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November 11, 2010

Is there anything I can do to help?

A few years ago, a friend's mother died. She was not just the mom of a friend, though, but a sweet, kind old woman who I had dinner with a handful of times, during a summer I spent in Seattle.

When she died, I froze. I waited a few days, to give my friend some space. They were so close, and they'd spent so much time together near the end; and we weren't such tight friends that I felt it would be right to call immediately. She was surely talking with family and her closest friends, making arrangements, mourning.

I waited another day or two, remembering how little I wanted to hear from others in the weeks after my grandmother died. Every time they offered their sympathies on the phone I started crying again.

And then, I started worrying: "Days have passed and I haven't called or said anything. Email is cold. A phone call is too invasive. The best thing to do, now, would be to send a card."

I bought a card, and then I looked at it for a long time.

I didn't know what to say.

I still haven't sent that card.

I have never forgiven myself for that.

Today, thanks to the kindness and wisdom of those around me in this difficult week, I know what to say, next time someone has a trying experience, falls ill, or dies:

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

My dad is doing a lot better. We're hoping he'll come home in a few days, and I am grateful for every minute that I still have both parents on this earth. Thank you for your stories and encouraging words. I read them and reread them at dark moments and they gave me hope. Thank you.

This whole week, I've gotten phone calls, texts and emails from people who shared similar stories and asked a version of this question.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

It was so good to know people from the west coast to Eastern Europe were thinking about him and offering support. I didn't feel people were imposing or bothering me -- as I had worried my friend might feel, if I called. I didn't find the emails impersonal or not "meaningful" enough given the severity of the situation. Every new message from someone who cared was a caress.

And now I know what to say, next time something sad happens to someone whose pain I could alleviate.

"Let me share a story with you. And is there anything I can do to help?"

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