• Pandemiployment

How to Help

I'm going to be honest, helping is hard. Bridging the gap between wanting to help, and providing said help, is way harder than it seems. Let me elucidate:

Something happened. Someone's sick, someone reproduced, someone is going through some kind of thing that has you all DAYUM let me help you my friend/sister/cousin/coworker. The problem, my brethren, is that most of us want to help, but don't know how, so we give a vague offer and it goes nowhere.

If you are using phrases like:

  • Let me know what I can do to help!

  • Anything you need, let me know!

  • I'm here for you! Let me know what you need!

  • Whatever I can do, let me know!

Then the odds of you actually providing useful, quality help is somewhere around 4%.

Any offer of help that can be qualified with "let me know" puts the onus on the other person. Unless the person you are reaching out to has an extremely clear idea of the kind of help that will be useful, has zero guilt detailing said help to you, knows you will not judge them for asking for it, and knows you are capable of providing it, you've just guaranteed you will do nothing that is helpful to them. I mean, they'll be happy that you want to support them. Annnnnd that's it.

Let's role play some scenarios here, and you can think about if this is someone who has time, energy, and the ability to coordinate:

  • Sick Folks

  • Bereaved Individuals

  • Recently Divorced

  • New Parents

  • Parents of Young Children

Do any of these categories make you think of someone who will be training for a marathon while working full time and making delicious homecooked meals? No? Then how the fuck are they going to figure out what kind of help you can offer, text you back, put the date on the calendar, and carry even more goddamn mental load???

You're also assuming they don't feel guilty as fuck accepting help. If you've never found yourself in some kind of debilitating situation, you may not know how you will react to offers of hep. People can feel like they're using other people. They can worry about expectations. They can feel that you will have requirements in return (not everyone offers to help because they are kind). They can stress out over how you have your own shit to deal with, and how can they add more to your plate?

They might not know what's in the realm of possibility. Help can come in a lot of forms. Sometimes it's when you perform an action. Sometimes it involves you spending money. Sometimes it's a matter of making connections, a recommendation for a therapist or offering to email a third party that you think could assist with the issue. It might be a matter of you spending time researching an issue to help the person be well-informed. It might be a matter of dedicating a certain amount of your time.


So let me tell you the greatest trick (which I learned from a friend) when you find yourself in one of those OH FUCK I want to help but what can I do??? situations.

Offer specific help.

Let me walk you through this simplest of awesome ideas.

  1. Brainstorm things that might be helpful.

  2. Decide what on the list you are willing and able to do.

  3. Be specific in your offer.

  4. Tell them it's ok to turn you down.

  5. Repeat if necessary.

Let's use an easy example. Someone had a new baby. You like this someone. You would like to help in some fashion.

Brainstorm things that might be helpful.

Hmmm ok it's a tiny poop monster potato. Maybe the new mom would like a gift, some diapers? Maybe I could bring some food over. Maybe she wants to take a shower and please can someone hold the screaming infant so she can shower in peace. Maybe she wants to sit and hold the baby while someone runs a load of laundry and washes the dishes in her sink so she doesn't feel guilty. Maybe she wants someone to talk to, it might be a lonely time. Maybe you could walk the dog who's doing jumping jacks in the hall because it's been taking a dump in the same ten foot radius for two weeks.

Decide what on the list you are willing and able to do.

Think about what you are willing to do. If you are terrified of the little gremlin but like the friend, then maybe you text and offer to handle dishes and laundry. Maybe you say you will drop food off. Don't offer to come over and take the baby off her hands if you will shake so hard from nerves it's going to hit the Richter Scale. Not everyone has to like rocking newborns, ya know. If you love cooking, then hell yeah offer up some meals. If you hate cooking but have some excess funds you don't mind chucking in the ring, offer to order some takeout for them. Pick up a rotisserie chicken, a baggie of salad, and some bread, and call it good.

Think about what you are able to do. You can only provide the help you can provide. If you have a lot of free time, then maybe offering to come over and spending an entire Saturday doing what she wants works for you. Maybe you have kids of your own and can't remember the last time you had a free hour, much less a free weekend day, but you don't mind getting texts day or night and are happy to spend time talking about baby schedules on the phone.

Be specific in your offer.

You like this person, right? You actually want them to accept your help. Make it as easy as possible. I used to work as an Executive Assistant, and you spend a lot of time setting up meetings and figuring out exactly what your boss could use you for. I am really good at ghostwriting promotion recommendation letters in areas I have no practical experience in, consequently.

Tell them exactly what is on offer. If it's in-person, suggest what days you can do. The more specific you are, the more they can yes/no the offer. You are not trying to drag them into an endless back and forth coordination effort. Don't text and offer to do laundry. Text and offer to do laundry (specify that you will do all clothes, sheets, towels, and don't mind baby blowout items), that you can do weekends, and you can start this Sunday morning if that works for her.

Tell them it's ok to turn you down.

Someone in an altered headspace may have a hard time accepting help. Or, GASP, the help you are offering is fucking useless. One person's help is another person's annoyance. Picture buying a kid a toy, and then expecting the parent to work with you to get the toy to their house. Yes, it's sweet you thought of my child and wanted to get them something. It is ZERO PERCENT helpful to then expect me to coordinate how it gets to my house. It's a toy. They don't need it. No one asked for it. We have plenty. I don't want to drive halfway to you to meet up and have a toy transfer. I don't want to figure out what day works for your schedule and when I will be home so you can hand it to me in person. Ship it to my house, or fucking don't bother.

Ahem. Not that that's happened to me.

Basically you can annoy someone, or make their life harder, with your well meaning gesture. You are obviously a kind person, because you've read this far. You are trying to make the other person's life better. Something that seems like a great idea to you could be a huge pain in the ass to the other person. You might think, I'll buy them takeout so they don't have to cook during this stressful time! And they actually find that cooking dinner helps them destress, they love to pour a glass of wine, play some music, do their thing. They have so many food allergies all they can order off the menu is the rice. They're really picky. They feel guilty accepting any monetary help, even with food as the intermediary. I don't know, I'm just saying that while I think food I don't have to cook is an amazing gift, to other people it could be a dud.

Repeat if necessary.

It's cool if your first offer doesn't work out. You can try to follow up with another offer. Ok, so the thought of me doing your laundry freaks you out (airing the dirty laundry, anyone?) Would it help if I paid for a cleaning service to come over? What about if I picked your older child up / your dog and took the child / dog to a suitable outdoor venue so they can run around and burn energy and poop on the ground (if it's a dog, hopefully not if it's a kid).

Or you can go vague at that point. I don't know about you, but if someone offered to take my grocery list and go shopping for me so I could stay home, and I said no, I would actually believe them when they then told me ok, let them know if they could do anything else. They tried to think of someone concretely useful and they offered it to me. Maybe if what I really need is someone to run in to Target and pick up the diapers I ordered (because the gift card was only for in person pickups and we gotta save money somewhere) I'll see if they mind.

Or you can double up on the support offer. Ok, you don't need anyone visiting at the house right now. But seriously, text anytime, call anytime, I've had kids, there is no question that is off limits and no topic that will be taboo. I will spend zero time judging you, I will send extremely detailed texts around the colors of baby poop I have seen and believe to be in the normal range, I will validate ALL the crazy feelings you are having.


Offering specific help was the best advice I ever got. I don't know why it never occurred to me. I felt pretty guilty when the friend explained how her own experience with an illness showed her that while many people offered to help, she was far too exhausted to actually think of things that would be helpful, and so she got far less help than was perhaps available. Maybe if someone had offered to pick up her subscriptions, or asked if she needed company because she was off from work and home alone a lot, or suggested taking a walk together so she could get a little fresh air.

Finally, sometimes you try to brainstorm and you just motherfucking can't think of anything. I for one prefer the call a spade a goddamn spade method when life gets shitty and you don't know what to do. Hey, this thing you are dealing with totally sucks. I am going to be honest, I don't know what I can offer to do to help. I am being so serious when I say I would pick up your dry cleaning, expect you work remote so that's not really a thing for you. And you get your groceries delivered. And you're in a tiny bubble because goddamn pandemic so you don't want me over. And Zoom just makes you even more burnt out. Shit. I dunno, let me know if you think of something, and I will keep trying to think of something over here.

At the very least, they'll know you're sincere.

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