This article is a response to a question posted on, "How do We Help the Helpless?" Since I work with homeless families in a homeless shelter everyday, this question raised strong emotions for me. The word "helpless" hit me right between the eyes. Why?

I don't know if it is our Judeo-Christian heritage that makes us want to "save" people or what it is, but I would really like to challenge this idea of one person "saving" another person who is viewed as totally "helpless". Even families living in a homeless shelter, who have no residence, no clothing, no food and no money bring with them strengths, skills, hopes and ideals. They have ideas about how to survive and what they need to get back on their feet. Yet I see caseworkers, social workers, and other helping professionals trying to "save" them by treating them like children and telling them what they, the "professionals" think they should do to get back on their feet.

I also see this behavior when a loved one has suffered a death or a trauma. Well meaning friends and family will step in and try to "save" them from the painful experience. But you can't. Life comes with joy and sorrow, ecstasy and pain. We have to experience them all.

So how do you help someone who is struggling with a difficult situation or a loss?

Let Them "Have Their Head"

If you really want to help someone, walk beside them. Not in front, leading the way or behind, shoving them forward. Let them find their own path, use their own strengths, develop their own skills. Horse riders talk of letting the horse "have their head". While guiding a horse through rugged terrain, you loosen the reins and let the horse find its own path and get its footing to avoid falling. Helping a person is no different. Give them their head. Let them find their own way. They know what they are capable of, you don't. They also know what they are not capable of and again, you don't.


When someone is going through something traumatic or painful, most people won't let them talk about it, especially Americans. Americans love a happy ending and believe they have an inherent right to be perpetually happy. Anyone deterring them from this is usually quietly and gently shut down, though this is usually done subconsciously by well-meaning friends and family who are trying to "cheer them up". When people are grieving, they need to talk, rage, cry and rant. If the cause of the pain was something traumatic, they may need to tell the story again and again and again, until the get it out of their system. Imagine the near miss you had on the interstate going to work one morning. That truck that almost hit you. You swerve wildly to miss getting hit, then correct your path and continue on to work. When you get out of the car your legs are shaking wildly, your stomach is jittery, you are sweating and your heart is pounding wildly. What do you do? You go into the office and tell everyone how this fool on the highway almost killed you. You tell the story over and over to everyone who will listen. You tell it again and again throughout the day until you get it out of your system. That is how it works. When your friend or loved one needs to talk, listen, just listen, again and again and again.

Do Not Problem Solve

Do not try to fix it. This is really annoying when someone is trying to tell you how much pain they are in (or grief or panic or shock) and all you want to do is move on to fixing it. Fixing it makes you feel better, not them. It makes them feel ignored or like you don't want to listen to them. (And you may not. It is hard to see someone in pain. A lot of people jump to fixing behavior because it calms them.) The person in difficulty needs to express how they feel about it first. Back up to the previous paragraph - just listen.

Do Not Cheer Them Up

Let them be sad, mad, confused, numb or whatever. A lot of people try to cheer up people who are suffering. Your intent may be good, but again, this makes you feel better, not the person who is in pain. Let them hurt. There are plenty of other well-intentioned people out there to "cheer them up". Other people may also try to engage them in other activities to distract them from the pain. If your loved one asks for this by all means do it, but do not assume that is what they need. Go back to the first two paragraphs - listen and give them their head.


When in doubt about how to help, ask. Admit that you have no idea how they feel or how to help. This is honest. Plenty of other people will be patting them on the hand, telling them "Oh, I know how you feel" and trying to cheer them up. You never know how someone else feels. You might be able to empathize if you have gone through something similar or you may recognize some similarities, but to know completely how someone else feels? You can't. We all bring our own histories, hurts, strengths and weakness to any given situation. When in doubt about what to do, ask. Then listen to what they say. If they want you to sit with them, sit with them. If they need help completing a necessary task, household chore or necessary errand, ask them how you can help them. A person who is grieving or going through a difficult time can easily be in so much pain, grief or shock that they cannot think clearly to do even the simplest tasks. But don't assume they need you to do the task for them. Ask specifically what you can do to help them with it. They may only need help making a simple decision about the task or simply need help organizing a task. The more you can allow them to function on their own, the better.

Do Not Set Deadlines

How many times has some well-meaning person told one of my clients, "You should be over this by now!" Is there a grief timetable somewhere I am unaware of? People grieve in their own way in their own time. Don't determine for someone else when they should be over something. If their grief or pain or trouble seems to be impairing their functioning to the point that you are concerned for them, discuss this with them. Professional help may be required. But talk to them directly about it. If others are also concerned you may act together to do an "intervention" with the person, but its better to talk one to one. The person will not feel ganged up on and you avoid some group dynamics that can get pretty nasty when you keep it one to one.

Teach Them to Fish

There is an old saying, "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime." This is important to remember. If you pitch and do everything for someone they don't learn to do it themselves. Be patient, give them their head, let them find their way and help them develop their own coping skills. A very elderly client of mine recently lost her husband. She had lost the ability to drive some years back due to her health and her husband had always driven her. Friends and family now pitched in and drove her everywhere he used to. But one wise soul brought her a bus schedule and the forms to be completed for the Senior Citizen bus pass. She then went with her and helped her learn to ride the bus. At first, this was very daunting and family and friends criticized the woman who brought the bus schedule to her. Though daunted by the thought of tackling public transportation, the client was also very weary of feeling herself to be a burden to so many other people. She also wanted the freedom to come and go as she pleased, rather than being at the mercy of other people's schedules. She took on the bus system and mastered it. She proudly came to my office and spent one entire session explaining what she had learned and where all she had gone - by herself. Her friend had taught her how to fish, rather than giving her a fish. This is the true meaning of help. Helping people be dependent on you makes you feel better. Helping people be independent makes them feel better.

Get Professional Help

If someone you love starts exhibiting signs of suicidal ideation or behavior. Get help. If they are depressed and they start to "let themselves go" (not eating, not sleeping, not performing basic hygiene, not taking medication or not exhibiting good, general self care) it is important to get professional help. Professional help may mean calling a suicide hotline if they admit they are suicidal, calling the family doctor, taking them to a psychiatric emergency unit or accessing counseling services. Talk to your loved one first and allow them to participate in the decision making process, but be firm about them getting help if you are concerned. If you fear that are in imminent danger of self harm, call 911 and explain the situation. They will help you access local psychiatric services.

Everyone grieves or moves through adversity in their own way. Some like to stay busy, others sit with it. Some talk it out, others write it out, others work it out. Be open to the very individual way your loved one needs to heal themselves and let them lead the way.

Author's Bio: is a premier wellness site and supportive social network where like-minded individuals can connect and support each others' intentions. Founded by Deepak Chopra's daughter Mallika Chopra, aims to be the most trusted and comprehensive wellness destination featuring a supportive community of members, blogs from top wellness experts and curated online content relating to Personal, Social, Global and Spiritual wellness.