The Small, but Important Shifts that Will Make You a More Effective Helper

My sister-in-law Susan, is a young widow of a year and a half.  She is outside trying to stay ahead of the fat, heavy snow that is falling fast and piling up faster. She struggles on her own to shovel her walkway with an injured back, when a neighbor and his young son walk up, with shovels in hand.

“Can we help?” asks the little boy.

The father gently corrects him. “No son, remember, that’s not what we say. We say “We’re here to help!”

What a brilliant shift!

If someone says, “Can we help?” what’s our go-to response?  “Oh no, that’s ok.” Right?

But in the face of an enthusiastic “We’re here to help!” it becomes a community activity.

It’s fascinating to me how little tweaks in what we say can make a big difference. 

Most of us have had someone ask “How are you doing?” in a season when we want to hurl things at them and scream “I’M A HOT MESS OF PAIN HERE AND WANT TO DIE, CAN’T YOU SEE THAT???” However, it’s so natural, we ALL ask the question without thinking about it. When you know people are going through a hard time, consider alternatives like:

  • “I’m so glad to see you (or to hear your voice).” Then stop and just listen.
  • “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you, but I’d like to better understand what you’re going through.”
  • “I love you.”
  • Give them a hug and say, “I’m here. I can’t imagine what this is like for you, but I’d love to take a walk and listen.”
  • “What’s on your plate for today?” Often if you ask people what they’re doing, they’ll tell you how they’re feeling.
  • After someone dies, over the long-haul when others have stopped asking, say “What do you miss most about ________?”

And sometimes it’s not the words, but the silence that matters.

I’ve written before on some other practical suggestions, and if you want a terrific book on this, check out What Grieving People Wish You Knew about what really helps (and what really hurts”).



  1. You are very insightful and spot on. Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom.

  2. Thanks Laura, this is so on target as I think of my sister. I used to wish people would ask me more about her. Even though some tears may come, I wanted to talk about her at times. So now I bring her up myself when topics come up that I can relate to her… “My sister, Peggy was very good at the craft it create it, floral it, sew it, bake it, ceramic it projects. Me I do one a year, that’s it and I’m done.” People are often quiet then, like they don’t know what to say, but I just move onto the next subject. It’s like I have to be the bridge to let them know those conversations are ok for me.

    • That’s great that you bring her up! When I have asked about what someone misses, or favorite memories I have seen a visible light in their eyes – an expression of gratitude (even through tears). However, I know everyone is different, so I need to be sensitive. There may be people for whom it is too painful.

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