How To Help When You Don’t Know What To Do

Female Teen Hands Holding Burning Candle

A young girl in our community died this week in a tragic and horrifying boating accident.  The Andersons are on a family vacation, they went water skiing together as a family, and then their day went horribly wrong. Their anguish has only begun, as they navigate the journey home, now broken in every single way.  Their story is unfolding nationwide, but they belong to us. They will come home to us. And as a community, we are broken-hearted.

Some of you have written to me, asking me to write in response to the sadness that overwhelms, asking me to speak into what we can do to help.

To all of us who are helpless but want to help, wordless but want to speak, and stumbling over our own questions and unanswers, I give you what I know.

How To Help When You Don’t Know What To Do

There are so many reasons to help and ways to dive in. As you decide how to help, try to identify why you want to help. Is it because you know this family well, you see a need, and you can fill it? Or is it because you feel overwhelming compassion—perhaps even a sense of guilt that your life hasn’t fallen to pieces—and you simply must-must-must respond in a tangible way?

There is a difference between wanting to give to the one who is heartbroken, and wanting to give because your heart has broken. The motives are thinly veiled, and there is grace and space for both.

If you are giving to the heartbroken then just do. Don’t say, “Let us know if there’s anything you need.”  Please, just step in. Don’t wait. It will mean the world.

If you are giving because you are heartbroken on their behalf, but you are not close enough to know what to do, then give in a spacious way: gift cards, notes, surprise gifts. It will mean the world.

If you don’t know what to say, simply say, “I’m so sorry.” Or even better, “I am so sad for you.” Don’t try to explain or offer a lofty word. There is no explanation, so free yourself from trying to find one.  Please don’t speak for God or speculate on what he has in mind. The truth is, you don’t know.  We only know he is near to the broken hearted, he is close to those who are crushed in spirit.  Let him do what he does.

In my darkest valley, I personally needed acknowledgement that nothing was normal anymore; that everything has changed for me. I have needed a “free pass” from anything and everything on anyone’s calendar. For a long time, I was not able to step into what was, sit at a table where Robb would have been, attend a party where he would have been a guest.  I could not return phone calls or emails.  I could not have anyone need from me.

Perhaps the best thing you can do is to be present and patient. When–and if—the wounded are ready to begin the journey of uncovering the tragedy, they may remember you were one who was present and patient. And they may trust you.

This journey brings along a monster named Burden. He whispers dark secrets that make the wounded think they’re exhausting you and your resources. If you can give without waiting for a wish list, you can slay that dragon for the wounded and brokenhearted.

They may not know what they need, but they usually know what they don’t want. Respect the word “no.”

If you are one of the many wounded, who are stuck in the in-between, third culture of grief, please let me tell you what I have learned. The rules have changed.

If you are hurting, if you need help, say it. Others don’t know what you need, but so many want to help. If you know what you need, say it. And if you know what you don’t want, say it. Be honest, and don’t let pride exhaust you. Save that energy for getting out of bed in the morning.

Be alone as long as you want, as much as you want. Isolation is normal, I have definitely learned. In other centuries and cultures, those with a broken heart and a ruptured world have been sent to live in seclusion for as long as they needed. Allow yourself the freedom to clear the calendar, to say no, to be alone.

Check your mailbox. And on the day the mailbox is empty, don’t be deceived: It doesn’t mean the world has forgotten about you or the one you love.

Give yourself a break on the thank-you notes. All the rules are different now, even the formalities of courtesy.

You can’t always predict an emotional toll. What you fear with all your heart may come more easily than you expected. What you thought you could conquer may bring you to your knees. Go easy on yourself. Go to a party if you want, and leave five minutes later if you must. If laughter finds you, pull up a chair and invite her to stay. Don’t worry about what others might think—tell them you’re taking the day off from sadness.

And remember, healing comes in telling the story a thousand times.  Tell your story to someone today.  And if you’re strong enough, tell it again tomorrow.


Today, I grieve for my friends who navigate unspeakable anguish.  It’s hardest to be the one left behind.

May we love you well.

* * *

God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort.
He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others.
When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Tricia Lott Williford

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  1. What a thought provoking view on life’s difficult circumstances. I appreciated your explanation of the person being heart broken or being heart broken for someone else. Thanks

  2. Tricia. So funny that I should come across you in this format. I am one of the people grieving from a distance for this family I have never met, but who’s daughter was in Mid Point with my daughter. I was curious about you from your message above and then I went and read your story. We have a scarily similar past and now I believe we might go to the same church. I would love to connect with you as a fellow young widow and church friend.

    I can tell by your words and advice that you have walked the same path of widowhood and grief that I have and you are very eloquent (and spot on) in your ability to give good advice to those struggling!

  3. Tricia, your words are beautiful. I found myself remarking out loud as I read your words of wisdom. I came back to your post in order to take notes. Your counsel will serve as a resource to find the next right step when I find myself in a swirl of grief emotions. May God sustain you as you support your friends and community members.

  4. Thank you for your wise words. My son has been in school with Zoe since Kindergarten he is feeling all the feels right now. I adore the family, but not close enough to feel like I can do much. Your wisdom helps me feel less helpless in my walk alongside them. xoxo

  5. Please know that there are believers throughout New England and the country praying for this shattered family. And praying for you, the community that they return to, as you minister to them. Love them well and thanks for your special ministry of healing the broken hearted Tricia.

  6. So much truth.

    6 years ago I lost my son just days before his 30th birthday. In January of this year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I finally learned to ask for what I need and say what I don’t. I would say to those mourning, the best thing you can do for yourself and others is say what you need, say what doesn’t work for you and say if you don’t know what you need or want. It is hard, we aren’t naturally wired that way. It is not selfish, it is a great help to those who want to help.

    My heart goes out to this family and will pray for them.

  7. Tricia, I was widowed, suddenly, a little over six years ago. These words today are the best I’ve read about both the grief and about what folks can and should, or should not do. With your permission, I will share with friends, family and church leaders. Eloquent, compassionate and healing. Thank you.

  8. Tricia
    What a timely post. I just received news today that a family member will be facing some major life altering changes to his health. I was praying for wisdom and guidance to offer help.
    Thank you! May God continue to use your testimony .

  9. Tricia, your finest moment of writing. I’m seven years down the road, and you took me back and said what I would’ve said if I had your gift for capturing emotions and matching them with the perfect words.

  10. So well said, Tricia. Wishing comfort and peace to your friends and to all those who love them and their daughter.

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