How She Serves
Art by Abigale Palmer (abigalepalmer.com)
Marjean’s mom died in a car accident when she was six-months pregnant with her first child. She had just moved across town so she didn’t know anyone yet. Susan, a woman she knew only casually because their husbands worked together, heard about her mother and came right over so she wouldn’t be alone while packing for the funeral. After that, Susan checked on her weekly and helped Marjean through the rest of her pregnancy. She made baby quilts, threw her a baby shower, and helped her through those first difficult weeks of breastfeeding and caring for her new baby. She became a sister, mother, and closest friend to Marjean during that hardest time in her life.
We all want to help and serve others—to be somebody’s Susan—but sometimes it’s hard to figure out what would be most helpful. A few years ago, after my friend Gina delivered a stillborn baby, her son James, she wrote a beautiful blog post about how people helped her during that time (she let me repost it here.) There were so many things on her list that I had never thought of. Since then, I’ve always wanted to compile a good list of ideas for other specific hardships that people go through, to give me ideas of how best to help.
Thanks to my fabulous readers and contributors, I have collected many beautiful stories and examples of how we can serve each other as mothers, friends, and fellow human beings. I’ll keep adding to this collection as I hear more great examples, so please, send me any ideas you have while reading!
General Service Ideas
Some types of service are helpful no matter what specific hardship someone is facing—or even for no reason at all:
Offer to babysit. My friend Adrianne always seems to know when I need help with childcare. She often offers to watch my kids when I’m packing or unpacking from a trip, or if I just have a busy week.
Bring a meal. After Cassie had a miscarriage, one friend showed up at her house with a rotisserie chicken, others brought entire meals, and one friend who lived across the country had a meal delivered to her house. Gift cards to restaurants are another great way to provide a meal for someone in need.
Sit and talk. Many illnesses or hardships such as divorce or loss of a loved one can be very lonely. Talking and listening to your friend may be the most helpful thing you can do.
Hugs. It may sound cheesy, but sometimes people need good old-fashioned physical contact.
Coordinate service. Sometimes when you need help and have many willing friends, coordinating the helpers becomes a job in itself. Taking this off someone’s plate can be a huge favor. For example, when Danielle was moving, her friend Kelsey, who lives 300 miles away wanted to help. So she organized some mutual friends to help watch Danielle’s kids and help her clean and pack for the whole week of the move.
Pack school lunches. When Amber had a miscarriage, a friend packed her kids school lunches for three weeks.
Make freezer meals. Especially for long-term hardships, such as recovery from surgery or chronic illness it can be nice to have ready-made solutions that you can pull out any time. And it doesn’t have to be just dinners. Breakfast burritos and muffins freeze great for breakfasts.
Bring snacks. Brittney, who blogs at homegrowntraditions.com, likes to provide healthy snacks, such as veggies and dip and protein balls, for friends who’ve just had a baby or are going through any other hardship. “Having things to grab and go when you’re hungry, but don’t have the energy to be in the kitchen is hugely helpful,” she says.
Help with fun stuff too. When Emily lost a baby right before Christmas, her friends stepped in to help her kids make Christmas cookies and celebrate the holiday in other ways that she wasn’t up to.
Clean up. Since this can be a very personal thing, people may or may not want to be served in this way, so you have to read the situation well. But sometimes this is just what someone needs. When Cassie was sick and pregnant, a friend showed up at her house with her daughters and a few cleaning caddies and announced that they were there to clean her bathroom. After some initial embarrassment, she was so grateful for the clean bathrooms.
Help with yard work. A less personal option than cleaning inside is cleaning up outside. Sarah likes to go over and mow people’s lawns when she knows they need it.
Encourage and support her dreams. Heather’s friend watched her kids once a week in the evening for a year and a half while she took night classes to finish her degree. I wouldn’t be writing this post at all if my friend Molly hadn’t encouraged me to start my blog. She frequently watches my three-year-old while I write, attends my events, and is a tireless sounding board for my ideas.
Service During Pregnancy
From the early puky stages to the exhaustion of the end, when you can’t sleep or bend over, pregnancy is just hard. Here are some great ways you can help:
Scrub bathrooms, clean the refrigerator, go grocery shopping, or anything else that involves strong smells. Kelli likes to ask people to send her their grocery list when she’s about to go shopping, rather than asking if there’s anything she can pick up for them. She finds that this approach makes it easier for friends to accept her offer.
Offer to babysit other kids during all those doctor appointments. Jenn had a lovely friend who did this for her throughout her whole pregnancy. When she picked them up after an appointment, her friend would ask when her next appointment was and put it in her calendar.
Make a morning-sickness care package. Each of the four times Hayley has been pregnant, her friend Jackie has sent her a package with Gatorade, ginger ale, Preggy Pops, and crackers.
Volunteer to watch kids and bring meals before the baby is born. Often we do these things after the baby is born but forget how hard those last few weeks of pregnancy are and how much you have on your to-do list at that time.
Help with household tasks that require bending. Allie’s mom gave her one-year-old a bath every other night for the last two months of her pregnancy when it was so hard to bend over and crouch down.
Keep her company. When Heather went over her due date her friends set up lunch dates with her to distract her while she waited.
Pamper her. Mauri’s friend took her to get a prenatal massage and to lunch two weeks before she had her baby.
Delivery and New Baby
Once the baby comes, there are a whole new set of needs. That tiny being takes so much care and attention that helping a friend take care of their other responsibilities is often the most useful thing you can do. Here are some ideas:
Give breastfeeding care packages. Sarah likes to give her friends nursing care packages with snacks, magazines or books, a water bottle and lanolin.
Offer your company and support. When Lindsey went into labor at 34 weeks and her husband was out of town, her friends took turns staying with her at the hospital and watching her kids.
Give rides to other kids. After I had my last baby, my friend Lori drove my kindergartner to school every day for a whole year, no strings attached.
Hire help. This does not have to be expensive. Candi’s mom hired a teenage girl to come weekly to play with her older kids so she could sit and hold the baby in peace. My friends pooled their money and gave me four hours of house cleaning as a baby shower gift.
Hold the baby. This is perhaps the most fun way to serve a new mom. Cassie had a colicky baby who wanted to be held all the time, so she couldn’t get anything done. A friend came over one day and held her baby for three hours while Cassie cleaned the house.
Loss of a Baby
Amber lost a baby right as she and her family were moving. Her friends from church came and unpacked her new home, made beds, hung pictures, decorated for the upcoming holiday, and filled her home with life and love.
Other ways you can help:
Cry with her. You don’t have to be stoic and strong for your friend. Molly appreciated friends who shared their own stories of losing babies and who cried with her.
Listen to her story. Amber says, “I know we all have different personalities and needs, but for me people talking to me about it and listening to the story, allowing me to share, has meant a lot. Realize that though time passes and new babies come, the grief remains, and don’t expect someone who has lost to get over it.”
Give live plants, not cut flowers. Amber and Joy both mentioned how nice it was to have flowers that kept on living after their miscarriages.
Remember the baby’s name. Several mothers have mentioned how nice it has been to have friends speak of their babies by name even long after their deaths.
Visit the grave. Both Amber and Gina were so grateful for friends who would visit their babies’ graves after they moved away from the city where their children were buried. Amber’s friend brought flowers to her daughter’s grave on the anniversary of her passing.
Take care of the other kids. One of Sarah’s miscarriages was an emergency in the middle of the night. Her friend came and slept on her couch and took care of her kids while she and her husband went to the hospital and then took care of the kids for several days afterwards.
Give meaningful mementos. A friend brought Sarah a special Christmas ornament to commemorate her baby. Joy’s friend gave her a wind chime that became a comforting reminder of her baby. Kelli felt inspired to buy a white blanket for a new friend who delivered a stillborn baby, even though she didn’t know her well. It ended up being the blanket the baby was buried in.
Do service in the baby’s name. Laurel does service every day of the month of October to honor the son she lost and invites all of her friends to participate.
Remember her on significant dates. Several mothers I talked to appreciated receiving notes and phone calls on the anniversaries of their babies’ deaths. An anonymous friend brought Joy a beautiful planter the Mother’s Day after she lost her first baby.
Specific types of illness require different kinds of help, obviously. Many of the general service ideas such as watching kids and helping with cleaning are very applicable, but here are a couple of specific case studies to get you thinking:
Keep them company. Kara had surgery on her feet and couldn’t walk for four months. Friends brought dinner, cleaned her house, but most importantly came to visit. She was lonely, since she couldn’t go out anywhere, so she loved to just sit and talk. No gifts necessary.
Plan an outing. Sometimes a friend who is depressed, lonely, or just going through something hard just needs to get out of the house. Every time Nicole goes to Costco, she picks up a friend who is struggling with depression and brings her along. They enjoy the time together and it helps her friend feel better to get out of the house. My grandmother’s friend Laurel has helped her through the grief of losing my grandpa by picking her up and taking her to senior citizen events.
After years of struggling with her husband’s alcoholism, Emily became so depressed that it was hard for her to get out of bed. When her friend Louise found out, she began texting her every morning with positive messages: “It’s a beautiful day!” or “You can do it!”or “I love you.” She also gave her a “Little Bag of Sunshine” filled with yellow things like yellow candy, yellow markers, and inspiring quotes. Even though Emily is doing much better now, Louise still texts weekly quotes.
When Kara moved, friends watched her kids, picked them up from preschool, brought dinner, invited her family to dinner (no mess!), gave rides to and from school, offered a place to stay during showings, brought road trip gifts and treats, and sent cards, letters, and texts. Her son’s teacher and his whole class even Facetimed with her son to see how his move went and tell him they missed him. “It hasn’t mattered how big or small the expressions of love and concern have been, but just feeling that support that comes from knowing we have people is what has carried the most,” Kara says.
Families need help on the other end of the move as well. Here are some ideas:
Bring simple food. Kelli brings pizza to neighbors when she sees the moving truck. It’s a great way to break the ice, and does not require that they find their dishes. In the same vein, Sarah likes to bring muffins for an easy, hand-held breakfast.
Provide basic supplies. Heading to the store to buy the basics is often overlooked in the details of a move. Kara brings new neighbors a welcome gift of toilet paper, paper towels, and other supplies. Liz brings paper plates, napkins, utensils and cups so they don’t have to figure out dishes.
Introduce them to other neighbors. Van made her new neighbors a name chart with everyone’s first and last names and which house they live in in the cul-de-sac, pets included.
Loss of a Loved One
After my grandpa passed away this Spring, my grandma received lots of conflicting advice from well-meaning friends. “Get rid of all of his things quickly,” said one. “Take your time getting rid of his things, so you can remember him,” advised another. But the best advice was from her friend Glenna, who said, “You do whatever you damn well please. If you want to kick the cat, kick the cat.”
When Heidi’s dad died, her grandma told her to let her children see her cry. It helped them all to process their grief. She also appreciated friends who took the time to listen and talk to her about her dad. Rachel loved receiving notes that shared specific memories about her mother.
The story I told about Marjean and Susan in the introduction didn’t end there. Several years later, while she still had young children at home, Susan died tragically in a plane crash. Marjean and her family rushed to Susan’s grieving family and helped them in every way they could. Marjean brought them meals, had the children over often, and helped them with milestones like getting ready for school dances. When Marjean moved to Germany, one of Susan’s sons even came over for a month-long visit. The beautiful relationship these two women shared shows the power of service to changes the lives of both the person being served and the one who serves.