Whether your friend has had a miscarriage, found out her child has autism, or is struggling through a spouse’s deployment overseas with a newborn at home (been there, done that!), it’s easy to misstep when you are trying to help.

The most common well-meaning offense is the vague, “Let me know how I can help.” It’s better to make a tangible and real offer of something specific, so you’re not putting the weight of decision-making on someone who’s already burdened. The best way to help is to say something very specific, such as “Are you allergic to anything? I’m bringing you dinner,” or “When can I watch your kids so you can go get groceries? Tuesday?”

As I write this, my husband, a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserves, is doing his annual training for a month away from me and our two toddlers. Our air conditioning broke during a humid heat wave and I twisted my ankle. We live in the Midwest and our families are on both coasts, so I flew with the kids to see grandparents for two weeks but now I’m home and leaning heavily on friends. Certainly, there are those who fare worse. But if you have someone in your life who could use a little help (and love!), here are a few ideas.

Do your research. Is your friend the kind of person who loves surprises or prefers planned things? What is on her wish list (quality time; gifts; words of affirmation; acts of service; hugs)? Does she like watching movies? Taking baths? Time alone at the gym? Does she have a public wish list on a shopping website? Have a conversation about what can be helpful for her so you are assisting in ways that speak to her specifically. A couple of years ago, soon after my husband returned from Afghanistan, a neighbor learned that we had never had a Christmas tree in our five years of marriage — couldn’t afford it, didn’t have the appropriate accoutrements — and left a fully decorated tree on our deck for us to find. It’s hard to top her gesture, but she couldn’t have done it if she hadn’t done some research.

Pop over with a treat. Drop off a favorite coffee drink one morning. Call in the afternoon for a dinner order and pick it up from a local takeout place. Hand off home-cooked freezer meals or pre-peeled and sliced healthy finger foods — because it’s nice to have carrot sticks and cheese slices in lieu of junk food sometimes. Or drop off a DVD rental or flowers. These small gestures can carry someone through a tough day.

Pick up groceries. Call and say, “I’m going to the grocery store. What can I pick up for you?” This is especially helpful when a mom is sick and doesn’t have the energy to make sure there’s milk in the house. Grocery shopping with kids can be a circus for a healthy and well-rested mom, so one who is exhausted or overwhelmed is sure to appreciate the assist.

Do a house project. This requires buy-in from your friend, of course, but if there are one or two little things around the house that you could do, it could make a big difference. While my husband was gone this summer, my neighbor mowed my lawn. Another friend fixed the handle on the door to our deck and a shelf that was falling off the wall. Having these little tasks complete took a huge weight off my shoulders.

Make a specific, immediate plan to provide a break. Take the kids out of the house and let them run around. (I crave time in my house alone.) Or come over and watch the kids so Mom can run errands efficiently or browse a used bookstore. You might have to push a little to make sure that your friend knows you mean it and would take joy in spending time with her kids. And if one of her children is more difficult than the others, make sure not to take the easy child out of the house and leave her with the strong-willed one.

Do what you can. If your life is a little crazy, too, and all you can manage to do for a friend is send a text to say you’re thinking of her, do it. Don’t feel bad. Dropping a quick note in the mail with a bag of tea or forwarding on a funny meme can be good, too (she probably really needs to laugh).

Be consistent. If someone is dealing with a long deployment, or the permanence of a child with a disability, it’s important to repeat help and be consistent. Put this person on your to-do list to call once a month, for example, so you don’t forget.

Follow through. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you offer to watch the kids so a friend can get out for a date night, either get out your calendar then or follow up within 24 hours.

And a word for moms who are struggling: Let people know specific ways that they can help you. When you swallow your pride and ask for help, life is so much better. Yes, you can probably handle this hard season by yourself, with some caffeine and a credit card for online shopping, but wouldn’t it be better with friends?

Lindsey Roberts is a freelance writer. She can be reached at lindseymroberts.com, and she tweets @lindseymroberts.

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