Why “Call me if you need help…” is not helpful

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters 

Immediately after my heart attack, I appreciated kind-hearted friends and family who said: “Just call me if there’s anything at all that I can do for you!”

But as well-meaning as those offers were, I knew deep down in my heart of hearts that I was NOT likely to call them to ask about certain things I needed help with, like:

“Can you please come over and change the kitty litter?” 

As those who don’t like asking others for help can attest, that request was just never going to happen.  

Asking for – and accepting – help can be difficult. By comparison, I found it truly helpful when people phoned and said something like: “I’m at the grocery store – what can I pick up for you while I’m here?”

Lisa Coppen has had lots of firsthand experience in what’s helpful to those living with chronic illness – and what’s not so helpful.*   She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 24, and then later with fibromyalgia. As a result of her diagnoses, she became the founder of both Rest Ministries and Invisible Illness Week

She once asked her Twitter followers this question:*

“What would be a good thing to say to a sick person?” 

Here are just ten examples of what the helpful Twitterverse of patients recommended:

1. I don’t know what to say, but I care about you.

2. Do you just need to vent? I’m all ears.

3. I really admire how you are handling this. I know it’s difficult.

4. I’m bringing dinner Thursday. Do you want lasagna or chicken?

5. Can I get your kids for a play date? My kids are bored.

6. I can’t sit still. Got any laundry I can fold?

7. I saw these flowers and thought they’d cheer you up today.

8. I have Monday free if you need me to run some errands or drive you somewhere.

9. Do you want me to come over while you wait for test results?

10. You are amazing!

Psychologist Dr. Elvira Aletta, author of the ebook 7 Rules for Living Well With Chronic Illness and founder of Exploring What’s Next, once wrote this about Lisa Coppen’s list:

“Like most loving gestures, it really is the thought that counts and is healing. Not all of the suggestions sent to Lisa would suit me and maybe not you either, but it doesn’t matter.

“Helping healthy people be more comfortable approaching a sick friend or a friend who cares for a sick child, spouse or parent is a wonderful concept.

“It can be so awkward when we don’t know what to say. Will I intrude on her privacy? Maybe I’ll offend her by presuming she needs help. This hesitation can take days and weeks and before you know it our friend or their loved one is either better or dying. Either way, we’ve lost an opportunity.”

Such wise advice, Dr. A!  So go ahead. Text, email, call, or leave a note  (along with the flowers) on the front porch. Step up. Make that loving gesture.


Q: What kind of specific offers to help stood out for you as a patient?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote much more about both getting and offering support in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).


* I first encountered Lisa Coppen’s name in 2009 when, coincidentally, she and I along with 18 other women from seven countries were named by ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ of Boston for their inaugural Women’s Health Heroes awards for those “who make significant contributions to the health and well-being of women.” 

Q:  What is most helpful to you when you’re feeling sick?

See also:

When you’re about to become a hospital patient

What (not) to say when you’re visiting the sick

Empathy 101: how to sound like you give a damn

“You look great!” – and other things you should never say to heart patients

But You Don’t Look Sick

“I care about you” and other things to say to sick friends

‘Healthy Privilege’ – when you just can’t imagine being sick

23 thoughts on “Why “Call me if you need help…” is not helpful

  1. NOTE FROM CAROLYN: This reader comment has been deleted because it was attempting to sell my readers a “miracle cure” that, if indeed it ever existed, would have already been patented and marketed by Big Pharma.

    For more info on how you too can get your comment deleted, please read my fascinating Disclaimer page.


  2. Hi Carolyn,

    This is such a great and always timely topic. It’s so hard for some of us to ask for help or even admit we need it. Why this is I’ve yet to figure out. It’s hard for those who want to help to know how to go about giving it too. It’s hard from both sides! I do know that just saying, call me if you need anything doesn’t really work for either side.

    I love the list from Lisa Coppen. The list isn’t necessarily specific to the “help” theme, but the things listed are so good.

    One specific offer to help that stood out for me after my cancer diagnosis, was from a parent of one of my son’s friends. She made chili and also offered to come over and weed my flower gardens. That stood out to me because who likes weeding? Of course, I never asked her to come and do it, but still, I knew she would if I did. Kind gestures are always appreciated, and I’ve never forgotten that one.

    Sometimes less is more. Helping someone doesn’t have to get complicated or be some grand thing. Little things can turn out to be pretty darn big.

    Thanks for the post, Carolyn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nancy! I just love that chili story! I wonder what would have happened, when she offered to do some weeding, if you had said YES PLEASE!! I’m guessing she would have really enjoyed knowing she’d helped out, and you would have enjoyed having a weed-free garden!

      A similar ‘gardening’ thing happened to me after I was discharged home from the hospital when a work colleague (a professional horticultural therapist) phoned me (not asked, but TOLD me) she was at the garden store at that moment and was picking up a flat of bedding plants for my balcony pots, and then she not only delivered them but put on her gardening gloves and planted them for me (while I sat in my red chair with a cup of tea and watched her!) At that time, I wasn’t able to lift heavy soil or watering cans by myself, so this was a very useful and generous offer!

      This was in mid-May, so exactly the time of year when she knew I’d be wanting to get my annuals planted! Everything looked so nice, and as the summer of 2008 went on, I enjoyed those colourful blooms more every day!

      Thanks so much for your comment…


  3. Dear Carolyn,

    I would like to both thank you and let you know how very much I appreciate your recent talk in Victoria, your book and all of your blogs.

    Learning all the time, and with gratitude,

    Anne Cutler

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When I had my stroke, I wasn’t allowed to drive for several months. I was using the county para-transit system to get to doctor’s appointments, but they have this strange policy that you had to be at each location for an hour between drop-off and pick up.

    My dear friend came to my house one day each weekend that I couldn’t drive and simply asked me – where do you want to go? – with no restrictions. We went grocery shopping, I got my eyebrows waxed and a manicure, we went to Target and the bank (not all in one day!).

    She was incredibly generous with her time and I can’t imagine how I would have managed without her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a terrific and VERY helpful idea from your friend! Picking a standing ‘appointment’ on an ongoing basis likely meant that your whole week felt less stressed – because you knew that you could count on those regular no-fuss weekend rides that allowed you to make a wish list all week!

      I wish everybody would take a page from your friend’s book!


  5. Hi I know you’re not a Dr but 1 1/2 yrs ago I had triple bypass surgery, carotid artery surgery and a stent. When I got home I didn’t have time to rest as my husband became ill. Within a few months, he died.

    Since then I’ve had daily chest pain and recently have developed shortness of breath and extreme fatigue. I’ve told my cardiologist, gone to ER and feel like they blow me off.

    I feel like giving up but I’ve always been a fighter. I’ve read your book 3 or 4 times. I, too can hardly do any work and I dread going to the store because I feel I’m going to pass out and sometimes I’m too tired to get to the store.

    Thanks for listening.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Kathleen. I’m so sorry you have had to go through all of this. It must be hard, even for “fighters”, to keep on fighting alone when you’re grieving such a tragic loss.

      It’s almost as if your own recovery was frozen in time because of your husband’s illness and death. Getting “blown off” can make dismissed symptoms feel even worse. You’re so right – I’m not a doctor so cannot guess the physical causes of these ongoing symptoms, but I’m hoping you will also seek psychological help for yourself while you are searching for answers. Do not give up that search.

      I hope you do find relief very soon in body, mind and spirit.


      1. Thank you so much for your concern. I am getting grief counseling but this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. Thank you so much.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m so sorry they haven’t listened to you. It sounds like something serious. Can you get another opinion? I hope you keep trying, but if they aren’t responding, I would try getting a referral from someone for a really good doctor that will listen to you and do something to help you.


  6. Sometime, the need for support doesn’t stop when the illness does. I have a friend and neighbour who has been grudgingly given a tentative diagnosis of sick sinus syndrome, after a couple of episodes of extreme arrhythmia and bradycardia (at one point she had a heart rate which was ranging from 38 beats per minute up to 80, sometimes within the same 2 minute period… while she was sitting in a chair on a hospital ward hooked up to a heart monitor).

    The medics are still considering what to do, but in the interim until they pull their collective fingers out she is meanwhile not allowed to drive (license taken away). Which is difficult because she needs to care for her parents, both of whom are in their late 80s and live 30 minutes’ drive away in a rural area with no public transport. She isn’t officially “sick” in a way which immediately limits her, but her life is a mess at the moment because of a lack of transportation. And likely to stay that way for many months until the medical profession sort her out.

    The other thing to bear in mind is the individual’s attitude to asking for or accepting help. This particular lady is very proud and has been used to being very independent and self reliant, and finds it very hard either to ask for help or to accept assistance when offered. Which does make it very difficult (but not impossible) for people trying to help!

    Sometimes both the helper and the recipient need to understand that they need to deal with the situation in a way which might be uncomfortable for one or both of them, in order for things to get better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paul – your story of your friend reminded me that there are now two homes that could use volunteer helpers. Her elderly parents need reliable support (not all of it necessarily from their daughter alone, but possibly from their church, home support or their other local resources) and your friend needs to reorganize her transportation options – and that means seeking help wherever she can get it, despite her distaste for asking for help.

      Sometimes, helping one can help the other. If your friend had a regular volunteer driver (see Andrea’s comment above for a one-person example that made a weekly difference in her life), she could visit her parents, but realistically she’d still have to come to terms with far fewer visits.

      This is a good example of how your friend’s reluctance to ask for/accept help can indeed make a mess worse, isn’t it?


  7. I think that the most important thing is to be sensitive to each person’s way of healing….what might be cheering and positive to one person can be downright annoying to another. When we give, it must be totally about the other person’s needs and not our own need to “do something”.

    I am a total leave me alone… I can’t handle the type of person (to a fault sometimes, I admit) .. When I am healing, I like to retreat into my cave and not be disturbed for a certain period of time. Over the years, my family has learned that I don’t like to be visited at hospitals and text – don’t call. But if I do need something, they are there.

    When I went from Denver to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for heart surgery, I tried to get away with going by myself… My daughter stepped in and said “No you’re not” and I’m glad she did. But again she did not insist on visiting every day…. who wants visitors when you are nauseous!?

    I have had hospital roommates look at me pitifully and say “Where’s your family?” And I think … they are lovingly staying away… and I so appreciate that!

    Know your friend well … and honor their needs for you to help or not help.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such an important point, Jill. In my book, I write about a surprise visitor back when I was barely home from the hospital, post-heart attack. I had not seen or heard from this woman in over 15 years (!) yet she was so shocked by my cardiac news that she insisted on coming over right away. She brought some nice gifts and a casserole as I recall, but then she settled in on the couch and spent the next few HOURS catching me up on everything that had been going on for her and each of her family members while I sank into my red recliner wishing fervently that she would just stop talking and go home. I wasn’t brave enough to tell her that I was too exhausted to visit right now (or ever). I felt SO relieved when she finally hauled herself off that couch and left!

      When my grown children arrived from out-of-town, our visiting routine changed instantly.

      My son Ben, for example, would allow impromptu visitors into the living room, but would not invite them to stay for tea, take off their coats, or even sit down. Under his watchful eye, they stood to chat for awhile, but then he’d step in to say, “Thanks for coming, I think my Mum has to rest up now…” Worked every time, people were very understanding, and I recall many many lovely recuperative naps back then.

      It’s wonderful to pitch in to “help” but as you said, it’s important that the type of “help” one person would expect of others if this were happening to them (and ironically that person is often thus bitterly hurt if that precise type of help goes missing!) would NOT be at all what’s appreciated by every other person!

      Yet another reason behind my (not universally accepted) personal opinion that hospital visiting hours should be ONLY for close family members. Hospital patients need to rest and recuperate quietly, not be expected to entertain casual acquaintances…


      1. I’m so glad they have built new hospitals with mostly private rooms. In a semi-private room I have had the two extremes… patients whooping it up and partying, and patients extremely ill requiring hourly round the clock attention…. Neither case allowed me to get the rest I needed.


        1. And this is why the majority of patients prefer private rooms when possible! But hospital administrators – who are the ones responsible for paying for hospital rooms – offer a number of reasons that semi-privates are “better” (better for whom?) e.g. private rooms require nurses to walk longer distances to attend to each patient, which might increase fatigue or cause nurses to hurry. Or that having a roommate can provide comfort, companionship, help and even security (e.g. if one patient falls unobserved by staff, the roommate can call for help).

          None of these excuses seem to top private room advantages however (your roomie’s visitors are just the tip of that iceberg!)


  8. My mom’s neurologist ran a 15 minute battery of neuro tests and informed us that mom had dementia, then passed me a pamphlet on dementia before leaving the office. My mom was shellshocked – that look of pure fear and sadness will be with me for all time.

    I looked at her and said…“Are you any different than you were an hour ago? The answer is no. So, nothing has changed for now. Let’s go grab coffee. You know that my brain is big enough to handle both of our lives – I am your portable hard-drive and I am not going to be anywhere but at your side.” She smiled and we went for coffee.

    When a person is sick or caring for a sick person, both are grieving the loss of good health.

    Do NOT call weekly for a 5 minute weekly sitrep to share details of your holiday and/or weekend plans, send death flowers (carnations, lillies), or to complain about work/your deadbeat landscaper/redecorating your house. Never, ever answer a call with a text that says, “Busy”. Answer your f-ing phone. Don’t give excuses that there is nothing you can do because you live far away. BS excuses make people angry.

    Look at your own life and daily activities. Stop and ask yourself how that other person functions when they are ill or caring for another – do they have the luxury of sitting down to dinner with their friends and family? How do they cut their lawn and pull their weeds? How do they get groceries, do their banking, and stand in the post office queue?

    Sick people are lonely and eating alone is terrible. A lot of lonely, sick people don’t eat well because of that. Providing a meal is helpful, but joining them for that meal and cleaning up is a luxury (maybe even wash the floor because it’s what you do at your own house, even if it’s not).

    Arrange for groceries to be delivered because ill people may not know how to use on-line ordering and need help. They may not know how to do it or even that the service exists, but you can place those orders.

    Offer to pay for a landscaper to cut their lawn and tidy their gardens until they feel better…. that offloads a lot of worry, so much more so than flowers.

    Offer to spend a week filling in for the caregiver and give him/her your vacation week in Hawaii (or wherever).

    Ask if they would like to run errands with you. Even if it’s just to sit together over a cup of coffee and chat.

    Helping is easy when you know how to do it and how NOT to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this, Anne. “Providing a meal is helpful, but joining them for that meal and cleaning up is a luxury” – that’s my very favourite thing in your very valuable list. I think it’s only when you or somebody you care about has suddenly been diagnosed with a life-altering condition that we truly GET “how to do it”.

      PS Every Monday, I go grocery shopping with my dear friend Gail (who became totally blind a few years ago after being diagnosed with a very rare drug toxicity reaction called Stevens Johnson Syndrome). Then after her groceries are loaded (with ice packs) into the trunk of my car, we walk over to Starbucks to have coffee together. It’s one of the highlights of my week – catching up, laughing, confiding over coffee – just like all longterm girlfriends do.

      I’ve learned so much about what it’s really like to suddenly lose one’s sight – and I’ve also learned to memorize the entire grocery store floor plan as vividly as Gail remembers it!


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