and the Spirit, we can calmly ask for guidance, confident that we can be used for good. And by opening our eyes and paying attention to specific needs we’ll come to realize that usually it will be “by small and simple things…that great things [will] come to pass.”