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When my second child came into this world much earlier than expected, my family was plunged into crisis. The baby, born at only 29 weeks, lived in the hospital for months with health issues that kept us on the NICU roller-coaster ride while my husband and I struggled with work, taking care of our 4-year-old, spending time with the baby at the hospital and trying not to be crushed under the pressure of it all. But we got crushed daily.
I’d been very lucky up until that point in my life, mostly experiencing family crisis from the other side —saying, “What can I do to help?” to others when family members passed away or loved ones were in car accidents or suffered serious illnesses. Most people answered my polite question with one word: nothing.
But having been on the other side, I now know that there are some things you can do without even asking that can be so meaningful and helpful to a family (or a person) in crisis.
Don’t give them a chance to answer “nothing” when you ask. Here are four things you can just do.
1. Provide food.
I’m from the South and this is what we do. Our first reaction to bad news (and good news) is to start making a casserole. You might think the family will be overwhelmed with frozen lasagnas but I can assure you that we were grateful for every single bite of food provided to us. When it was time to eat dinner, you can bet we hadn’t had a single second to think about that meal before that very moment. We rarely had groceries; we never had anything prepared. Do check in about food allergies first.
2. Run errands.
One of my incredibly sweet neighbors texted me almost every time she went to the grocery store. “Do you need anything?” I still remember crying one day after getting her message. I needed everything, but just bread and strawberries would get me through that day — and that translated to an extra 45 minutes with my baby at the hospital. Another mother at my older son’s preschool bought his school supplies without even asking. I just got a text from her saying, “I got your school supplies. Take it off your list.” These are the gestures you never forget.
3. Provide childcare.
During a crisis, there are often so many needs to be met and one of the biggest can be finding someone to take care of children while you take care of others. My husband had to be at work and I desperately needed to be cloned in order to take care of my 4-year-old son at home and be with my newborn preemie in the NICU at the same time. With no family in town, we needed childcare all the time. We had friends without whom we wouldn’t have made it. We could’ve used a lot more.
4. Remember that when things quiet down, it doesn’t mean the crisis is over.
When our baby was born, we heard from a lot of people who wanted to help. But after a few weeks, the offers were few. He was in the NICU for 2 1/2 months and many health issues remained for a year even after he came home. Those who remembered us after those first few weeks and stepped in to help were so very appreciated. Even those who simply sent messages made a difference. Make a note on your calendar to check back in with someone one month from today.
Family crises are happening around us all the time. What my experience taught me: Don’t ask, just do. A simple gesture that won’t take that much time or effort might just make an enormous difference to someone right now. Just do it.
Suzanne Fleet is the writer behind the award-winning blog Toulouse & Tonic and mom to two stinky boys. She’s been published in print and around the web and is writing her own book of essays about handling the hardest, most unexpected parts of motherhood with humor and perspective.