As someone who has needed and received much gracious, generous help over the last four years, and also as someone who has loved and longed to help friends in need who lived far away, may I suggest some ways to help when your friend is ill, recovering from surgery, or experiencing some other long-term family crisis which is too much for a household to bear on its own?
- Pray, pray, pray. When someone tells me, "I just wish I could help," the biggest request I have is prayer. I can't fix my body; you can't fix my body; the best doctors can't fix my body, although they may be God's instruments. Only God heals. Only God restores. Believers have the awesome and precious privilege of storming the gates of heaven on behalf of our loved ones (and even strangers) in need. A prayer written in an e-mail or card can be read by the sufferer when (s)he needs an extra boost of hope. Praying with the sick person is an extra-special gift. Your prayers are a blessing, and they really are "doing something to help," even if it doesn't feel like it. Any suggestion to the contrary is not from God.
- Encourage. Send a note, a card, a text, or an e-mail. Share a Bible verse or song that helps you through hard times. If your note doesn't expect a response from the suffering person, so much the better. People confined to home or hospital by illness often feel forgotten. Sometimes out of sight is out of mind too. Your words say you remember me. Your voice-mail tells me I am not alone. God has given me a few cheerleaders who speak His truth and encouragement into my life on a regular basis, and I can't express how much they help me carry on.
- Hug, if you're within arm's reach and it won't cause pain. Be present. Medical treatment involves a lot of uncomfortable, impersonal touch. A hand held or arms around shoulders are medicine for soul and body alike. If you do visit, and if visitors are even allowed or recommended in your friend's case, it's often best to limit the time and avoid overtaxing the patient. Presence is often more important than knowing the right thing to say.
Caveat: if you think you might be ill, or if you have a sick family member, please stay home until you're well. Immune systems are often fragile after surgery and in prolonged illnesses. The patient will understand if you have to cancel a planned visit or gift of a meal in order to keep germs away.
- Laugh. More and more research shows that laughter helps the body heal and reduces the stress response. Call your friend with a funny story about the kids or grandkids or pet. E-mail links to funny blog posts or video clips. Send clean, funny videos like Tim Hawkins, Chonda Pierce, or Jeff Allen; discs of old sitcoms like Andy Griffith, I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke; or more recent series like The Cosby Show or Home Improvement, if your friend likes that kind of thing. We laugh a lot at Mythbusters, too. Comic strip anthologies like Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Peanuts, or Get Fuzzy might also bring a grin. You likely already know what puts a smile on your friend's face better than I can tell you.
- Feed. If you are nearby and enjoy cooking (or picking up take-out), bringing a meal is often welcome. In my particular case, if you ask us if we need meal help, we'll probably say no, we're doing okay. And we probably are. With just the two of us and a good microwave, we can work out simple meals even when I'm out of commission. But if you say, "I'd like to help with a meal. Is that okay? What night works for you? Is there anything you don't like or can't eat?" we are so grateful. Pizza or Chinese are just fine, as is a rotisserie chicken with a bag of salad and rolls. It doesn't have to be fancy or even homemade to be a blessing.
If you are not nearby, or your time or skill set prohibits cooking, or if your friend has lots of particular dietary needs which are difficult for an outsider to accommodate, restaurant gift cards really help, too. Search for restaurants around your friend's home to make sure a particular chain is easily accessible to him or her. If your friend has food allergies or gluten intolerance, ask your friend where (s)he likes to dine out, or go with a place you have eaten together. Again, fancy is not the point. Subway, Wendy's, Chick Fil-A, or Papa John's help out just as much as something fancier.
- Assist. If your schedule allows you to offer help with rides to the doctor, grocery shopping, laundry or cleaning help, childcare, picking up library holds or prescriptions, and so on, prayerfully consider how you can help. Ask your friend if you may help with _____ and when he or she needs the kind of help you can give.
That said, please don't get your feelings hurt if your friend declines. The family's needs may be quite particular or complex, for example regarding food choices, product fragrance, transportation needs (kind of seat, wheelchair ramp, etc.), or quiet and protection from noise and people interaction. Even if your friend must decline your offer of help, it will mean so much that you extended it.
- Give. If you are so led and your means permit, gift cards to Amazon can help with everything from books, music, and movies to help the convalescence pass cheerfully to home delivery of household, nonperishable food, and over-the-counter health items. We use Amazon frequently to buy bulky, heavy things (like paper goods, dog food, and cleaning products) I physically couldn't transport from the store by myself and for some supplements and medications we take on a daily basis. Drugstore.com also helps us out a lot and reduces my errand load. Some localities have grocery delivery services like Artizone.com which would allow your friend to do his or her own food shopping with minimal exertion at home. For diversion during a confinement, Redbox video rental gift certificates may also be welcome if a healthy person is available in the home to pick up and return the rental.
If special assistance equipment is needed, for example a wheelchair or scooter, and you have that item available to lend, that may be a great help to the family, but again, please give the patient freedom to decline the offer without offense.
Illness is expensive. Gift cards to your friend's pharmacy of choice may also be a great help. We primarily use Target, but in the United States Walgreen's, CVS, and Walmart are also popular pharmacy choices, as are the major grocery chains and big box stores. If your friend must travel frequently to receive care, a fuel gift card or airline miles might help. In the case of severe health crises on the scale of cancer or stroke, fundraisers (with your friend's permission, of course) or simple monetary gifts to help defray your friend's expenses are another possibility.
This is a tricky post to write. I know even as I contemplate it that it may seem like a plea for help, which it isn't. We're doing okay. The Lord has provided each need as it has arisen, and my parents and Bible study friends have already offered practical help for my upcoming surgery. More importantly, you probably know someone else in your immediate circle of friends who is facing chronic illness, surgery, or a family health crisis. They may not feel comfortable or have time to verbalize what kind of help they need, so I offer this post not so much for me as for them, to jump-start your thinking of how you might help them.
If you have received other kinds of great help in your family's time of need, or if you have additional thoughts on the ideas here, please say so in the comments so we can all benefit from your experience, and I may incorporate your thoughts into later editions of this post (with your permission and attribution).