How to ask for help when chronic pain or illness strikes

How many times have you said to a friend or relative in need, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” and when you didn’t hear back, fail to follow-up? I’ve lost count of the number of times I did just that—fail to follow-up when I didn’t hear back from someone in need, even though I would have been happy to help in any way I could.

Yet, despite this pattern in my own behavior, when I became chronically ill and didn’t get back to people who offered to help, I decided that, because they failed to follow-up, their offers weren’t sincere.

I learned otherwise quite by chance. A friend came to visit and showed me an exquisite handmade dress she’d just bought for her granddaughter at a local boutique. When I told her how much I loved it, she asked if I’d like to get one for my granddaughter. I said “sure,” and before I could get “but I’m not able to go shopping” out of my mouth, she was out the door.

She returned shortly with the dress in two sizes for me to choose from. I picked one, wrote her a check and, when she left to go home, she took the one I didn’t want back to the boutique. That made three trips for her to the same store that day.

When I got sick, was she one of the people who had said, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help”? Yes. But I’d never asked her to do anything. On that day, however, I saw in her face that going to get that dress was a gift from me to her. She can’t restore my health, but she can buy a dress for me to give to my granddaughter, and doing it made her feel terrific.

Here’s what I’ve learned about people who offer to help:

1. They’re sincere in their offer: they mean it.

2. The responsibility falls on me, not on them, to follow-up.

3. The best way to take them up on their offer is to give them a specific task to do.

Numbers 1 and 2 are consistent with my experience when I was in a position to help others: I meant it but I rarely followed-up, sometimes because I got distracted and sometimes because I thought I might be bothering them.

As for number 3, friends and relatives aren’t mind readers. We need to tell them what to do. This is what I learned from the “dress episode” with my friend.

And, the more specific the request, the better. “Can you help with my laundry every other week?” is more likely to be successful as a request than, “Can you help with my laundry sometimes?” even though your friend or relative is likely to say “yes” to both requests. The use of the word “sometimes” in the second request is likely to be a “set-up” for that lack of follow-up that we’ll erroneously take as lack of sincerity on their part.

Many of us don’t like to ask for help. We may have been taught that it’s a sign of weakness, so we cling to the notion, “I can do everything myself,” even if it’s no longer the case.

I suggest you practice asking for help. Think of it as an experiment:

1. Make a list of what you need help with: particular errands, the laundry, some cooking, walking the dog, changing a light bulb, maybe even a shoulder to cry on.

2. Write down the names of friends and relatives who have offered to help, even if their offer was made quite awhile ago.

3. Match people with tasks based on their interests, their strengths, their time flexibility and your comfort level with them, given the intimacy of the particular task. A young neighbor may enjoy cooking for you once a week. I read about a woman who gets cooking help from a 10 year-old neighbor who has earned her Girl Scout cooking badge. We have a 12 year-old dog walker in our neighborhood.

4. Pick just one thing off the list and contact the person you’ve chosen. Be direct—no passive-aggressive pleas for help allowed! So, instead of saying, “If I only knew someone who could pick up a prescription for me,” ask outright: “Can you pick up a prescription for me? I’m not well enough to go out.”

The odds are high that the person you’ve called or emailed will be thrilled to be asked to help. Remember: it’s your gift to them; it gives them a way to not feel helpless in the face of your health challenges. If you strike out, take a deep breath and try again. Even million dollar baseball players get more than one strike!

Two final thoughts.

First, it’s odd that we think we’re placing a burden on people if we ask them to do something for us even though, if we did the very same thing for them, we wouldn’t consider it a burden. On the contrary, it would make us feel good to know our friend respects us enough to seek our help.

Second, if you feel unworthy of being helped by others, remind yourself of all the times when people were helpful to you. Obviously, they didn’t think you were unworthy. Use those memories as a starting point for changing your self-critical thinking.

Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. She is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their CaregiversHer forthcoming book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. She can be found online at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Anonymous

    Absolutely bang-on suggestions here, Toni – thanks for reminding us to be very specific in the type of help we need, and then to be willing to accept the help offered.  Love your grandchild’s dress story, for example. 

    After surviving a heart attack three years ago, although I appreciated the avalanche of get well cards, flowers and (BRIEF!) visits from family and friends, the most genuinely helpful were those who phoned during the early weeks and months of recuperation and said things like: “I’m at the grocery store – what can I pick up for you while I’m here?”  (I wrote more on this at “You Look Great! And Other Things You Should Never Say to Heart Patients” at )  Because I was hospitalized in May (peak season for planting summer annuals in the garden), I was also thrilled when friends offered to shop for bedding plants and then plant them up for me. Another friend popped over to wash the car (inside and out) even before I was cleared to drive again. A neighbour once announced: “I have a day off on Friday so I’m bringing over your dinner – which would you prefer, chicken or fish?”

    I found that the LEAST helpful comment was this perennial “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you…” because, let’s face it, I was NOT going to call them back and ask them to come over to change the kitty litter. That was just not going to happen.

    • Toni Bernhard

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I love your concrete examples of what friends said who were being helpful and what friends said who (no doubt with the best intentions) were not being helpful. I write more about this in my book — how it’s hard for people in chronic pain or with chronic illness to ask for help sometimes because we feel guilty that we’re not the picture of good health (the picture that’s incessantly painted for us in all those TV ads!). Warmest wishes, Toni

  • Patient Commando

    Here’s where I think you really hit the mark, “it gives them a way to not feel helpless in the face of your health challenges”.  
    Let’s face it, “healthy” people for the most part have no idea how to communicate with the chronically ill, with the terminally ill, or with those grieving. Somewhere along the line the education system has left out training in this department. People are awkward, don’t know what to say and often rely on cliches because they don’t have anything else to say. And somehow just being silent and listening is an uncomfortable state of mind.
    After 30 years of living with a chronic illness, I’ve simply come to the understanding that chronic illness is a natural part of a healthy life. And just as I would help a child learn how to ride a bike if I still had the strength to do it, I’m fully capable of helping healthy people, and in particular young people learn  (a) not to feel bad that I’m feeling awful, and (b) to speak honestly and openly without fear or judgement and (c) that a moment of silence can be a comfort and not a terror.
    The stigma associated with illness as expressed in our society is a barrier to honest communication. Chronically ill patients can liberate themselves, their loved ones and their friends by giving everyone permission to speak and ask questions with openness and acceptance.
    Zal Press

    • Toni Bernhard

      Thanks, Patient Commando, for a comment that is so full of wisdom. I love what you say: being ill is a natural part of a healthy life. It’s a major theme of my book, “How to Be Sick,” — that we live in bodies and bodies are subject to illness and injury…and growing old. I learned a lot from your comment. Thanks again. Warmly, Toni

Most Popular