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6 alternatives to saying 'let me know if you need anything' to someone in crisis

If someone is drowning, you don't wait for them to ask for help. You just take action.

woman crying with her hand on a rainy window

People going through major struggles don't always know what they need or how to ask for help.

When we see someone dealing with the loss of a loved one or some other major life crisis, it's instinctual for many of us to ask how we can help. Often, the conversation looks something like this:

Us: I am SO sorry you're going through this. What can I do to help?

Person in crisis: I honestly don't know right now.

Us: Okay…well…you let me know if you need anything—anything at all.

Person in crisis: Okay, thank you.

Us: I mean it. Don't hesitate to ask. I'm happy to help with whatever you need.

And then…crickets. The person never reaches out to take you up on the offer.


Was it that they didn't really need any help, this person going through a major life crisis? Unlikely. As sincere as our offer may have been, the problem may be that we didn't really offer them what they actually needed.

One of those needs is to not have to make decisions. Another is to not have to directly ask for help.

When a person is in a state of crisis, they can feel like they're drowning. They might be disoriented and fatigued, and doing anything other than keeping their head above water long enough to breathe can feel like too much.

If someone is drowning, you don't ask them what you can do to help or wait for them to ask. You just take action.

Here are some specific ways you can take action to help someone who you know needs help but isn't able or willing to ask for it:

1. Make them food

It may be tempting to ask if you can make them a meal and wait for them to say yes or no, but don't. Simply ask if they or anyone in their household has any dietary restrictions, and then start shopping and cooking.

Meals that can be popped in the refrigerator or freezer and then directly into the oven or microwave are going to be your best bets. Include cooking or reheating instructions if it's not obvious. Disposable aluminum trays are great for homemade freezer-to-oven meals and can be found at just about any grocery store. Casseroles. Stir fried rices. Soups. Comfort foods.

If you don't cook, you can buy them gift cards to local restaurants that deliver, or give them a DoorDash or UberEats gift certificate (large enough to cover the delivery, service fees and tip as well, which combined can be as much as a meal sometimes).

lasagna in the oven

Easy-prep meals people can throw in the oven are great.

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Even better—organize a meal train

If you want to make it a community-wide effort and no one else has done so yet, set up a "meal train," where different people sign up for different days to bring meals to spread out the food help over time. There are several free websites you can use for this purpose, including Give In Kind, Meal Train, and Take Them a Meal. These sites make it super easy for anyone with the personalized link to sign up for a meal.

someone scrubbing a pot in a kitchen sink

There are always dishes to wash.

Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

2. Clean their kitchen and/or bathrooms

Kitchens are always in use, and keeping up with dishes, especially in a house full of people, is a challenge even under normal circumstances. Same with keeping the refrigerator cleaned out. Same with cleaning the bathroom.

Rather than asking if they want it done, as many people won't want to say yes even if they would appreciate the help, try saying something like, "I want to come and make sure your kitchen is ready for you to make food whenever you want to and that your bathroom is a clean space for you to escape to whenever you feel like it. Is Tuesday or Wednesday at 1:00 better for you?"

The fewer complex decisions a person in crisis has to make the better, so saying, "Is this or that better?" rather than offering open-ended possibilities can be helpful.

woman folding clothes

There is always laundry to fold, too.

Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

3. Do laundry

Offer to sit and chat with them, let them vent if they need to…and fold their laundry while you're at it.

Are they the kind of people who might be embarrassed by you seeing or handling their underclothes? Fine. Wash, dry and fold towels or bedsheets instead. Just keep the laundry moving for them.

And if it doesn't feel appropriate or desirable for you to do their laundry at their house, you can offer a pick-up laundry service, either yourself or an actual hired service. Tell the person to put bags or bins of laundry at the door and you (or the service) will come pick it up and bring it back clean and folded the next day. That's a great way to be of service without feeling like you're intruding.

man pulling food and toilet paper out of the car

Offer to pick stuff up when you're on a grocery run.

Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

4. Run errands for them

"Hey, I'm heading out to the store, what can I grab you while I'm there?" is always a welcome phone call or text. Let them know when you're going to be running your own errands and see if there's anything they need dropped at the post office, picked up from the pharmacy, or anything else.

You can also offer to run errands with them. "Hey, I've got some errands to run. Do you want to join me?" They may have no desire to leave the house, or they may desperately want to leave the house, so be prepared for either answer, but the offer is solid. Even just not having to drive might be a relief if they have things they need to pick up or drop off places.

woman holding hands with a small child as they walk

Caring for someone's kids is one of the most helpful things you can do.

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

5. Provide childcare

If the person is a parent, taking their kid(s) out for a chunk of the day can be a big help. Caring for yourself is hard when you're going through a difficult time, and the energy a person might use to actually do that often gets usurped by caring for others. Obviously, parents can't just neglect their children, so anything you can do to relieve them of that responsibility for a while is gold.

Offering to take the kids to do something fun—a day at the park, ice skating, etc. is even better. A parent knowing their kid is safe, occupied and happy is its own form of relief.

6. Ask what they're struggling with and focus your help there

While all of these practical household things are helpful, there might be some people who find comfort or solace in doing those things themselves. If that's the case, talk with them about what their immediate needs are and what they're having a hard time dealing with. Then focus your energies there. "What can I do to help?" may not be as effective a question as "What are you having a hard time doing right now?" They may not know what kind of help they need, but they probably know how they're struggling.

One person might be lonely and just want some company. Another person might need a creative outlet or a mindless distraction or something physical like going for a walk or a hike. Someone else might have pets they need help caring for, a garden that need tending or the oil changed in their car. Someone might even need a person to serve as a shield or buffer between them and all the people coming to offer their condolences.

Note that many of these things are basic life maintenance stuff—those are often the things that get hard for people when they're dealing with the emotional and logistical stuff surrounding whatever they're going through, and they're often the easiest things other people can do for them. A time of crisis is not a normal time, so normal etiquette, such as asking if you can or should do something rather than just letting them know you're going to do it, doesn't always apply.

If there's a specific thing with specific tasks, such as planning a funeral, that might be a good opportunity to ask how you can help. But people deep in the throes of grief or struggle often need someone to the reins on basic things without being asked to. Again, there's a good chance they feel like they're drowning, so don't wait for an invitation. Just grab the life preserver, put it around them and do whatever needs to be done to get them to shore.

This could be the guest house.


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