The One Question That Can Also Be an Answer

04/21/2015 10:34 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

This past summer was a difficult period for me. We'd just moved to a new state and left behind friends who were like family. The deadline to submit the first draft of my second book was looming, and I found myself unable to write. During this time of uncertainty and upheaval, my sister Rebecca came to visit. I wanted to be the fun, adventurous host and show her our new city. I planned things for us to do, but when it came down to it, I simply could not hide my despair. One morning, when misplaced fishing nets from the Dollar Store nearly caused a breakdown, Rebecca gently touched my arm. "How can I help?"

My sister was not talking about the fishing nets.

I felt my eyes instantly well with tears, and then I let out a mammoth-sized exhale. Sweet, sweet relief. My sister saw my pain... she saw I was going through something... she wanted to ease my burden. All this -- and I never had to say a word. She just knew.

Furthermore, there was something about that question that kept defensiveness, excuses, and the need to explain out of the conversation. How can I help? It was much less confronting than, "What's wrong?" It was much more supportive than, "What's your problem?" With one single question, my sister acknowledged my struggle and offered to lighten my load. All this -- and I never had to say a word. It was the kind of help I most needed in that moment.


Rebecca proceeded to throw out specific ways she could help. I did not take her up on the kind offers at that moment, but knowing I had options helped me feel more hopeful about my current situation.

From that experience, my list of Soul-Building Words -- words that lift... help... heal... and build -- grew by one. Little did I know how that question -- how can I help? -- would become an answer for my child this spring.

My daughters and I were doing spring cleaning of our closets and trying on clothes. My younger daughter was excited to see her three favorite dresses from last spring. But with each ill-fitting experience, she became solemn. There was a distinct change in her expression -- like the sun suddenly went behind the clouds.

"I want to be healthier, Mama," she said quietly.

"What do you mean?" I asked, wanting to make sure I understood what this 8-year-old child was saying.

After a long pause, contemplating how to put her feelings into words, she simply said, "I just want to be healthier."

Something told me this was not the time to ask for details.
Something told me this was not the time to push for specifics.
Something told me this was not the time for assumptions or fill-in-the-blanks.
It was time to use that barrier-breaking question that had once brought me great relief in my time of need.

"How can I help?" I asked genuinely.

At first my child looked a bit surprised. But then her face relaxed into a smile and her chest fell with a visible exhale. Sweet, sweet relief. How can I help? It was not a question, after all. It was an answer.

"On days I don't have swim team will you exercise with me?" she asked.

"I would love to!" I said enthusiastically. "Biking, walking, calisthenics -- I am up for anything."

"I know, Mama!" she said excitedly. "I will make us a routine from what I've learned at swim team."

Each evening for the past four weeks, my daughter and I have headed out to the driveway. We started out with just a bouncing ball, but our equipment supply has expanded to a mat, a kettlebell, and a medicine ball. Sometimes we're outside for 20 minutes. Other days, an entire hour. Sometimes my child is my coach, pushing and encouraging me. Sometimes she is my workout partner, bringing up her knees in rapid succession beside me. Sometimes we sweat. Sometimes we just "work on flexibility," meaning we stretch our bodies in the fading sun, talking about life and sipping our water.


One night, we ended up lying on our mats listening to music and looking up at the sky. I was lost in my own thoughts.

"You're the best mom," my daughter said, breaking the silence.

Honestly, I was surprised by her words. For the past couple months, I'd been battling a severe infection, editing my forthcoming book, and worried about my mom. I'd been feeling exhausted and distant. My child's unsolicited compliment felt like soothing balm to my weary soul.

"Why? What is it about me that makes me best?" I wondered aloud.

She listed off the main things most parents do for their children, like provide food, protection, and care, but then she said something that struck me.

"When I need help, you know how to help me. I don't know how you know, but you do. You can just tell."

All at once, everything I suspected about helping someone through the struggles of life was confirmed:

• Just knowing when someone needs help is the best kind of help.

• Asking, "How can I help?" acknowledges someone's struggle and lightens the load without pushing for further details or explanation.

But there is more...

• The help you offer has a way of coming back to you when you most need it and least expect it.

My child's desire to be healthier and my willingness to help her in a specific, consistent way have resulted in many positives for both of us: Our muscles have firmed up. Our clothes fit better. Our bond has been strengthened. We have special one-on-one time on a regular basis, away from worldly distractions. We are creating healthy lifelong habits and precious memories. How can I help? I'd offered those words to my child, yet they resulted in a gift to both of us.

Perhaps you know someone who is struggling. Perhaps you don't know for sure, but you can sense it. Try the one question that can also be an answer. It might sound like this:

How can I help?

I will sit with you by the water's edge.

I will go to counseling with you.

I will make healthy food choices too.

I will drive you to your appointment.

I will spend time working on my dream too. We can do it together.

I will watch the kids for you while you go.

I will ask around and gather some resources for you.

I will tutor you.

I will help you raise the money you need.

I will have your back.

I will bring you a meal on Thursday. I know what you like.

I will not give up on you.

Ask the question. Throw out a specific way you can help. Perhaps your offer will be accepted. Perhaps it won't. But you can bet that deep down in that person's soul, there will be relief -- sweet, sweet relief. Because someone sees her struggle. Because someone wants to lighten his load. Because just when they thought there were no answers, there is one. And with it, comes hope.

This post originally appeared on Rachel is the New York Times bestselling author of HANDS FREE MAMA. Her second book, HANDS FREE LIFE, hits bookshelves on September 8.

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