The Gift of Time

Published 9 years, 9 months past

Over the past year, we received much assistance, and even more offers of assistance, so many that we were humbled and a little overwhelmed by it all.  In the process, I came to realize that one type of assistance was far more humbling than the others.

For us, the greatest gift people gave us was time.  A friend set up a care calendar, where anyone could sign up to come do after-dinner dishes, or wash-dry-fold a couple of loads of laundry, or make a run to the grocery store, or drop off a pre-cooked or easy-to-cook meal, or whatever other thing we needed that would otherwise have taken up our time.

By doing that, they let us use our time for other things.  During the day, we could do the legwork of looking for treatment options, or the administrative paperwork of consent forms and privacy releases to try to qualify for studies, or arrange travel details when needed, or run errands that were really best done by us — things like grocery store runs.  In the evening, we could concentrate on the kids’ bedtime and take our time with it, allowing a longer bath and adding an extra bedtime story and so on.  We could be fully present for every one of Rebecca’s limited and dwindling number of bedtimes, and spend extra time with Carolyn and Joshua as they went through the same difficult passage with us.  We didn’t have to short them while we concentrated on their dying sister; we could concentrate on all three, because we weren’t distracted by the back-brain awareness of undone chores.

I cannot overstate how incredibly valuable a gift that is.  Not one of us can earn, steal, or otherwise acquire even an instant of extra time.  Our time comes to us all at the same rate, never a surplus or deficit, and is of limited duration.  Every one of those caring helpers came and spent some of their time, time every bit as finite and unreclaimable as ours, so that we could put our time to other uses.  They sacrificed time with their families so we could be with ours.  There is no gift that could ever be more precious than that.

It’s definitely hard to give that gift from a distance.  What do you do if you know someone several states or oceans away who needs that same gift?  Traveling to be with them, taking over that care role for a few days, is an amazing gift, but it’s obviously a lot easier if you live a few streets or suburbs away.  Gift certificates for food delivery services or favorite restaurants or Amazon are a decent substitute if you can’t be there in person, though check to make sure the recipient isn’t already flooded with them.

Thankfully, we didn’t need help with expenses.  Our health insurance’s deductibles and co-pays were well within our ability to pay them, and we were otherwise able to meet our financial obligations.  Not everyone is nearly so lucky.

So what about someone who isn’t so lucky, who’s coping with crisis and tragedy, or for that matter a massively time-consuming joyful event like a newborn child, in addition to an almost-empty bank account?  Money is time.  Seriously.  Donating to a fund for them, or even just sending a check, could keep them from having to work a second job to make ends meet, right when they need as much time as they can get.  It could keep them from having to worry about the rent, food on the table, co-payments for office visits and medicine.  Or even just straight-up payments for office visits and medicine, if (like far too many in America) they don’t have insurance at all.  You might keep them from bankruptcy.

If nothing else, a donation can help them avoid added stress.  Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it can greatly reduce pressure and worry and stress and strife, which is very close to the same thing.  To be able to just pay for something rather than have to figure out whether it’s within the budget, whether it’s really that important, frees up that energy to concentrate on making better decisions, to put that energy toward making life a little better for themselves and their loved ones.

And of course, if you’re able, you can still offer to come clean up their living room, do the dishes one night a week, watch a little one for an afternoon, ferry a child to and from school, or whatever else they might need.

It really is the greatest possible gift.

Comments (7)

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’m sure it will help a number of people in need. Those words I just wrote are much too blah. I’m talking about people in excruciating severe emotional and physical pain and how much it means to be helped, though the help needed may be different for each situation. Thank you, in fact, for everything you’ve written, as the rest of us felt pain about Rebecca and your family, even though we were way over on the sidelines and none of what we felt even remotely matched the pain you all felt.

  2. I would add that allowing people to give you that time is a huge gift in itself. A mentor at church often states that asking for help is akin to helping others, as it genuinely helps them to help you.

    In bearing witness to immeasurable loss, the opportunity to show love through laundry is a huge gift for the giver.

  3. I thank you for this. My cousin who lives in Washington (I’m in California) is a single mother and has breast cancer and two very young children (one of whom has downs). She goes in for a mastectomy on Wednesday. I’ve been trying to figure out how to help from so far away. Your post gave me some ideas that I think could make a big difference. Thank you Eric.

  4. Well said, Eric. And I echo your comment about asking first. When I was going through cancer treatments several years ago, people would bring me thoughtful gifts that, quite frankly, I couldn’t use. i.e. spicy food (the sores in my mouth demanded that I eat bland food) or cut-up fresh fruit (my deteriorating immune system didn’t allow for eating fresh fruit and veggies unless they were thoroughly scrubbed before cutting). I found that the most thoughtful gifts were the people who were on “standby” with their time if I needed anything. I’m so sorry for your loss…thanks for all of the reminders.

  5. As always, your thoughtful words are helpful in understanding how to deal with life’s struggles and pain. I appreciate this more than you can know. Thanks.

  6. So I was checking out a website and looking at the CSS file to try to determine what sort of platform this site was using and saw the URL

    Of course I follow and poke around and see what I am responding to here.

    Being the father of 2 small girls, one turning 4 this month and the other turning 6 next, and never having experienced what you are going through though thoughts or scenes of things similar have played through my head at times. How would I deal, how would i go on…

    I honestly don’t know and all I can say is I’m sorry for your loss. I truly am. I have no words to help you or soothe your broken heart. I’m so sorry.

    Your words, give more meaning to life for those of us who read them.

    {{{hugs}}} to you my friend…and your wife…



  7. I wish I had had this list when we lost my brother and then my sister … everyone kept asking what they could do and offering to help. But they wanted me to say what we/I needed and that was just too much pressure.

    All I could ever think to say was “I want my brother and sister back” but, of course, I never said… nearly never said it aloud. Of course, we also did not have time to come to grips with it. I just read this piece in the LA Times about a family taking precious hours and days with their brain dead son. I am not sure we had any of that time either.

    But, I wish I had thought to set up a care calendar for my parents — just so that people would have dropped in on them much past the regular condolence period. When we are alone that silence you wrote about before is like a hole in the ground threatening to eat us alive. A year plus on, it is just the slightest bit easier except we all have different triggers and you never know which one is going to derail one or all of us.

    Wishing you peace as you continue to walk this journey with your family.

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