Anyone who has experienced a life-altering, gut-wrenching event (health issue, the death of a loved one, divorce) can attest to this:  having the support of family and friends is vital to getting through the crisis.  Too often, however, those we need most fail us, not because they don’t want to care, but because they don’t know how.  They may even send messages they don’t mean to send, and reinforce them with action or inaction.

In business, setting SMART Goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound) underpins strategic planning.  I’d like to offer a few ideas for SMART (Specific, Meaningful, Attentive, Relevant and Timely) caregiving so that you can be a better colleague or friend.


When we hear about someone’s pain and suffering, the most common response is to express sympathy and end with, “Let me know, what I can do.”  That’s almost never helpful because people in a crisis are so overwhelmed, they don’t know what to tell you. When my daughter was very ill last year, people said this over and over. The trouble was, other than making her better, I had no idea what they should do.  The best responses came from people who offered specific things.  “I will be near the hospital tomorrow, shall I bring you lunch?”  Or, “I am going to the store, can I pick up anything for you?”  By offering specific actions, you take away the burdens of making decisions, coming up with a plan, and then having to ask.


So many times, people do things that are nice, but only rarely what is wanted or needed. I will never forget when my mother was in the hospital and I was talking to a friend about how hard it was. The next day she asked me if my mom and I would like a visit.  After my mother said yes, my friend who lived three hours away from the hospital said, “Good. I am in the parking lot.” She just showed up.  I asked her what she would have done if we’d said no, and she said she’d just have turned around and driven home. You don’t have to drive hours to do something meaningful. Just asking how things are going and then actually listening to the response is meaningful. So is sending a book or a link to a funny video that for a moment offers relief and takes the mind off what is happening.


When you or a loved one are sick or you have experienced a loss, it can be very lonely.  Your world has fallen apart. You are in uncharted territory.  The world seems to go on, but for you everything has stopped. During the arc of a crisis, many people stay away for fear that they will be bothering you.  The silence can be deafening.  A text or phone call to check in says I care.  You may not get a response, and as long as you don’t over do it, the gesture will be appreciated. But perhaps where attention is most needed is after the crisis.  People often assume that because you’re home from the hospital, things must be better.  The divorce is final, so now you must be free. You’re getting back to normal now.  The truth is, things are rarely far from normal after a crisis. And nothing can hurt more than when people who you thought were friends simply disappear.  On the other hand, nothing delights more when people surprise you with their love and kindness.


Whatever you do must be relevant to the person you are trying to help. Just because you want tons of visitors, doesn’t mean others do. Just because you want to be alone when you are challenged, doesn’t mean others do.

Whatever you offer to support or help has to be what is most helpful to the person in need.  Don’t show up at the hospital unannounced. Don’t drop off casseroles without first asking if they would like that. And if you do bring food, bring it in a disposable container that no one has to worry about returning. The point is to ease burdens, not add to them.


Don’t wait to show people you care.  You might not get a second chance.  I remember a dear friend of mine was very sick.  I didn’t want to call her for fear that I was bothering her.  When I did reach out, it was too late. She’d passed away.

Helping people who are dealing with a major life event is a gift that you can uniquely give.  Just do it SMART.

Do you have ideas on how to communicate that you care? Do you have examples of things to avoid?  Please email me at [email protected].