Category Archives: life skills

Stop Telling People “I’d Love to Help, Just Let Me Know What You Need”

Being on the receiving end of a lot of kind and generous offers for help in the last few years has taught me a lot about how to offer help to others. I realize now that the help I’ve offered others has often been too vague and open-ended to be really helpful. Inspired by what I’ve learned, I’ve made one of my 2023 resolutions to offer specific help instead of the blanket “let me know what you need.”

“Just let me know what you need”—it sounds perfect, doesn’t it? When I have said it in the past, I meant that I wanted to help and was willing to do whatever needed to be done. I was always sincere in being willing to do whatever needed to be done. But having been on the receiving end of that statement many times since my late husband’s stroke, I realize how unhelpful the phrase is. And having uttered the phrase many times myself, I can’t think of too many instances in which someone actually took me up on the offer.

In the midst of my husband’s stroke and then death, most of the time I was too overwhelmed to know what I needed, so I asked for nothing in the moment. Later, when I recognized a need, I either couldn’t remember who had offered help or I felt sheepish calling in that help so many days/weeks/months/years later.

I found it a lot easier to accept help when it was offered with a specific outcome and even time, like this: “I’d like to bring you a meal. Would Tuesday night about 5 work?” When people said, “Let me know when I can bring you food,” I appreciated the offer but following up took more organization (who offered food? What exactly did they offer?) and effort than I was able to muster most of the time. And I sweated over how to phrase what now felt like a needy request; “Hi, I think you offered me a meal a while ago . . . can you bring it over tonight?” seemed obnoxious.

I also found that the phrasing of the offer makes a big difference. Although “let me know how I can help” totally doesn’t work for me, a similar offer phrased as a question does. When someone asks me, “What do you need?” I can actually think of things, whereas when they say, “Let me know how I can help,” my mind goes blank. Perhaps it’s the question structure that prompts my brain to answer it, while the statement feels almost like something else to be added to my to-do list—“figure out what I need and tell so-and-so.”  

Sometimes after my husband’s stroke or death, someone asked me, “What do you need?” and I answered with something they couldn’t possibly help with or with a need so big and vague it was unclear how it could be met. But the lovely thing about people asking “What do you need?” is that when my answer doesn’t net a concrete thing for them to do, they typically ask follow up questions, like this:

Friend: What do you need?

Me: Ugh, I need to not feel overwhelmed.

Friend: Hmmm. What have you done in other situations when you felt overwhelmed?

Me: I don’t know. Drink. Just kidding. Um, I’ve made a list of everything that needs to be done and then prioritized it.

Friend: How about if I come over and help you do that?

Another time I told a friend who asked what I needed that I was trying to figure out how to get out of a project I felt committed to. She offered to do some roleplaying to help me figure out how to have a conversation about leaving the project, which turned out to be quite helpful and empowering.

I also appreciate when people’s offers prompt me to recognize a need. For example, when someone told me they could help me with organizing and planning activities for a memorial event, I realized that a memorial event could be more than a simple gathering with eulogies. That friend ended up helping me plan an amazing memorial event that was so great the bartender told me, “This event was more fun than the last few weddings I’ve worked.”

When I reflect on the times I’ve offered help, I see that specific offers have been much more readily accepted. When I’ve offered to write obituaries, collect remembrances in a book, write thank you notes, organize belongings, or make difficult phone calls to banks, insurance companies, and other institutions, my offers have often been accepted. When I’ve said, “Let me know how I can help,” the story is different. Occasionally someone will contact me to ask for company or help doing something tough, but it’s rare.

To take action on my resolution, I’ve made a list of the skills I can offer to others: writing, listening, organizing, having difficult conversations, and cooking. I will no longer say, “Let me know what you need.” From here on out, I will either offer to do specific tasks related to my skills or I’ll ask, “What do you need?”

The Art of Being Alone

One of the adjustments being widowed has required is getting used to doing things alone that I used to do with a partner. Traveling, attending events, and dining out are all activities that I was used to do doing with my late husband. Shortly after he died, I got a crash course in being alone at an event I would normally attend with him when a cousin got married. Luckily, I wasn’t alone at the wedding by a long stretch—my daughter, stepson, son-in-law, mother-in-law, and several other family members I’m close to were there. But it was the first big social event I went to sans date that I would normally have gone to with my husband. The irony of being unwillingly alone at an event celebrating partnership was tough to handle and I did excuse myself at one point to go cry in privacy.                    

Despite being very introverted and needing lots of alone time, there are many times when I don’t want to be alone. Going to social events and places where most people are with others makes me feel very conspicuous about being alone. There’s comfort in having a partner in crime with you, someone who can make you feel less awkward when you walk into a wall or can’t read a sign (as a vision impaired person, this happens to me all the time and having someone else with me makes it funny instead of embarrassing), who can make idle chit chat with you so you’re not left standing alone, or who can swoop in and relieve you of talking to the person everyone has warned you about.

Although I would prefer to have a partner with me at many events, I am not going to let being widowed keep me from enjoying things I want to do. A few months after my husband died, I went to a place I had gone to many times with him and never alone: some popular hot springs in Colorado. It was somewhat terrifying because my vision in hot springs is particularly bad—the steam makes it harder to see and fogs up my glasses, so when I used to go with my husband, we would hold hands and he would lead me around. On top of the vision challenges, pretty much everyone there is with a partner or their kids. Going there by myself felt scary, which is why I picked it for one of my first solo outings. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. As a bonus, the steam made me feel like the tears running down my face the whole time were less noticeable.

In reflecting on 2022, I noticed that one of my standout experiences was something I did alone: riding a horse in Iceland. I signed up for the ride not knowing how many other people were going, but I assumed everyone else would be part of a couple or group, and I was right. Of the ten riders in my group, I was the only person on my own. If I had gone with someone else, at least part of me would have been focused on that person, but because I was on my own, I focused more on my sweet horse, Pitla.  In fact, after our ride, everyone else went into the office for hot chocolate, while I stayed out in the paddock with Pitla, petting her, talking to her, and removing her saddle. I got so absorbed that one of the employees finally came out to tell me everyone else was in the minivan and ready to go back to Reykjavík—would I be ready soon?

In a year and a half of doing most everything alone, I’ve learned a few things:

  1. It’s quite unlikely that anyone else even notices you. You think everyone is noticing you because you’re the protagonist of your own story, but the flip side of that is that you’re not even a character in other people’s stories. Maybe they notice you do someone embarrassing, but it’s just a blip on their radar, and more likely, they don’t even notice it. In all the times I’ve cried at restaurants or events, no one has ever seemed to notice.
  2. If you look for other solo people, you’ll probably find them. You’re actually not the only person there alone. Case in point: last week I went to a concert by myself. As I was walking into the venue, a colleague of mine appeared. She was by herself, too. We ended up sitting together but the topic of us each being alone never came up. On my way out, I ran into someone else I knew who was there alone. These two run-ins happened without me actually looking for other folks on their own, so imagine how many folks I might have found had I been looking.
  3. I’ve seen in online forums travelers who are on their own called “solo travelers.” I like that so much better than “traveling alone.” I’m trying to reframe being alone as being solo. It sounds more powerful to me.                
  4. Before I go to an event on my own, I usually give myself permission to leave early if I want to and I review my options for doing so. Knowing I have a plan for leaving early makes me feel calmer. I usually don’t leave early, but I like knowing that if I want to, I can and it will be easy.

And there are actually some benefits to being at events alone. For example, you can leave when you want to without consulting anyone else. The most surprising advantage I’ve noticed is that I am often more present when I am alone because my attention isn’t split between the event and the person I am with.

Get Better at Allowing Others to Help You by Understanding What They Get Out of It

Last week, my daughter and I arrived home from an outing and as I got out of the car with two small bags, my daughter offered to take one. I let her.

That last sentence may not read like the seismic shift in my behavior that it represents, so let me give you some context. For much of my life, I have been someone who absolutely refused to accept help beyond a door being held open, and even that sometimes was too much for me.

In fact, it’s not allowing someone to open a door for me that precipitated my long journey to become a person who does accept help. About twenty years ago, I was getting ready to drive back to Denver after spending the summer out of state. As I was bringing bags and boxes out to my car, my sister-in-law offered to help. “No, I’m fine,” I said, balancing multiple bags over my shoulders and carrying a box in front of me. “At least let me get the door,” she said, moving toward the door, but I shook my head, limped to the door as quickly as I could to be sure I got there before she did, teetered dangerously as I tried to not drop anything while opening the door myself, then headed out to my car.

When I came back in, my sister-in-law said, “You just really pissed me off. There is no good reason for you to not let me help you.”

She was right. (She usually is.) There was no good reason for me to say no to her offer of help. That day was a turning point for me. Most of the time these days I say yes. But I admit, it’s been a long, slow learning curve. I cringe thinking about all the times I was scaling the shelves at a grocery store like a BASE jumper to get something from the top shelf and said no to the stranger who offered help.

When my late husband had his stroke, I became very good at saying yes to help because I desperately needed it. That was another turning point for me. While my sister-in-law got me started on this journey, I still often had to fight the urge to say no when people offered help. My husband’s stroke pushed me into the territory of defaulting to yes.

Here’s what I’ve learned about accepting help from others:

  1. Saying yes to help allows relationships to deepen. Saying no to help is a distancing technique. When I said no to help in the past, it was often a way to keep people at a distance. Sometimes I had good reasons—for example, allowing a toxic person to help can mean opening yourself up to complicated feelings of indebtedness or guilt. But often I said no simply because I had developed the habit of saying no to help under any circumstance.

I also failed to differentiate between asking for help and accepting help that is voluntarily offered. I thought accepting any kind of help would make me appear needy and people would judge me negatively for it. But accepting offered help is simply good manners and as my story above about staggering under a heavy load to beat my sister-in-law to the door shows, rejecting offered help can lead to hurt feelings.

Accepting help is an acknowledgment of vulnerability and interdependence. After my brain surgery, a neighbor offered to pick up groceries for me. Giving your grocery list to someone else can be surprisingly intimate. That person now knows what you eat and how picky you are about your dairy products (maybe that’s just me). Allowing someone to pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy lets them know what drugs you take. Letting someone walk your dog means they may find out that your dog has a really embarrassing habit of . . . well, never mind.

My point is, accepting help means letting someone else know about these little quirks—which is one of the reasons that people like to help. They like to learn these little quirks about us. They find them endearing. It makes them feel invited into our lives and special.

2. Saying yes to help gives others an opportunity to feel good about themselves. After my husband’s stroke, I could see how relieved people were when I let them help me. They felt helpless in the face of our situation and being allowed to help let them feel less helpless. Even more significantly, it allowed them to feel like they were making a positive difference in a crappy situation. They got to feel generous.

When I think of times others have let me help them, I always feel good. I remember helping someone write an obituary, providing food that I know was welcomed, and giving books that made someone feel less alone. Instead of I-wish-I-had-known-what-to-do anxiety, I have a feeling of gentle connectedness with these memories.

3. Saying yes to help often allows others to show off their skills and talents without bragging. When I was planning a quick trip to Iceland earlier this year, a friend who had been there before offered to write up a suggested 3-day itinerary—it turns out she’s a whiz at travel planning. A neighbor who maintained our front yard after my husband’s stroke is an incredible gardener. A friend who hung some shelves for me is a talented craftsperson.

Once I began understanding accepting help as something I can do for others, it became much easier for me.