How to help an ailing friend

Housewife with Fresh Pie — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

A lot of people in my life, including me, have had surgeries lately requiring assistance with daily tasks. When you have to use a walker or crutches or can’t be weight bearing or move your arm it makes doing routine tasks challenging – things like shopping, cooking, bathing, dressing, cleaning, etc.

I was lucky; my husband was able to take a week off work to help me after my hip surgery. However, I needed more assistance than we expected so we found we needed help with meals and additional help when he had to go back to work. We were surprised by how much someone has to rely on others after a major surgery. Thankfully, we were blessed to have neighbors who delivered delicious meal, and friends who stopped by to help while my spouse was at work. We were so grateful.

Two of my friends are having surgeries that will keep them from being fully independent for a while. Both are single and don’t have immediate family to help. So, it’s pretty important they get assistance while they recover.

If you have an ailing friend, neighbor or family member it really is nice if you can be helpful. When you are in need of assistance, asking people for help is one of the most humbling and difficult things to do. I probably wouldn’t have done it if the need wasn’t so great. But, I swallowed my pride and asked a neighbor to organize a meal train and then I asked a friend to set-up a Caring Bridge site to send to friends who could sign up for tasks to help me when my husband went back to work.

Here are some tips for helping a friend recovering from surgery, or who has a new baby or is dealing with an illness:

Offer to organize a meal train and/or tasks. You can reach out to neighbors, your friend’s church or club members and/or her friends. People sign up for a day to drop off a meal or help with various tasks. There are sites you can use to make the organizing and tracking easier such as or

Drop off a meal. If organizing something is more than you have energy for, just offer to deliver a meal. When doing so, find out about any food restrictions and a good time to deliver the item. And, if you really want to make the meal special, as many of our neighbors did, include the main course, side(s) and dessert (assuming your friend eats dessert).

Offer to go shopping and/or do chores for your buddy. Housework is usually the last thing an ailing person has time to do and shopping is hard if you’re sick or home bound. A couple of people who visited me did simple things like water my plants, clean the kitchen and arrange flowers. All a huge help.

Don’t linger. While your friend or neighbor may be happy to see you, don’t expect to spend a lot of time chatting. Your pal will need time to rest, or simply won’t have the energy to entertain, especially if a lot of people are dropping by.

Be specific in your offer of help. Don’t ask, “How can I help?” or worse, “Let me know if I can help” which puts your friend in the awkward position of having to ask for assistance. It feels very vulnerable having to say “I really need someone to vacuum, (put my socks on, walk my dog…)” When you offer to help, be specific. “Can I help with housework, I’m a pro at mopping?” “I’m going to the store, what do you need?” “I’d love to drop off a meal, what’s a good day and time?”

Be cautious with flowers. If you’re sending flowers, which is a very nice gesture, be sure your friend is not allergic to certain types of flowers or scents. If in doubt, ask your friend’s spouse or a family member. If you’re still not sure stick to something that’s not scented. I personally love sending Glassybaby votive holders, a basket of pampering items or a favorite book.

Stay in touch. If visiting your friend is not possible, an email wishing him well is always appreciated. There were several friends and business acquaintances who reached out to me via email a few times to check in. I can’t tell you how nice it was to know people were thinking about me, especially after my husband had gone back to work and I wasn’t as needy but I was still recovering.

Lastly, a few things not to say to someone when they are ailing or recovering from surgery.

  • “My sister had cancer and she died last year.” (Don’t share bad news. Your job is to be positive, hopeful and caring. But do listen without judgement if your friend expresses sadness, fear or hopelessness. Let her have her feelings and simply express your support.)
  • “I’m surprised you’re still using a walker. My friend started walking unaided one week after her hip replacement surgery.”
  • “Wow, your house looks like a hurricane hit it.”
  • “Why don’t you eat gluten? I’d really like to make you my famous pasta salad.”
  • “Would you call me to remind me to visit you on the day I signed up?” (Don’t laugh, this really happened to a friend).
  • “You look really pale? Are you okay?” (If you’re worried about someone’s well being simply ask, “How are you feeling?”)
  • “Your baby seems really fussy? What’s wrong with him?”
  • “Have you tried taking xyz vitamin and drinking bone broth? I think it would really help.” (Don’t give advice unless asked for it.)


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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>

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