I was walking home from getting the mail with my two kids when one of my neighbors in the Relief Society presidency drove by and pulled over to talk to me. She knew my youngest had recently been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and she wanted to know how I was doing and if there was anything that we needed.
That day, I remember being physically and emotionally exhausted. I had barely managed to make it out of the house for our short excursion to the mailboxes at the end of the street. Her offer was kind and I wanted to accept it, but all that came out of my mouth was, “I think we are slowly figuring things out, thanks!”
She pressed again, letting me know that the presidency would be meeting that night and it would be the perfect time to let them know of anything we needed.
We didn’t need any more meals then, and I felt overwhelmed thinking of ways that others could help me, especially when I wasn’t actually incapable of doing physical tasks, so I simply responded, “It’s mostly a mental load right now, thanks.” We talked for a few more minutes before she reminded me to let her know if I thought of anything the Relief Society could do to help.
As I walked home, I thought about why I hadn’t known what to say. I wanted to accept help when I needed it and give people opportunities to serve, so what had happened? The answer started to come with a reminder of a surprisingly similar set of experiences I had been through many years earlier: dating.
Whenever a guy asked me on a date where dinner was involved, he would usually also ask where I would like to eat. Such an open-ended question often left me a little stressed because I wanted to be considerate of their time and resources, and I had no idea what those were, especially if it was a first date.
Unless they told me their limitations, I had no idea their budget for the date or what kind of food they might also enjoy. It was always such a relief when they would give me three or four options of places we could go before inviting me to pick the final destination. I didn’t feel guilty or uncertain about choosing a restaurant that they had suggested because I trusted that they were only giving me options that would work for them.
My interaction with my neighbor prompted some of the same worries I felt when I was asked that open-ended “Where do you want to eat?” question. I wanted to be considerate of her time and resources while accepting her gracious offer of help, but because I didn’t know what they were, declining her offer was the easier option.
Thinking about treating service like accepting a date not only helped me understand my own struggles with receiving service but has since changed the way that I try to minister and serve. Here are a couple of examples.
“Let Me Know If You Need Anything”
The sentence above is perhaps one of the most contested service-related phrases. Is it actually helpful? Is it better than not saying anything at all?
While there are situations where this phrase is sincere and useful, if you know what someone is struggling with and can offer specific or less common ways to help, it can go a long way.
For example, when my niece was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, one of my sister’s neighbors brought over a fun backpack that could be used for carrying diabetes supplies on the go. It wasn’t a big thing, but when my sister shared this story with me, I was touched that someone took the time to understand one of her new potential needs and act on it.
I have recently tried to apply this same research-oriented service to my own ministering efforts. When I learned one of my ministering sisters was in the hospital, I tried to think of things from my own experience and knowledge of this sister’s interests that could be helpful and that I was capable of doing, such as sending a puzzle to pass the time, ordering dinner in for her family, or helping watch her kids so her husband could be at the hospital with her. Even though dinner was what they ended up needing the most, the process of coming up with ways I could serve helped me feel more sincere and capable.
Like trying to pick a restaurant when you don’t know anything about the person who asked you out, identifying a way that someone can help you when you don’t know their limitations or level of willingness can be tricky. After all, even if you could use some help, you don’t want to take advantage of anyone’s offer and ask for help with something bigger than they are actually able to do, which means it is often easier to say, “I’ll let you know!” and let it go.
That’s not to say that there aren’t appropriate times to use “Let me know how I can help,” such as with an established friend who you know will reach out or when you are learning about a challenge at the moment and haven’t had time to research or brainstorm.
But by giving specific ways that you are willing to help, you take two weights off the receiver: the weight of determining what they need help with and the weight of not knowing your limitations.
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Change the Question
To continue our dating analogy, I have a food allergy. While suggesting different food options is wonderful, I feel even more considered when the person asks me about any food restrictions they should be aware of before they suggest places.
Similarly, it is good to offer specific kinds of service, but sometimes there might be concerns or problems we are unaware of.
One question we could try instead of asking what we can do to help is, “What is the hardest thing for you right now?” When you are in the middle of a challenge, it is much easier to identify what is hard than what help you could use, and knowing what you are struggling with can help the person offering the service understand what kind of support is most needed.
A perfect example of this was when one of my neighbor friends texted me to see how I was doing after my son’s diabetes diagnosis and if I needed anything. When I said something about how we were doing okay, just spending a lot of time learning to count carbs for each meal, she responded by offering to bring us a meal with the carbs pre-counted.
A few days later, she came to our doorstep with a wonderful meal and cookies—along with a paper listing each item, their ingredients, and the carbs per serving. That extra step immensely simplified our lives that night, and I was touched that this friend didn’t just see my challenge; she found a beautiful (and delicious!) way to address it.
Asking this question might allow someone to share the mental load of numerous challenges and provide service opportunities that you might not normally see or think of.
The Little Things Count
When someone asked me on a date, it didn’t matter if we were eating somewhere expensive and fancy or just grabbing hamburgers at a local fast-food joint. Similarly, the expense or amount of time our efforts take doesn’t make a difference to the person being served.
After our son’s diagnosis, I had so many ward members reach out and ask how they could help. We were (gratefully) swimming in meals and other traditional ways of receiving service, and I didn’t know what to tell a few people who asked if we needed any help. I ended up telling them we were okay but that I’d let them know if I thought of anything.
Not long after, I started making a list of things I would need to do and the supplies we needed to manage this new disease. One of those items was a sharps container—any thick, empty household container with a childproof lid would do.
So even though it seemed silly, I decided to ask a few people who had offered help if they had an empty container we could use. Within one hour, one of these sweet sisters left a newly purchased sharps container and a container from her home at my doorstep. It was such a little thing, but I was so touched and grateful that someone took that small query for help so seriously.
No matter how small your capacity to help, the person you serve will appreciate any thoughtful gesture.
Pay it Forward
There have been two times in particular in my life where I have been overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of others to my family in a challenging situation. In those trials, it was hard to accept help when my husband and I were so used to being the ones to serve others.
Both times that we started to feel guilty because we felt there were probably other people who needed this help more than we did, we instead resolved to be grateful for the kindness shown to our family. We made a commitment to return it whenever the chance arose.
Each time someone in our ward or neighborhood has needed help, especially with a similar challenge to one we experienced, we remember the times we have been receivers and make an extra effort to donate our time or resources in a similar way.
For example, when I learned that a new mom in our ward was feeling overwhelmed trying to learn her baby’s needs and schedule, I immediately remembered a generous friend who surprised me by showing up at my door with dozens of bags of groceries when I was an overwhelmed new mom. I remembered how much that small act helped me, and I was excited to be able to do something similar for someone else.
We are all God’s children, and He wants to bless all of us. We can show Him we love Him by loving and taking care of His children in ways both large and small.
And while we all have seasons of life where we are bigger givers and seasons where we are bigger receivers, I hope that no matter how you choose to serve or receive support, you will find the same joy in it that I do.