"Is there anything I can do to help? Is there anything you need?" the voice said over the phone. Sheila's daughter had abdominal surgery and needed (more than) full time attention. Her house was a shambles, her other children at loose ends. And here was some available assistance... Or was there?
Asking most women if they need help (especially in today's "desperately trying to be super mom" world) is a useless question. Between our quest for martyrdom, our need to prove ourselves and our discomfort with being the taker not the giver, the answer will almost certainly be a resounding no. Reality to the contrary.
We don't like to acknowledge need. We don't like to feel dependent. We feel uncomfortable asking for anything. So despite the fact that there are actually many things we need, despite the fact that there are numerous ways we could learn and grow from being in the position of recipient rather than donor (more compassion for others in need, greater awareness of our dependence on the Almighty to cite two examples), we just can't get those words past our lips.
We have a very hard time asserting our needs (except sometimes in the form of screaming at our husbands for not intuiting them), so we deny ourselves the respite or assistance we could really use, and we deny our friends and relatives the opportunity to help.
What's the solution? For those who are not just assuaging their consciences by asking if they can help but who mean it sincerely, there is one successful strategy: Just do it. Just insist on it. "I'm bringing dinner tonight." "I'm coming by this afternoon to take out your children." "I'm sending my housekeeper over tomorrow morning."
When we are coping with disease, injury or other trauma, we can barely think about our daily needs. We are relieved and grateful when someone else takes charge and leaves us with little choice. This applies even to those of us who like to be in control (perhaps especially to those of us who like to be in control).
I remember seeing this summed up in a perfect yet practical manner in the book "In an Instant" by Lee and Bob Woodruff. Bob Woodruff was an ABC new co-anchor who was seriously injured in Iraq and, among other things, spent five weeks in a coma. Lee, his wife, had to balance her husband's needs and her family's needs, her anxiety about him with her concern for her children. "In the entire journey following Bob's injury, Karin's expression of friendship was one of the most appropriate. She handed me a goodie bag for the plane, with magazines, candy, gum, aspirin, and a toothbrush. She fought back tears valiantly and gave me a giant hug. Then, with barely a word, she jumped in her car and drove away. Just like that.
"It was friends like Karin whom I would come to rely on and be amazed by. These were the friends who refrained from calling repeatedly, friends who dropped off meals and food and slunk away. They made Costco runs for toilet paper, took my children for playdates, and drove them to soccer practices, confirmation classes, and countless other extracurricular activities.
"Karin had nursed her father through a serious time in the hospital and knew how to behave in the wake of a tragedy. It meant simply letting someone know you were there without any expectation of a response. Even when I pushed them away, my dear friends quietly pushed back."
Just do it. Don't wait for a response. Or as Lee Woodruff says, "Don't expect a response." Your friend is overwhelmed, her world has constricted, her focus is narrow. Being a good friend means forgetting about ourselves and thinking about the needs of the other, and being proactive. The time for talk will be later.
We shouldn't ask, "Is there anything you need?" We know there always is.
Recently one of my children had surgery. The operation is 4-1/2 hours, the recovery long and difficult. "I'm bringing you Shabbos lunch," said my friend (who hasn't read the Woodruff book but knows my reluctance to ask for help).
"It's okay, I'll just make cholent," I gamely responded. Even her declarative statements couldn't break through my defenses.
She insisted yet again. Luckily my husband was eavesdropping on the conversation. "Just say yes, just say thank you," he coached.
"Just say yes," she echoed. And with that, a small weight of responsibility slipped from my shoulders. A pressure was removed.
I know that I have been guilty of taking someone's "I don't need anything" at face value. I haven't wanted to intrude or be too aggressive. And it can be a delicate balance. But I think I've learned to just do it. A meal will always come in handy (especially if it can be frozen) and who couldn't use some help with the children or the house?
We don't want to 'bother' our friends. And so Lee Woodruff describes the ideal solution: Don't. Just drop off the food, the household needs, the books and magazines -- and leave. Our friends will be grateful and relieved. We will have made a difference. We will have provided much needed help -- and perhaps taught a lesson about giving and receiving in the process.
I was so drained by my daughter's surgery and the whole hospital experience (that was before I knew about the sleepless nights of recovery!). I was incapable of thinking beyond the moment. I was reconciled to having all the other needs come crashing down upon me when I returned home. I knew I would cope. I knew that, with the Almighty's help, I could cope. But there is always a cost. And so I am grateful to my friend for her insistence and her action. Every small act of kindness grants us relief, makes us feel cared for and not alone. Her gift was more than cold cuts and salad (it was seven layer cake also!), it was a gift of understanding and friendship.
We shouldn't ask, "Is there anything you need?" We know there always is. Our job is to discover the needs (most people's are similar to our own), try our best to fulfill them -- and drive away.