How to ask for help when chronic pain or illness strikes

By, Toni Bernhard, JD September 2011

How many times have you said to a friend or relative in need, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” and when you didn’t hear back, fail to follow-up? I’ve lost count of the number of times I did just that—fail to follow-up when I didn’t hear back from someone in need, even though I would have been happy to help in any way I could.

Yet, despite this pattern in my own behavior, when I became chronically ill and didn’t get back to people who offered to help, I decided that, because they failed to follow-up, their offers weren’t sincere.

I learned otherwise quite by chance. A friend came to visit and showed me an exquisite handmade dress she’d just bought for her granddaughter at a local boutique. When I told her how much I loved it, she asked if I’d like to get one for my granddaughter. I said “sure,” and before I could get “but I’m not able to go shopping” out of my mouth, she was out the door.

She returned shortly with the dress in two sizes for me to choose from. I picked one, wrote her a check and, when she left to go home, she took the one I didn’t want back to the boutique. That made three trips for her to the same store that day.

When I got sick, was she one of the people who had said, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help”? Yes. But I’d never asked her to do anything. On that day, however, I saw in her face that going to get that dress was a gift from me to her. She can’t restore my health, but she can buy a dress for me to give to my granddaughter, and doing it made her feel terrific.

Here’s what I’ve learned about people who offer to help:

1. They’re sincere in their offer: they mean it.

2. The responsibility falls on me, not on them, to follow-up.

3. The best way to take them up on their offer is to give them a specific task to do.

Numbers 1 and 2 are consistent with my experience when I was in a position to help others: I meant it but I rarely followed-up, sometimes because I got distracted and sometimes because I thought I might be bothering them.

As for number 3, friends and relatives aren’t mind readers. We need to tell them what to do. This is what I learned from the “dress episode” with my friend.

And, the more specific the request, the better. “Can you help with my laundry every other week?” is more likely to be successful as a request than, “Can you help with my laundry sometimes?” even though your friend or relative is likely to say “yes” to both requests. The use of the word “sometimes” in the second request is likely to be a “set-up” for that lack of follow-up that we’ll erroneously take as lack of sincerity on their part.

Many of us don’t like to ask for help. We may have been taught that it’s a sign of weakness, so we cling to the notion, “I can do everything myself,” even if it’s no longer the case.

I suggest you practice asking for help. Think of it as an experiment:

1. Make a list of what you need help with: particular errands, the laundry, some cooking, walking the dog, changing a light bulb, maybe even a shoulder to cry on.

2. Write down the names of friends and relatives who have offered to help, even if their offer was made quite awhile ago.

3. Match people with tasks based on their interests, their strengths, their time flexibility and your comfort level with them, given the intimacy of the particular task. A young neighbor may enjoy cooking for you once a week. I read about a woman who gets cooking help from a 10 year-old neighbor who has earned her Girl Scout cooking badge. We have a 12 year-old dog walker in our neighborhood.

4. Pick just one thing off the list and contact the person you’ve chosen. Be direct—no passive-aggressive pleas for help allowed! So, instead of saying, “If I only knew someone who could pick up a prescription for me,” ask outright: “Can you pick up a prescription for me? I’m not well enough to go out.”

The odds are high that the person you’ve called or emailed will be thrilled to be asked to help. Remember: it’s your gift to them; it gives them a way to not feel helpless in the face of your health challenges. If you strike out, take a deep breath and try again. Even million dollar baseball players get more than one strike!

Two final thoughts.

First, it’s odd that we think we’re placing a burden on people if we ask them to do something for us even though, if we did the very same thing for them, we wouldn’t consider it a burden. On the contrary, it would make us feel good to know our friend respects us enough to seek our help.

Second, if you feel unworthy of being helped by others, remind yourself of all the times when people were helpful to you. Obviously, they didn’t think you were unworthy. Use those memories as a starting point for changing your self-critical thinking.

Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California—Davis, serving six years as the law school’s dean of students. She is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and can be found online at