During her husband’s 2nd bout with cancer, Kim Hamer realized that her friends’ oft-repeated, well-intentioned phrase — “If you need anything, let me know!” — was spectacularly unhelpful.
“I got very angry. I was so tired of trying to manage everything so Art could focus on himself,” recalls Kim, a 1982 Staples graduate and the mother of 3 children.
“I felt like I had to guess what they meant by ‘anything.’ Did that mean I could call them up at 3 a.m. and sob? Or ask them to pick up my kids somewhere, or the tampons I forgot to buy? Or ask them to just come sit with me?”
Art died in April 2009. The Stage IV lymphoma cancer he’d beaten 3 years before — beaten well enough to run a triathlon — had returned 4 months earlier. He was 44 years old.
Kim — a graduate of Emerson College who had worked with Outward Bound and Wildl Oats, run a private school, then started a California-based business to help parents afford private school, all while doing triathlons herself — began what she called a “widow blog.” Her mission was to tell people how to help friends in need.
She had in mind the people who offered very specific assistance. A neighbor said, “I’ll store milk, eggs and bread in my refrigerator. You can come over any time — even 2 a.m. — to get what you need.”
Another asked the last time she’d changed her car’s oil.
“I cried,” Kim says. “Art always did that. This woman said she’d take care of it. She told me to leave my keys in my mailbox — that was perfect, I didn’t have to see her. She said she’d leave her own keys for me, in case I needed her car.”
Kim knows that offering the right kind of help is not easy. “I would have said, ‘Let me know if I can do anything’ too,” she says. “And then I’d check in 6 months later. I wouldn’t want to bug someone. I would have stayed on the sidelines.”
But having gone through such an intense experience — twice — Kim realized more was needed. The result is ExactlyWhatTheyNeed.com, a very personal yet truly universal blog aimed at friends of people going through serious illness (or divorce, job loss or other trauma).
There are specific suggestions. The most recent are aimed at this holiday season: Babysit the kids. Take the person to a party. Help order gifts online. All those tasks, Kim says, can be overwhelming to someone in the midst of a crisis.
Special sections include “Help From a Distance,” “Kid to Kid” and “Sneaky Ways to Help” (here’s one: leave fresh flowers on a doorstep).
Kim also describes what not to say. “I know how you feel” is almost always untrue. “It’s God’s will” can “make a mockery of the hurt we feel,” she writes.
“Instead say only this. ‘You are not alone. We love you. Your pain breaks my heart. Please know that I will be there for you.’”
Kim adds, “We have the power and ability to make a difference in someone’s life.” And that difference is important long after the initial ordeal is over.
“The 2nd year is the slammer,” Kim says. “That’s when you realize it’s all real. The person you loved is not coming back. Most people have moved on with their lives, but you may not be ready to.”
Kim says her most joyful moments now — more than 3 years after her husband’s death — are when “people come up randomly and share stories of Art. One woman always smiles when she tells different things she remembers.
“That’s when I know his presence is missed by others outside of our family.”