“If You Need Anything, Just Call”–Support Fail!

I’m going to ask you a question.  When you have had friends or family facing loss or other serious stressors, have you said this sentence: “If you need anything, just call.”  I am going to take a shot in the dark and guess that you have.  I know I’ve said it.  It’s something we say when things are so awful that we don’t know what else to say.  It’s something we say to try to convey that we are ready and willing to support our loved ones in their tough times.  I think most of us have said “if you need anything, just call.”

The Road to Hell

I genuinely believe that we offer that statement from a good intention.  We want our family or friends to feel supported.  We’re trying not to be intrusive.  But, as you may have guessed from the title, I don’t actually think that it’s an effective way of providing support. I’m not sure about you, but I know that there were times in my life when I said, “If you need anything, just call.”  I meant it.  Then I went back to my daily life.  No one called.  I assumed I wasn’t needed.  I didn’t want to pester them.  So I didn’t follow up.

Toni Bernhard of HowToBeSick.com wrote this post about asking for help when you have a chronic illness.  I really like the post for several reasons.  One was that she described how she learned a proactive approach to inviting friends and family to provide concrete help (and I’ll take a look at this in another post as well).  But the other was the point that she made in the beginning, “I decided that, because they failed to follow-up, their offers weren’t sincere.”

“Their offers weren’t sincere.”  That’s not the message we want to convey to a loved one in pain.  It seems like there might be a risk of increasing their pain instead of easing it.  I think that it’s safe to say that’s not the outcome we were hoping for.

Translating Intention into Action

As you might have guessed, I have some suggestions for how to convey a better message.  Here’s a few to get you started:

  • Instead of telling your loved one to “call if you need help,” try saying (and following through on), “I’ll call you in a week to see what you need.
  • Recognize that, in times of grief or stress, it can feel overwhelming to come up with tasks for others to do–even if they are helping you.  Offer to do a specific thing, such as “can I run an errand for you?” or “do you need the grocery shopping done?” or “can I come fold some laundry for you?”
  • If you are very close to the friend or family member, consider volunteering yourself to organize other potential helpers.  Set up a meal delivery rotation, or make a list of necessary tasks like getting kids to activities, etc, and fill the list with other folks who might have said, “call if you need anything.”
  • Remember that down time is important for people facing stress.  In addition to the practical help, maybe schedule time for your loved one to be alone, to get a massage, to go out on a date.
  • Offer to baby-sit, provide a time and date.
  • Be specific and clear

There are lots of reasons that we might fall down on the job of caring for one another.  From now on, let’s try not to let vague, but well-meant offers of help be one of those reasons.  Do you have a favorite action step?  Something you wish someone had done for you?  Please share.

7 thoughts on ““If You Need Anything, Just Call”–Support Fail!

  1. FANTASTIC article. There are actually many books available to help people find the right words or do the most helpful thing. Just don’t count on the sick person to call you and say “will you change the cat litter for me” – it’s not going to happen.

    I heard about one circle of friends who put a cooler outside their sick friend’s front door. They took turns dropping off meals in the cooler and leaving. Their friend could keep sleeping or whatever she was doing without having to talk if she couldn’t/didn’t want to.

    As you said, best thing is to BE SPECIFIC. “I will leave you alone for a week, then call and invite you to lunch.” Then do it.

    1. Nellie,

      Thank you for your thoughts. The cooler idea is fantastic. How generous and respectful. I agree with you, getting specific so that we can actually take action is the most critical thing. I think it’s easy for us to become so overwhelmed by anxiety about a loved one’s pain that we get paralyzed.

    1. Linda,

      Thank you so much for this encapsulation “people who are sick shouldn’t have to expend more energy trying to read someone’s mind…” That absolutely captures what I was trying to articulate in this post.


  2. I love this post.
    “Call if you need anything” reminds me of the sometimes same empty promise “Let’s do lunch.”
    I do think there is so much fear associated when folks are faced with the “Accept the things we cannot Change” they simply try to say something socially acceptable.

    I will never forget Dr. Suzanne Hess http://www.daviedermatology.com/hess.html
    who came two Wednesdays in a row to scrub my bathtub, clean my baseboards and several other practical household cleaning chores after I came home ill with a new baby. She certainly could have paid someone to do these simple tasks but it was her act of kindness and love she gave to me as a token of our Friendship.

    Suzanne chose to donate every Wednesday to providing some type of act of kindness for people in our community or non-profit organization. What makes this even more amazing is she had three very young children, a thriving practice of her own, a Husband, fellow Physician ED Professor balancing three shifts, active in our church, etc.

    Perhaps it just might be in the south, but sometimes the ladies bring in the necessities in a brown grocery bag that always includes toilet paper, trash bags and all those non-glamor items we continue to need even though…

    I appreciate you,

    1. Lisa,

      I am so grateful that you took the time to share the story of your friend. I found myself inspired to look for the spaces in my life (or create them) to take more action. People like Suzanne are changing the world, one act at a time.

      And I love the idea of the brown bag of unglamorous necessities. It’s right up there with the cooler on the list of practical, unintrusive ways to support one another.

      So grateful for your voice!

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