How can I help? The question often takes two forms. If it is coming from a caregiver, they are asking, “How can I help the person in my care?” If the question is coming from someone who knows a caregiver, they are asking, “How can I help the caregiver I know?” I am asked many variations of this question fairly often. Depending on where my thoughts are in the moment, my answer takes different forms–some better than others.
It is common to think there are many different methods to help, depending on the situation. In truth, at the very heart, there is only one way to help best. There is only one answer to “How can I help?”
If you see someone struggling and hurting, the best thing you can do is come close. You cannot help well from a distance, removed from the situation. You must come close in order for every other good thing to flow out from that. This isn’t easy. Coming close to the hurting costs us much. But it is the best way to give the most profound help, and it is worth the sacrifice.
The life reality that coming close is the first step to providing the best help and care first came to me in the words of a song, “Come Close Now” by Christa Wells. The song is about how we relate to people who are dealing with grief, but I have come to recognize that the truth in the song applies to all the struggles of life. The truth about the importance of coming close is really relevant to the struggle of being a caregiver.
Christa Wells’ song is inspired by a book written by Dan Walser called “To Make a Life.” In the book Walser writes about the experience of grief in this way: “It is being in this room upstairs in a house that is burning down and I’m strapped in a chair. And outside this house there are all these people running around with fire hoses and ladders and sirens and they are trying to fix it and make it better, but I’m still alone up in this room. Eventually one, maybe two, people just quietly make there way up the front walk and they open the front door of the house and they walk up to this room that I’m in and they pull up a chair beside me and they sit down and they just sit in the burn with me.”
That expression might not seem very logical. Logic says, “Put out the fire! Get them out of the house!” But logic often doesn’t adequately express the profound things we feel in our greatest distress, and if you have ever been in that sort of place in life where it feels like everything is coming apart then you immediately understand what appears to be a counterintuitive illustration. Walser uses this idea to describe grief, but it is a powerful metaphor for being a caregiver, or the person who is in need of care. If a person has Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, or cancer, or any other severe illness, for them it is also as if they are stuck in a burning house strapped in a chair. You can’t fix the fire. You can’t save them. But are you willing to go into that scary place and be with them? Will you sit in the fire with them?
What sick people need first is for those around them to come close, to be with them and to know them in the place where they are. The same is true for struggling caregivers. The imagery of a burning house is apt, because it can feel terrifying to come close and be with people in these hard places.
It can be one of the hardest things to walk up that metaphorical walkway and enter the burning house to come close to the person inside, but this coming close can have a profound impact on someone’s life. Being there, being still, being quiet, with someone who is sick or struggling (whether with caregiving or something else) makes them feel valued and recognized in the deepest way.
In a society that is accustomed to busyness, action, and preoccupation, the absence of this hustle can feel like torture. And yet this act of being fully present with someone is where the deepest good comes. I did a lot of things for my grandpa in his journey through Alzheimer’s, but the biggest and deepest and most profound good I did for him was simply being with him–being right there with him in all the hardness of the journey through the disease.Those times could feel boring, useless, or disconcerting but they were his greatest support and comfort.
The message of coming close is what I want to bring to other people. I don’t think I ever said it in exactly the words “Come close” when someone asked me what they could do, but it is the heart of the answer I share. At my presentations I tell people that the best thing they can do is love. If you follow the path of love, you will find yourself coming close and becoming present in the hardness of the journey.
Coming close is the first step in helping someone in the deepest way. If you want to support the struggling person in your life I don’t have a nice neat list, or a three step program. What I can tell you is that if you truly come close to that person in gentleness and love, and if you are present with them in their struggle you will help them in profound ways. More than that, you will find your own life changed, as well. But living out this choice isn’t easy. It takes all of your heart to come close to people in the burning houses of their lives. Are you willing to give your heart?