Last summer was a difficult period for me. We’d just moved to a new state and left behind friends who were like family. The deadline to submit the first draft of my second book was looming, and I found myself unable to write. During this time of uncertainty and upheaval, my sister Rebecca came to visit. I wanted to be the fun, adventurous host and show her our new city. I planned things for us to do, but when it came down to it, I simply could not hide my despair. One morning, when misplaced fishing nets from the Dollar Store nearly caused a breakdown, Rebecca gently touched my arm. “How can I help?”
My sister was not talking about the fishing nets.
I felt my eyes instantly well with tears, and then I let out a mammoth-sized exhale. Sweet, sweet relief. My sister saw my pain … she saw I was going through something … she wanted to ease my burden. All this—and I never had to say a word. She just knew.
Furthermore, there was something about that question that kept defensiveness, excuses, and the need to explain out of the conversation. How can I help? It was much less intrusive than, “What’s wrong?” It was much more supportive than, “What’s your problem?” With one single question, my sister acknowledged my struggle and offered to lighten my load. All this—and I never had to say a word. It was the kind of help I most needed in that moment.
Rebecca proceeded to throw out specific ways she could help. I did not take her up on the kind offers at that moment, but knowing I had options made me feel more hopeful about my current situation.
From that experience, my list of Soul-Building Words—words that lift … help … and heal—grew by one. Little did I know how that question—how can I help?—would become an answer for my child this spring.
My daughters and I were doing spring cleaning of our closets and trying on clothes. My younger daughter was excited to see her three favorite dresses from last spring. But with each ill-fitting experience, she became solemn. I noticed a distinct change in her expression—like the sun suddenly went behind the clouds.
“I want to be healthier, Mama,” she said quietly.
“What do you mean?” I asked wanting to make sure I understood what this precious eight-year-old child was saying.
After a long pause contemplating how to put her feelings into words she simply said, “I just want to be healthier.”
Something told me this was not the time to ask for details.
Something told me this was not the time to push for specifics.
Something told me this was not the time for assumptions or fill-in-the-blanks.
It was time to use that barrier-breaking question that had once brought me great relief in my time of need.
“How can I help?” I asked genuinely.
At first my child looked a bit surprised. But then her face relaxed into a smile and her chest fell with a visible exhale. Sweet, sweet relief. How can I help? It was not a question after all. It was an answer.
“On days I don’t have swim team practice will you exercise with me?” she asked.
“I would love to!” I said enthusiastically. “Biking, walking, calisthenics—I am up for anything.”
“I know, Mama!” she said excitedly. “I will make us a routine from what I’ve learned from my coach!”
For the past four weeks, my daughter and head out to the driveway nearly every evening. We started out with just a bouncy rubber ball, but our equipment supply has expanded to a mat, a kettlebell, and a medicine ball. Sometimes we’re outside for twenty minutes. Other days, an entire hour. Sometimes my child is my coach, pushing and encouraging me. Sometimes she is my workout partner bringing up her knees in rapid succession beside me. Sometimes we sweat. Sometimes we just “work on flexibility”, meaning we stretch our bodies in the fading sun, talking about important things and sipping our water.
“You’re the best mom,” my daughter said breaking the silence.
Honestly, I was surprised by her words. For the past couple months, I’d been battling a relentless infection, doing final edits my forthcoming book, and worrying about my mom. I’d been feeling exhausted and distant. My child’s unsolicited compliment felt like soothing balm to my weary soul.
“Why? What is it about me that makes me best?” I wondered aloud.
She listed off the main things most parents do for their children, like provide food, protection, and care, but then she said something that struck me.
“When I need help, you know how to help me. I don’t know how you know, but you do. You can just tell.”
All at once, everything I suspected about helping someone through the struggles of life was confirmed:
- Just knowing when someone needs help is the best kind of help.
- Asking, “How can I help?” acknowledges someone’s struggle and lightens the load without pushing for further details or explanation.
But there is more …
- The help you offer has a way of coming back to you when you most need it and least expect it.
My child’s desire to be healthier and my willingness to help her in a specific, consistent way have resulted in many positives for both of us: Our muscles have firmed up. Our clothes fit better. Our bond has been strengthened. We have special time one-on-one time on a regular basis away from worldly distractions. We are creating healthy life-long habits and precious memories. She has divulged thoughts and feelings that allow me to better understand and support her. How can I help? I’d offered those words to my child, yet they resulted in a gift to both of us.
Perhaps you know someone who is struggling. Perhaps you don’t know for sure, but you can sense it. Try the one question that can also be an answer. It might sound like this:
How can I help?
I will sit with you by the water’s edge.
I will go to counseling with you.
I will make healthy food choices too.
I will drive you to your appointment.
I will spend time working on my dream too. We can do it together.
I will watch the kids for you while you go.
I will ask around and gather some resources for you.
I will tutor you.
I will pray for you.
I will help you raise the money you need.
I will have your back.
I will bring you a meal on Thursday. I know what you like.
I will not give up on you.
Ask the question. Throw out a specific way you can help. Perhaps your offer will be accepted. Perhaps it won’t. But you can bet that deep down in that person’s soul, there will be relief—sweet, sweet relief. Because someone sees her struggle. Because someone wants to lighten his load. Because just when they thought there were no answers, there is one. And with it, comes hope.
Recommended Resources for “How Can I Help?”
- Talking about drug and alcohol abuse with your child or teen is not easy, but it is critical. I was recently made aware of the Drop Them Off campaign aimed at preventing youth prescription drug abuse. I spent some time looking around the site and found that it contains a wealth of extensive resources for drug and alcohol awareness. I was extremely impressed with the sample dialogues provided in The Parent Talk Kit: Tips for Talking & What to Say to Prevent Drug & Alcohol Abuse.
- Communication is imperative when your child or teen begins navigating the online world. Galit Breen has written a unique, timely, and beneficial guide to bringing digital kindness to our lives and to the lives of our children. Through engaging real-life examples and encouraging prose, Galit offers ten practical guidelines that will promote healthy, intentional, and considerate habits that could help you or a loved one avoid pain and problems in both the real world and online world. Click here to read more about this very important book, Kindness Wins.
- If you want to gift someone a tangible reminder that can help her or him reach a goal or just want to thank someone for being a positive presence, please check out the Hands Free Shop. Now through May 1, there is FREE shipping on all items. (International orders will see a discounted shipping price when they enter the code). Simply use the promo code: MOM2015 (in honor of Mother’s Day).
One final note: I am thrilled to be part of the 13-member cast of the LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER Show at the Earl Smith Strand Theater in Marietta, Georgia on Saturday, April 25th at 7 p.m. The mission of each LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER production is to take the audience on a well-crafted journey that celebrates and validates mothering in all of its complexity, diversity, and humor in the form of original readings performed live onstage by their authors. What began six years ago as one show in Madison, Wisconsin has grown to 39 shows across the United States. If you have loved a mother or loved someone as a mother would, you will be nodding your head and saying, “Me too!” It is truly an uplifting show. I’d love to see you there. Tickets for the April 25th production can be purchased here.