Instead of “How Can I help?”

Unfortunately, no matter how merry, the holidays can be wrought with hard times. Maybe it’s because of the holidays – the expectation of joyfulness, beautiful decor, and the wholesome family ideal – contrasts the emotional turmoil folding over within you.

Or maybe it’s the anniversary of a difficult event – like a divorce, a big loss, or the death of a loved one. And because of this event, every year around this time, your past infiltrates the present in unexpected and not-so-helpful ways. (Hold the two scoops of grief and anxiety, please.)

Maybe there’s just A LOT going on right now. Between kids, parents, school, work, a house, poor finances, travel plans – and it’s all culminating into a messy, stressful try-not-to-meltdown moment.

Or um… maybe you’re actually great – you’re living the perfect work-life balance. Your family is near, alive, and not super dramatic, you’re in love, and you’re practicing self-care. This is your year!

If you were to place the overarching mood of your current life onto a spectrum (from terrible to incredible) you would probably be – not at either pole – but somewhere near the middle, leaning in one direction or another. I would bet you’re probably somewhere between okay and great.

But I’m guessing not everyone in your life is in such a good place.

In fact, someone you love may be in the middle of a downpour. And when you’re not also in the middle of that storm, feeling the winds whip at your shoulders, debris flying toward you from all direction, your bones cold from the droplets upon your head – how do you relate? What can you do?

Sometimes it feels impossible to know how to help someone who is going through a rough time. It’s not that you don’t have compassion or even empathy for what they might be going through. It’s that you’re in the middle of a dance you don’t know the steps to. You’re coordinating your own shock – that your loved one is suffering – while simultaneously, for their sake, keeping cool. Acting as the solid rock.

So, somewhere down the line, in an attempt to quell the pain and the awkward, you ask the question that your loved one probably LOATHES but to you feels entirely genuine. You ask,

How can I help?

You await their reply, ready to undertake any task they may have. Or maybe you’re cursing yourself for having asked that question in the first place – because maybe you can’t or – let’s be honest – don’t want to tackle their problems. You just sort of asked out of politeness and confusion. (At least that’s how it is in the Midwest.)

Thus, disappointment mixed with the dash of relief befalls you when they respectfully reply, “nothing.”

And then you are left in this weird purgatory of – thank goodness, I’m off the hook, I did my good duty for the day and wait, do they really not need anything?

What then?

I began this blog as an exploration because I need to work through my own how can I help-itis. Because if I’m being truthful, I ask this question all the time. And because I’ve also been on the receiving end of this question, I know that it can kind of suck to hear.

What once, in my mind, felt like a sincere offering is now boiling over, and I’m realizing the laziness of this question. That just by asking “how can I help,” my consciousness fills in the gaps, commending myself for my compassion. But in reality – I have done nothing to deserve that. In actuality, I have probably caused endless frustration for others who don’t know how to begin answering my question.

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes – someone who is drowning in grief, loss, or stress – and imagine someone asking you how they can help you. You know it’s a nice thing for them to offer, but how does it make you feel?

Personally, I often don’t know what I need. My mom could tell you that, as I have pretty much always been this way. And if I don’t know what we need, I don’t know how to communicate that to someone else. I mean, what if my needs are too big? What if they are frightening? What if the person offering to help isn’t actually serious about taking on my needs?

Better to just say, “nothing, I’m fine.”

Therefore, if we really want to help each other out, we need to figure out a new strategy. One that requires an earnest desire to help, a bit of observation and some genuine follow through.

So, in an effort to change up my own approach, I have come up with a few things to try.

Anticipate Needs

If you really want to help someone through a difficult time, figure out what they need without them having to spell it out for you.

Instead of putting the ball in their court by asking them how you can help them – because that turns people off and sucks their energy – just listen. Don’t ask, observe.

What are you hearing from them?

Do they need a cup of coffee or a beer? A meal for later – a hug and a cry? Or does it sound like they are trying to come up with something extra – like money or time away from their responsibilities? Maybe they need someone to carry some of their burdens for a while.

Brainstorm. What are they missing? What are they asking for without asking for it? Or maybe- what might bring a smile to their face? What could distract them from their pain? Make a list – if you like lists, that is. If you don’t, go for a walk and have this person in your mind.

If you made a list, look it over. What can you tangibly accomplish? What are your unique skills?

And what on your list should you not tackle? You will not be able to right every existential struggle, untangle all of life’s complexities, or end disease. Though that would be amazing, I’m pretty sure you’re just a regular human, too.

But maybe something small will inspire you and lead you to a solution that is attainable and appropriate.

Then, follow through.

Empathize & Cultivate Compassion

In order to anticipate the needs of others, you sometimes have to step into another’s pain as a tool for understanding. But truly empathizing with another human in times of crisis isn’t always appropriate. When you are present with another person who is suffering, it’s more appropriate to be compassionate than truly empathetic. I think of compassion as honoring someone’s pain while remaining distanced enough to remain rational. That skill is important when acute situations arise because taking on the other person’s grief doesn’t help them at that moment.

But if the crisis has come and passed, and what remains is chronic suffering of some kind, it’s time to practice empathy. It aids your list-making, it inspires you to help more, and it pulls you out of your own comfortability.

So, if you’re already struggling to come up with a list of ways to help your person in need, you might need to go there yourself.

Really dive deeply. Meditate on empathy.

Close your eyes. Imagine you are in the thick of whatever this person is struggling with. Carve out every small detail. How do you feel? What needs aren’t being met? What do you want your friends and family to understand?

If someone were to give you something – an ear, a drink, a touch, etc. – what would help ease your pain? What simple solutions would bring a smile to your face in trying times?

Then, imagine someone giving you that thing or that moment. How would you like it presented? (Probably not with any sentence that begins with, “at least…” – so avoid this entirely when someone is suffering.)

Empathy and compassion are skills that require intention, but by taking a few minutes to quiet your mind and think deeply, you may start brimming with unique ways to help your loved ones.

“What’s On Your Mind?”

Instead of asking an impossible question like how can I help? – try starting from a less abrasive place. By asking someone directly what they’re thinking, they may open up to you. This small window could be the answer in and of itself.

Sometimes this person just needs someone to vent to or cry on. They might not know how you can help if asked. However, when you invite them to speak, and they are able to respond unabashedly, you may find yourself doing the work you wanted to do – helping – without even realizing it.

This is a technique I have started incorporating into my professional practice. As someone who works with people struggling with stress and illness, caring for emotional needs is part of the job. But whenever I ask how I can help? they respond with, nothing. Yet it’s apparent that something is lingering under the surface.

If the timing feels right, I’ve started asking my patients, “what’s on your mind?” It has anecdotally seemed to generate more meaningful discussion while facilitating a trusting relationship between myself and my patient.

But you can’t just say something slightly different and expect results.

You need approachable body language in order for this to work.

By asking this question, you have to be willing to listen. You have to be and look fully engaged. This means, assess yourself:

  • Sit down next to them – don’t stand over them
  • Let your arms fall to the side instead of crossed over your chest
  • Keep your eyes on them
  • Place your feet forward, facing them
  • Nod appropriately throughout the conversation (because you are actually listening)

You need to prove to them that if they are going to tell you something personal – that you are truly listening.

Show them you care.

Mess Up, It’s Okay

Sometimes we say, “how can I help?” because we want to do something but don’t know what to do! Risking taking an action that may not be wanted feels scarier than doing nothing at all.

But while it may feel scarier, it is not worse.

More often, wouldn’t you want someone to thoughtfully try – to put action into practice that was thoughtful, though a bit off – rather than give you a polite, yet dismissive offering?

We are all human, and we all struggle. Despite this universality, we similarly have difficulty confronting struggle. We say the wrong things sometimes. What’s most important is that when you put yourself in the place of being of service to someone that you follow through. You show up, even if it’s messy.

You are present but saying nothing – rather than texting, “how can I help?” from afar.

You brought coffee when they don’t drink caffeine.

You offered to be an ear to listen to when they’re not yet ready to open up.

A comforting presence, even when it’s not exactly right, is still something. It shows you care. Just you being respectfully welcomed into their space.

However, sometimes someone might not want you to help. Maybe they need to be alone, and you have to know when to respect their boundaries and leave.

Don’t guilt someone who’s suffering into liking your action more. Don’t help someone if your intention is to make yourself feel better – that will only end up hurting both of you. Respect space and boundaries.

As long as you are respectful, remember: it’s okay say the wrong damn thing. But show up. That’s more important.


This entry is about exploring the topic of how can I help? I use it often when I’m with a struggling friend, family member, or patient, and I find this question falls flat. Many recipients don’t know how to answer it. And because we all often use this phrase out politeness rather than in a genuine I-want-to-help way, the gesture becomes hollow.

Is there a better way? Maybe it’s more simple than we thought.

I think it’s just being a human, asking a slightly different question, engaging, and following through with your own intention.

The holidays are about giving and helping – so how can we accomplish this to receive a positive response?

Make lists of your loved one’s potential needs. Empathize and have compassion. Ask open-ended questions while showing them non-verbally that you want to listen to their concerns. Mess up.

These are skills to help you take action instead of leaving these impossible requests in the hands of those who are struggling.

And it’s really not hard!

Do and be there instead.

Do you guys have any further suggestions? Are you guilty of overusing this polite phrase? How do you feel when you’ve been asked, how can I help? Tell me in the comments below!


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About Sydney

Sydney Bair is a freelance writer for hire. She specializes in health/travel blogging, ghostwriting, and proofreading and editing. In addition, she is a registered nurse with experience in oncology and hospice. When not writing, she plans her next travel adventure. Check her out at