The following quote from Edgar Watson Howe made me think about the various ways we can offer support to others, “When a friend is in trouble, don’t annoy him by asking if there is anything you can do. Think up something appropriate and do it.”

I like the basic idea behind this, which is not to wait to be told how you can help, but to take action, because many people are hesitant to ask for – let alone accept – help even when it is offered. However, I think it’s valuable to ask as well, especially if you don’t know the person as well. They may have some specific needs, “Can you cover this meeting for me?” or “Would you be willing to accompany me to the doctor and take notes, in case I get overwhelmed?”. In cases like this, you want provide the support that’s been requested.

On the other hand, if you ask, and the person thanks you but says they can’t think of anything, then it’s time to get creative, based on the situation and your knowledge of the person, and then take action. For example, if you have a friend whose spouse is in the hospital, you might prepare some easy meals the family can use as needed, or arrange to take the kids overnight. You could also offer to sit with the patient to give the family member a break – studies show that patients who have someone with them to advocate for them get better care, especially if the patient can’t advocate for him/herself.

If your friend has lost his/her job, you could start working your network to help find opportunities and make connections; forward jobs you see that might be appropriate for them; suggest possible volunteer opportunities that could freshen their skills; and invite them to attend networking events.

We all know that when there’s a death in a family, people flock to support the bereaved right away. Two weeks later, however, the family is usually alone without the same support structure when the reality of their loss finally sinks in. In these cases, it’s just as important to provide ongoing support as it is to provide support in the midst of the emergency. You can do things as small as take out the weekly trash and recycling; make sure the gas tank is filled; pick up dry cleaning; go grocery shopping; help them sort through the paperwork that comes with such a loss; or take the person away for a few days or even a few hours to get a different perspective.

As you can see, there are a myriad of ways we can support those we care about. It starts with asking what we can do, and continues with thinking up ideas we believe will be welcome, based on our knowledge of the person and experience with the situation. It’s rare that we should take “no” for an answer – people in crisis always need help, and sometimes that help is in figuring out what help they actually need. Unless someone tells you your help is unwelcome, go ahead and do something. Think of what you would find useful, ask others who have been in a similar situation what helped them, and use your instincts. And be tactful. At the same time, don’t force your help on others; if you try something and they ask you to stop, stop. But know that when people are in crisis, they often don’t know what they need, and the idea of trying to give you an answer can seem overwhelming – like one more thing in an already long list. So find something simple, innocuous and unobtrusive to do that can help them without burdening them. People want – and need – our support; they’re often just too overwhelmed or embarrassed to ask for it.

Watch for an upcoming discussion on learning to accept – and even ask for – help. It’s a critical muscle that many of us don’t exercise enough.