"I entered the world of the bereaved, and all the well-meaning but clueless things I had said and done in the past came back to haunt me," she writes in her book, "How to Help a Grieving Friend: A Candid Guide for Those Who Care" (Greenbrier Book Co.).
"'If there's anything I can do to help' means a lot more if you go to the trouble to think what you could actually do to help," Whitson told us in a recent phone interview. "After my husband died, a maintenance man from our church said, 'I'm going to be at your house at 11 o'clock on Saturday morning. I have two hours and I want you to give me a list of things that need fixing.' I took that offer."
It's delicate territory, though, that sweet spot between assisting and intruding.
"When it comes to helping others, there is no one size fits all," says Jeff Blaine, a clinical social worker who counsels patients in his private practice. "A good friend, when confronted with the pain of another, will understandably want to launch into action to try to fix it. More often than not, we can't fix traumatic situations. That said, we are not helpless."
We're most helpful, in fact, when we think about what this particular struggling person needs, rather than adopting an abstract "what struggling people need" approach.
"If you know a single mom who just lost her job, drop a bag of groceries on her back porch," says Whitson. "The day my husband died a friend arrived with a laundry basket full of paper products, knowing I was about to have a lot of out-of-town company."
It's a perfect time, says Brooks Kenny, chief marketing officer of Lotsa Helping Hands (lotsahelpinghands.com), to enact the golden rule.
"Put yourself in their shoes and think about what you might want or need and then offer it," says Kenny, whose company helps people create online communities with calendars and message boards that allow friends and family members to adopt tasks. "Your friend might feel funny saying, 'Can you go pick up Johnny at the bus stop?' But that would be a huge relief."
Time-saving tasks are often most welcome, Kenny says. "Oftentimes — as the patient or the caregiver — we feel guilty not keeping friends and family updated. You can say, 'I know you're overwhelmed. Let me take care of keeping everyone informed, keeping everyone in the loop.'"
Of course, all of these offers should be presented as optional.
"It is very important to respect the boundaries of those we are trying to help," says Blaine. "The performance of routine activities can be therapeutic and affirming for those in pain, and to have a well-meaning friend sweep in and take these over can have an unintended disruptive effect. When a friend is experiencing a wrenching loss, doing certain things for themselves may offer them a small measure of feeling in control.
"To make a good judgment about when to step in, pay close attention to your friend's needs and make certain that you're taking care of them and not just satisfying your need to do something."
Learn to help: Find a variety of informative webinars that focus on specific caregiving topics and challenges at Lotsa Helping Hands' website: Go to lotsahelpinghands.com/webinar.