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?”

19 Months Out: Emptying the Last Bag from His Last Hospital Visit

For 19 months, I was unable to use one of my reusable shopping bags. The gray polka-dotted bag was tucked away in the back of a closet, full of the items I had put in it when I packed things to go with my husband to the hospital for the surgery he would never wake up from. Almost everything he needed fit into one suitcase, but there were a few odds and ends that I tossed into the bag: salt and pepper (he was oddly enamored of the food at the hospital his surgery was at, but felt it lacked seasoning), a CBD patch (the medical staff frowned upon the use of CBD products because of the lack of long term testing, but knowing I had one packed made my husband feel more confident about being able to cope with the post-surgical pain), and six of his favorite condom catheters (he liked the ones I bought better than the ones available at the hospital).

When I came home from the hospital a widow, I put the suitcase in the area of our living room that we had used as a bedroom after his stroke, our basement bedroom rendered inaccessible. For a month, the gray polka-dotted bag sat on top of the suitcase. At some point, I emptied the suitcase, but when I picked up the gray polka-dotted bag and saw the things inside—all items intended to make my husband more comfortable—I quickly closed it and pushed it out of the way. While everything in the suitcase was typical stuff one might take to the hospital, the items in the bag were specific to my husband. In fact, he had specifically requested each item.

Over time, as I collected his belongings, giving some away to friends and family and donating others to charities, I began putting items I either wanted to keep or just couldn’t deal with yet in a plastic bin. The gray polka-dotted bag ended up in the plastic bin. For months, the plastic bin was in the dining room, a reminder to me that it and its contents existed. It made sense to have it easily accessible because I was still finding things to add to it, but over time, its contents stabilized, and I found that I was no longer adding anything to it. I moved it to the closet in my home office.

Whenever I bought groceries, I noticed that the gray polka-dotted bag wasn’t with the others and I went through a process of wondering where it was, recalling that it was in the plastic bin, remembering what was in the bag, and making the decision to leave the bag in the bin, untouched. This went on for a year and a half.

Two weeks ago, I went to gather up my grocery bags to go shopping and realized that my daughter had borrowed one and I didn’t have enough on hand. I considered getting the gray polka-dotted bag from the plastic bin, started walking toward my office, and stopped. I wasn’t ready. I went to the store but got only some of the items on my list, careful to limit myself to what would fit in the bags I had. Perhaps my daughter would return the bag she had borrowed before I needed groceries again, I thought.

Last week, the borrowed bag still with my daughter, I took a deep breath and got the gray polka-dotted bag out of the plastic bin. I brought it to the dining room table and spilled its contents out. The salt and pepper shakers, CBD patch, and condom catheters represent an anticipated outcome to his surgery that didn’t come to pass. I was expecting him to joke about enjoying the food so much he wanted to GrubHub it when he came home. I was anticipating panicky phone calls from him at 3 in the morning, asking me to talk him through the pain. I was looking forward to him showing off to the nursing staff that he had brought his own condom catheters.

That is not how things went. He never woke up from surgery. I am grateful that he did not experience the nearly unbearable pain.

I sobbed for some time over the bag and its contents—and I laugh-cried over it, thinking of the “I dare you” look he would have given anyone who threatened to take his CBD patch and the gleeful way he would have told staff he brought his own condom catheters. And then I put the salt and pepper shakers in a kitchen cabinet, the CBD patch with the painkillers, and the condom catheters in a box I’ll eventually take to a medical supply donation center, and I took the gray polka-dotted bag to the grocery store.

Scattering Ashes, Forgetting He’s Dead, and Intense Anxiety at 18 Months Out

I have been traveling for the past month. One stop in my travels was to Ushuaia, Argentina, where I scattered some of my late husband’s ashes. Ushuaia is the southern-most point of the Pan-American Highway. My husband loved riding motorcycles and read a lot of online forum postings by people who had ridden the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Ushuaia. He wanted to do the ride when he retired. He didn’t get to retire or do the ride, so for me, scattering some of his ashes in Ushuaia was a way to symbolically honor those wishes of his.

The night before scattering his ashes, my anxiety kicked in hard. I’ve been able to manage it pretty well for several months, but I wondered if it would show up on my trip. The first part of the trip went smoothly, but as the ash-scattering day got closer and closer, I could feel the restlessness building up inside me, especially at night when I went to bed. I started dreaming about my husband being unhappy with where I scattered the ashes or not being able to find a suitable spot.

I wasn’t too worried about the anxiety because I have a good list on my phone of strategies to use to help me when it gets bad. I figured if it got very intense, I would just methodically work my way through the list until I found a strategy that helped.

The night it really hit me, my first go-to strategy, walking or working out, wasn’t available to me because of where I was in my travels, so I moved on to my second strategy: tapping. Tapping uses the same principles as acupuncture to channel energy to the body’s meridian points. I think it also helps by bringing my awareness out of my mind and into my body. Unfortunately, that night, tapping didn’t seem to have any effect. No problem, I thought, I’ll listen to some meditations on Insight Timer.

That night I was in a remote part of the world and didn’t have internet access. I had planned ahead for that possibility by downloading several of my favorite Insight Timer meditations within the app, but when I tried to find them, they weren’t there. That’s when my anxiety really started to escalate. My hands were shaking as I tried to navigate my phone. I checked and rechecked the app. I closed the app and re-opened it. I turned my phone off and back on. None of it helped. The downloads weren’t there. I could only listen to meditations if I had an internet connection and that wasn’t possible. My mind went blank and I could no longer even find my list of strategies.

I finally took a Lorazepam, which is kind of my last resort option. It felt like admitting defeat, which made my anxiety even more intense. By then, my hands were shaking so much that I spilled the pills all over my bed, leading to the kind of low-contrast situation in which I’m pretty much functionally blind: white pills on white sheets. I had to use my shaky hands to find all the little pills strewn about in the sheets. Even after I swallowed a pill, there was no relief. By that time, I had gotten too worked up for it to have a noticeable effect.

At that point, I went to a strategy I’m surprised I remembered without my list: reminding myself that everything is temporary. That the anxiety will eventually pass. That I will eventually fall asleep. That the world will carry on. And I did eventually fall asleep for a couple of hours.

I ended up finding an excellent place to scatter the ashes: at the base of a gorgeous and regal tree in the forest off the Pan-American Highway. The tree had lichens on it that only grow in places where the air is exceptionally pure.

My anxiety continued through my husband’s birthday, a few days later. but after a few days I at least had Internet access again and re-downloaded my meditations. Until then, I took a Lorazepam each night when I went to bed (it seems to work best when I take it before my anxiety kicks in, which becomes a mind-bending prediction game in itself). Once I was able to listen to my meditations again, the anxiety became much easier to deal with, although it still lingered for a few more nights.

My lack of sleep probably contributed to a mind blip while in Chile. I saw a sculptural door made out of old metal farm implements and said to my friend, “I need to take a picture of that for Tom.” It’s the first time in a year that I forgot he was dead. Somehow, for a moment my brain thought he wasn’t with me in Chile because he was back home, waiting for me. For that moment, I wasn’t a widow. For that moment, I was excited to share stories and pictures from my epic trip with him. I could see the look of wonder and appreciation he would have on his face, feel his hand on the small of my back, hear him saying, “That’s amazing, Babe.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I had the crushing memory that he was dead. It felt like all the heartbreak I’ve experienced since he died was compressed into a single massive wave that flattened me. Luckily, I was with a dear friend who knew to immediately pull me into a hug and didn’t mind that I got snot all over her shoulder.

It was a tough time, and it was temporary.

The Mysteries of Cremains

Before my husband died, I knew what cremation was and that when my husband and I died, we wanted to be cremated, but that was about as far as my thinking on the topic went. After he died and was cremated, I learned a lot more about the ashes that remain after cremation.

The first thing I learned is that the cremated remains of a person are officially called cremains. It’s a weird, goofy word, and if you don’t like it, it’s perfectly acceptable to call the cremains “ashes.” I use both terms.

One of the biggest surprises for me was that cremains are really heavy. I was shocked when I received the box of my husband’s cremains—I needed both hands to carry it. The ridiculous scene in the Sex and the City spinoff, And Just Like That, in which Carrie Bradshaw puts her late husband’s cremains in a little beaded Eiffel Tower-shaped purse is ludicrous. The cremains of a 200 pound person will weigh about 7 pounds and that little purse would have been overflowing, plus the strap would have been digging unfashionably into Carrie’s shoulder.

In terms of volume, a website I’ve mentioned before, Cake, uses this helpful comparison to describe how to understand the amount of ashes you’ll have: “The typical volume of cremation ashes is 200 cubic inches. If you’re wondering what that volume of ashes looks like, picture a common grocery store bag of sugar.”

What to do with the cremains is another question. I learned that many people have strong opinions on what the proper thing to do with cremains is when people started saying things to me like, “You don’t have the cremains on your bedside table, do you?” and “Don’t be one of those morbid people who puts the ashes on the mantle.” In my opinion, if you are bereaved, you can put the cremains wherever you damn well please.

I did, in fact, keep the box of ashes the funeral home gave me on my bedside table for a while, and how I have some of the cremains on my mantle. When I first brought that heavy box home, I put it on the bedside table in part because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Every night for months, I put my hand on the box and said good night to my husband. I knew I would eventually do something else with the cremains, but I didn’t know what, and it was comforting to have the bedtime ritual of saying good night to him.

I knew I wanted to scatter some of the ashes in a few places with meaning to my husband, and once I understood the sheer volume of cremains, I realized I had enough to share. I gave some to my late husband’s rafting buddies to scatter on the river. That seemed important because Tom loved rafting and some of his happiest days were spent floating down a river after having tackled a fearsome rapid. I also gave good quantities to his brother, his mother, his son, and my daughter. I kept a large amount for myself to scatter in a few strategic spots, and I put some in a beautiful urn specifically made for cremains that I found on Etsy, and which is now on my living room mantle.

Additionally, I had a teaspoon of the cremains incorporated into a memorial ring that I wear. Soon after my husband died, another widow told me about memorial jewelry, and I loved the idea of having part of my husband with me always. A quick search on Etsy helped me find hundreds of artists who create jewelry and other keepsakes using small amounts of cremains.

I have so far scattered some of the remaining ashes in the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast, one of his favorite places, and some in the forest outside Ushuaia, Argentina, a place he never got to go to but very much wanted to.

Dividing up the cremains means coming up with containers for the stuff. The funeral home would have happily sold me very expensive cardboard containers, but I chose disposable food containers that I got at Target. Mason jars would work, and I only decided against them because I knew I’d be traveling with some of the cremains and thought the glass was too fragile. Ziplock bags seemed like a poor choice because squeezing the air out of them would cause some of the cremains to poof out into the room and that seemed problematic.

Before I ever dealt with cremains, I might have felt strange about putting human remains into Tupperware, but after receiving the ashes from the funeral home in a heavy-duty plastic bag inside a heavy-duty cardboard box, Tupperware seemed just fine.

It took me a while to figure out how to open the fancy cardboard box, but luckily there are quite a few videos on YouTube made by others who had similar struggles and detailed their tips.

One last word to the wise: If you divide up the ashes and stash them somewhere “safe,” make a note of that safe place. I learned the hard way that it’s very awkward to explain to others that you misplaced the Tupperware full of cremains.  

Feeling Surrounded by the Love of Weak Ties

I’ve been listening lately to Shankar Vedantam’s podcast on the social science behind human behavior, Hidden Brain.  A recent episode was on the power of “weak ties,” the social connections we have with people who are not part of our inner circle. As my late husband’s birthday nears, I am noticing a difference in how I respond to the weak ties around me. 

At the gym the other day, I was on an elliptical with two empty ones to my right and about seven empty ones to my left. I was happily listening to the Hidden Brain podcast when two people began working out on the two ellipticals just to my right. This seemed obnoxious to me—usually when there is a bank of empty machines, people will space themselves out on the equipment rather than working out side by side with a stranger. Even worse, the two were friends who began chatting so loudly with each other that I couldn’t hear my podcast. In frustration, I turned my podcast off and continued my workout, pondering whether I should move to one of the empty machines on my left. I quickly realized, however, that these two had a fascinating chemistry and I became engrossed in the conversation I couldn’t help but overhear. They discussed in detail how to make the perfect turkey sandwich, the frustrating love life of one of them, and the degree to which the other one hated working out. They were very different people who saw every topic they discussed differently, but their disagreements were brought up with humor and affection. 

Another day, I was reading in a coffee shop, enjoying the white noise of conversations around me, when my concentration was broken by the sound of someone drumming their fingers against a table. I waited for the annoying sound to stop, but it continued. I looked around and found the perpetrator: an older man at a nearby table. My attention now drawn to him, I wondered if the woman with him found his finger-drumming as annoying as I did, but she seemed to find him enchanting, laughing and smiling in response to much of what he said, and chiming in happily to the conversation without seeming to be aware of his incessant finger drumming. I took them for a couple on a date until I overheard the man mention his younger days in the merchant marines; the woman’s response indicated they had been together back then. 

Another day as I enjoyed the quiet at a book shop, a woman near me made several calls with her phone on speaker. All the calls were in French, so perhaps she felt that the language barrier would keep the calls private. As she made call after call, I got more and more agitated—I find the sound of an overheard phone call much more annoying than the white noise of most conversations I am not a part of. At some point, though, I noticed that everyone she called seemed deeply happy to hear from her. The calls were punctuated with genuine laughter and each began and ended with what sounded like professions of affection. 

All of these situations would have irritated me in the past, making me feel more alone because I had no one to tell about them. I would have used them all as evidence that humans are just deeply annoying—and I might have even added the caveat “except for my late husband, who was perfect, and because he’s dead, I’ll never again experience the kind of connection with a perfect human that I had with him.” Yes, it’s a ridiculous thought—and I bet everyone who has lost a loved one has had a similar thought. 

It’s what I think of as the soulmate idea—the idea that there is ONE person on the planet who can understand you and make you feel connected and 1) you are lucky if you find that person, and 2) there’s only one person who can be your soulmate, so if they die, you’re just screwed for the rest of your life. I don’t consciously buy into the idea that there is ONE person out there that you can share a deep connection with and if/when they die, you will never have that kind of connection again—and yet, there have been moments in my grief where I have felt certain that my husband’s death means I will live the rest of my life disconnected from others, profoundly alone.

In other moments, I have used the depth of my connection to my late husband as evidence that I will connect in deep and meaningful ways with other humans again—not in exactly the ways I did with my late husband, but in ways that are no less profound and meaningful. This more generous interpretation is the one I prefer and I tend to default to it, but its darker counterpart does pop into my mind from time to time. 

Each of these three incidents lately have left me feeling very warm and fuzzy toward my fellow humans. The friends working out, the longtime couple, and the woman checking in with loved ones all demonstrated to me close and loving relationships. As I think about them, I can’t help but notice that I am surrounded by love. The love isn’t directed toward me, but it is there, in the ether around me, gently calling my attention to it. 

There is an aspect of bittersweetness to the realization. Not too long ago, I assumed my late husband and I would one day be that longtime couple. Listening to their banter was a poignant reminder that I will not have that experience with my late husband—and perhaps not with anyone. But when I think about that kind of love existing around me—truly, all around me, at the gym, at the coffee shop, at the bookstore—I feel lighter, buoyed by the love among the weak ties that surround me. 

There Are No Bad Days

One of my favorite Buddhist writers, Sallie Tisdale, advises that we not label days bad but instead call them challenging or hard days. This philosophy is in keeping with what I’ve practiced since my own stroke in 1997 which I was not expected to survive. While in a medically-induced coma, I had a “going towards the light” experience that forever changed me. When I came out of my coma, I had the unshakable feeling that I had been given a choice: that I could continue on toward the light or I could come back to the life I had been living. Both were presented as neutral, equal options. 

At the time I wasn’t thrilled with my life—I had some troubled relationships and felt a lot of angst and ambivalence. I was not someone who loved life and I did not feel deeply connected to anyone beyond my sister and then-husband. But at the moment when I made my choice, I felt *invited* to continue my life. That feeling of being invited has made all the difference in the time that followed. Rather than being sulky and resentful, I have been grateful and connected. 

I have recognized each day as an invitation to live. There have been no bad days since I accepted the invitation to live in 1997. Even the day my husband had his stroke, even the day I made the decision to remove him from life support, even the day he died—these were not bad days. These were days that were difficult, sad, heartbreaking, even—but not bad. 

I think of those days as ones in which I got to do the most loving things I have ever done. The day my husband had his stroke, I committed to being his caregiver. The day I made the decision to remove him from life support and the day he died, I let him go—absolutely the most painful thing I’ve ever done, but after fighting against it with every ounce of my being for a year, it was what I needed to do. 

This attitude has made it possible for me to be present and grounded in even the most difficult of moments. I’ve been able to be fully present with my husband when he needed me most, rather than turning away in fear and denial. I’ve been able to experience the full, beautiful depth of human emotion, even when it physically hurts.

Instead of labeling a day good or bad, I find it more useful to think about how I showed up for the day. If a day was challenging, did I show up with curiosity and patience or anger and irritation? Did I recognize the difference between what I wanted to do and what I needed to do? I find that when I label a day “bad,” I dismiss it in its entirety, but when I identify a day “challenging,” I recognize its complexity and my own role in that complexity.

The day my husband died was the most difficult day of my life, but not a bad day. It was a day of intense love and connection, as well as nearly unfathomable heartbreak. I don’t wish a day like that on anyone, but I know people I love will have days like that. These days are as much a part of life as the ones we readily label as good. I celebrate every day I get to live. 

Remembering the Love We Had

Sometimes I think I am idealizing the past, remembering in too rosy a way the life I had with my late husband. Could we really have been as happy as I remember us being? 

I spent the week of Thanksgiving with my late husband’s brother and his wife and we went through old photo albums and told stories. Photo after photo showed my late husband and me looking ecstatically happy together. There we are in the snow in rural Oregon, smiling from ear to ear. There we are in motorcycle gear in front of a seedy motel in Wyoming, glowing with joy. There we are at a family dinner in Denver, grinning like we just won the lottery. Photo after photo shows his arm around me or on my left shoulder, where I can still feel it sometimes. So many photos of him making me laugh. 

I know photos don’t tell the complete story, the way someone’s Facebook postings don’t represent the entirety of their life. I remember arguments and misunderstandings. I know every day wasn’t perfect, but I also know that every day involved laughter and ended with “I love you.” We both had the same philosophy of life: find joy in the everyday. 

The photos I looked at around Thanksgiving tell that story—the story of two people who found joy in the small things, who loved each other intensely, even when we disagreed. His mother one time observed, “You both think you’re the lucky one and you’re both right.” I know I am lucky to have had that kind of love. 

Despite having spent nearly every moment of the last year of his life with my husband, I wish I had been more present, more well-rested, more responsive instead of reactive, more . . . Everything. I sometimes find myself just wanting more. More of anything with him. More of all the things that I let myself get annoyed about before his stroke—more of the toilet seat being left up, more of his laundry being strewn about the bedroom, more of the dog food container not being refilled when it was empty. More of the kinds of moments captured in those photographs I looked at around Thanksgiving. 

I recognize every moment—the gleeful smiles as well as the picking-up-laundry-with-an-eye-roll moments—as the relationship. 

Now that Tom is dead, it is easy for me to see that getting annoyed about those things was a choice and that I could have made different choices. Not to get what I wanted in the short term—laundry being put in the clothes hamper, for example—but to get the big picture of what I wanted: harmonious time with my husband. I regret every moment I lost to silly annoyances.  

I am lucky to have had the year with him after his stroke, when he was physically unable to put a toilet seat down or place his laundry where it belonged or feed the dogs. I got that time to realize that the things that annoyed me didn’t really matter. I got the harmonious time with my husband. 

I think many of us who have lost a loved one remember their imperfections with love and generosity. I am resolving to greet the imperfections of my living loved ones with the same love and generosity I feel toward those of my dead loved ones. 

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.

How to Set + Communicate Boundaries

Last week I noted that one of the gifts of grief is that I find it much easier to set and defend boundaries. Since then, a couple people have told me that my ability to set and defend boundaries has inspired them, which I take to be quite a compliment. A colleague told me they no longer feel like they need to respond to emails immediately and a friend credited my modeling for helping them feel like they don’t need to say yes to every social invitation during the holidays.

I wrote shortly after my late husband died about setting boundaries, but since then, I’ve gotten much better at it. I wish younger me had understood boundaries better; I think I would have been a lot happier—and I think the people around me who bore the brunt of my regular resentment would have been a lot happier. Alas, I can’t go back and change the past, but I can help you feel better about having and defending boundaries.

The best boundaries focus on what you can do rather than on what you want others to do and are clearly communicated to others. Here are some of the boundaries I have set and defended, along with phrases I use to communicate them to others:

  • I leave a meeting when it is scheduled to end. I do not apologize, I do not make up excuses, I simply leave. I try to minimize any disruption.
    • How I communicate this boundary: Before the meeting, if I suspect the meeting will actually run over the scheduled time, I say, “I’ll need to leave at [the scheduled end time].” I don’t offer excuses.
  • I do not attend meetings that don’t have either an agenda or a clear purpose.
    • How I communicate this boundary: If no agenda has been provided two days before the meeting, I email the meeting facilitator, saying, “My practice is to only attend meetings with an agenda or a clear purpose. Can you please provide more details about the meeting?”
  • I do not respond to emails before or after my work hours.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I state it in my syllabi and tell my colleagues who email me frequently.
  • I do not apologize for not doing things I wasn’t responsible for doing. This seems like a simple one, but I see people apologize all the time for not bringing snacks that no one expected them to bring to a meeting, or not dressing up for an occasion that wasn’t clearly communicated as dressy. This one doesn’t really need communicating in advance.
  • I do not wait to start meetings or classes until everyone is there. I start meetings and classes at the scheduled start time. I don’t shame anyone who is late, trusting that they have good reasons that are none of my business.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I tell people I start on time.
  • I do not attend social functions I do not want to attend. I have learned that declining an invitation is actually quite simple—all you have to say is, “Oh, that sounds lovely! I won’t be able to attend, but I hope it’s wonderful!” No apologies necessary—just heartfelt wishes that those who do attend have a great time. Very, very occasionally, someone pushes me about why I can’t attend. If I simply don’t want to go, I may say, “I have a conflict” or “My social battery has been running pretty low lately.”
  • I do not answer 95% of the phone calls I get. I just let most calls go to voice mail and then I return the call when I want to.
    • How I communicate this boundary: When people say they’ll call me, I usually say, “I’m not a big phone person. Can we do this by email or over Zoom?”
  • I do not respond to emails that don’t make it clear what kind of response is needed. If the email is from a student or colleague, I may reply by saying “I’m not sure what you are asking of me.” I delete emails from people I don’t know that I can’t decipher the purpose of.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I tell my students and colleagues to make the ask in any email clear by putting it in its own paragraph or in bold.
  • I do not take other people’s boundaries personally. Someone doesn’t answer my email quickly? OK. Someone doesn’t answer when I call? OK. Someone declines my invitation? OK.

I am polite about these boundaries and do not apologize for having them. Having these boundaries means disappointing other people, but I am not responsible for their feelings. If people are disappointed that I didn’t attend their meeting or answer their email, that’s ok. I’m sure there are some people who think I am demanding or hard to work with because of my boundaries, and you know what? That’s ok. If having reasonable boundaries makes me demanding or hard to work with, then I am demanding and hard to work with. As a white cis-gendered woman with tenure, I can afford to be demanding and hard to work with. I recognize that not everyone has that privilege. Because I do have the privilege to be seen as demanding and hard to work with, I think it’s very important that I do set and hold these boundaries because I hope that will make it easier for others with less privilege to do so.

These boundaries are all focused on what I do. This makes sense since I can’t control the behavior of others. I can’t say others must have agendas for their meetings, but I can say I will not attend meetings that don’t have agendas.

Let’s normalize setting and defending boundaries!