Is it possible to help too much?

By Jennifer Davis Rash

“We can’t ask them to leave. That would be rude, especially after all they have done for us this week.”

Through a whispered conversation in the kitchen, my friend and her mother debated how to deal with the pair of neighbors who had returned for the third night in a row. It was nearing midnight and the residents of the house had passed exhaustion hours earlier, but here they stood preparing coffee and snacks for their guests.

A beloved family member had died earlier in the week and the outpouring of love from the community had been truly amazing. The meals, cards, calls, visits, flowers and acts of service were appreciated beyond what words could express. 

But some visitors stepped over the line from supportive and helpful to basically moving in and allowing, and possibly expecting, the bereaved family to wait on them.

A few months earlier, I watched another friend walk around in a daze after his father’s funeral attempting to redirect the longwinded visitors from his mother. She had not slept in days and was mustering all the strength she could to keep herself upright. She certainly couldn’t carry anyone else’s weight.

“People have been incredible,” my friend explained to me as he listed all the ways church members, neighbors, friends and others had reached out to them. “But …” pausing to second guess his assessment, he said it seems some people are competing to win an “I cared the most” award.

Instead of pacing themselves and spreading out the help, the friends and neighbors were rushing to aid his family all at the same time, he explained. “And then some of the ones who stay the longest carry on heavy conversations about politics, the world and routine life issues, all of which we could care less about right now.”

It’s understandable how it happens. When a death occurs, the family and close friends tend to gather in a central location because it’s comforting to be together. Sometimes that gathering is attractive to those who want to be, but aren’t, part of the inner circle and thus they hang around keeping the attention focused on themselves rather than being sensitive to time and appropriateness. Other times, their heart is sincere and they truly are trying to help. They think if they can keep the person’s mind occupied on other things, then the pain won’t hurt as much.

Neither is actually helpful once the person has stayed too long, but it probably makes the person feel good about his or her efforts.

Don’t get me wrong — I do think showing up is always right. Members of a bereaved family need friends who will cry with them, listen to them, help them with daily tasks and basically be there for them.

At the same time, I think there is a point where the help becomes overwhelming and exhausting to the recipients. 

And mixed in the middle may be a grieving family wearing a public face of having it all together. Discerning what is appropriate may not be easy, especially if family members won’t share honestly what they need and don’t need.

I am learning that when there is an obvious need and I can meet it, then I should take care of it rather than merely stating, “Let me know if I can do anything.”

I also believe the Holy Spirit impresses upon us ways in which we can help if we are paying attention.

For other tips related to helping those who are grieving and for resources for those who are currently experiencing grief, visit The Alabama Baptist Archives and Resource Center.

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