How to Help and Be Helped

This is a reprint from a blog post I wrote three years ago. I have been thinking about this as there are always people in need of help, and others who need and want to help. A book that stands out for me is one by Darlene Cohen called, Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach for Living with Physical and Emotional Pain. She describes her experience of being helped when she was very ill and required help with absolutely everything.

Being Helped

I found it draining to be helped by people whom I constantly had to reassure that they were doing enough, doing things the right way, seeing me often enough…How refreshing and soothing it was to be tended to by people who were able to approach me directly, without ideas about what they were doing for me… The two approaches produced a dramatically different impact on my energy level. …if you are suffering, the important relationships to you now are those that support the part of you that is vulnerable but struggling to deal realistically with a difficult situation… Now, you need people who are ready to support the aspect of you that must face catastrophe with courage and truth.

Don’t be afraid that you appear too needy to such friends. When you settle into your true grief, you are not wearing on people in the way that people are before they face their suffering…you are encouraging and inspiring to your friends. This is not the stiff upper lip behavior of the denier; this is grief and tears and agony, but it’s real. This difference is palpable to those who wish to comfort you.

Darlene Cohen makes me think of my experiences of helping and being helped and how confusing it all can seem. I recall my oncologist looking at me and saying, “Trudy this is not the time to be a stoic. I need you to ask for help, as soon as you need it. That is the best way for me to help you.”

Yet, as time went on, I found it hard to receive the help on offer. It was embarrassing. I wanted to continue to rise to every occasion and brush off the need for help. It still isn’t straight forward. Who wants to appear needy? This is a fear not just when we are ill but as we age.

Reading this book has been a nudge in two ways:

  • Seeing how important it is to be authentic, honest, present and vulnerable when I am in need of help.
  • When I offer help, seeing how important it is to be authentic, honest, present and vulnerable.

Not knowing is ok. Showing up wholeheartedly for whatever is going on is energizing even when it is exhausting. When I am the one helping I do not ever want it to be “a favour,” nor do I want to insist on “proper” expressions of appreciation. As a human these are slippery slopes. The gift of help needs to be a real gift in order for it not to become one more transaction.

We can’t do it alone in life and there is no need to do so. We are here to help and to be helped, don’t you think? This doesn’t imply that we can help everyone nor can everyone help us. But it does imply we do what we can with what we know, under our particular circumstances.

And even when we don’t get it right, in either capacity, we still have no reason to throw in the towel. Cohen’s book is a testament to the human spirit and a nudge to fully accept our capacity to keep on learning how to care for ourselves and each other.

We show up for each other, wholeheartedly, and we learn on the job by paying attention, as we live our lives.


Note 1:) Sadly, Darlene Cohen died in 2011 from cancer.  Her devotion to people living with chronic illness and her four books are a significant part of her legacy. I am grateful to meet her through her words. Another title for the book I referenced is Finding a Joyful Life in the Heart of Pain

Note 2:) When we need help and when we are helping it’s best to keep our expectations in check. It is easy to expect too much, in both directions. I think good enough is really good enough. It doesn’t represent carelessness. None of us is in top form all the time. Perfection is a myth and can be a serious hindrance to even trying. Let’s strive for being real and doing the best we can at that moment in time with what we know. And let’s accept the help we receive in the same light.

Note 3:) One other word about help. Let’s be thoughtful who we ask for help. Are they capable of doing what we need? Will we feel drained or nourished by their presence? Not everyone we love is able to fill everyone of our needs. Expectations again. Let’s have realistic ones about who we ask and what we ask for, and what we ourselves say yes too. It’s ok to decline a specific invitation to help but to suggest something else we can do instead. 

Note4:) The photos are from my walk this week, in my neighbourhood. May is such a beautiful month, and I hope you get to enjoy it. Thank you for showing up here and reading my blog. Warmest wishes, Trudy


8 replies
  1. Jean
    Jean says:

    Thanks for this blog,TRudy.always feel like you are speaking to are beautiful Calgary is still more brown than green but there are tulips are still beautiful. See you Friday at noon.

  2. Janice
    Janice says:

    So glad you have shared this Trudy. Cohen’s Living a Joyful Life was my introduction to living with chronic pain and it changed my world. Such good advice you offer about how to help others and allow ourselves to be helped, equally challenging. Love your photos, I’ve borrowed one of your spring ones for my own blog, with deep thanks as always. love Jan

  3. Judy Bernstein
    Judy Bernstein says:

    You have touched on such a challenging topic, Trudy, giving and receiving help.
    Sometimes I think we all need an entire course about this. You have mastered the giving Trudy and Meghan confirms it! 💕

  4. Sabine
    Sabine says:

    Trudy, how great – as I am having my parents in the house for one year now, your blog brings new inspiration and insights:-) Thank you so much!


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