Many of us are interested in that question.

  • When we are visiting a friend, we want to say the right thing, not do the wrong thing.
  • When we are speaking to kids after a tragedy, we don’t want to say the wrong thing.
  • When we’re professionals in helping, we want to find the most effective thing to say, to streamline the grieving process.
  • When we’re human, we want to know the best thing to do.

This internal struggle with best or right or effective can be paralyzing. We get trapped by expectation anxiety, by fear of failure.

I’m pretty sure that the question isn’t about the right or the wrong thing to say, as if there is a measurement of our morality or a score card handed us on the way out of the room.

That’s why I’m using the word “helpful” in my research. What helps rather than hinders. What supports rather that assaults. What doesn’t need to be undone later, what gives space and dignity rather than crowding. What helps with this and the next step.

The question of “can I help you” invites, I think, a different sense in the moment than “Did I say the right thing?”

The other day, a patient care tech was wondering whether to tell a family member about a conversation she had with the person who died just an hour before death. “I don’t want to make them sadder,” she said.

I said, “At this moment, nothing could make them sadder. But knowing that their sense of humor was intact in their last hours, that is a wonderful story.”

And it was helpful.

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