There's this story I have from when I was little - the kind of age when you wear flowery dresses over jeans and princess welly boots without even thinking about it; the age when best friends are forever and ever; the age when boys are smelly, the tooth fairy really was real and school involved colouring in as actual lessons - the kind of age, essentially, before life has any consequences whatsoever. I must have been five or six - and I clearly remember this bit even now - I was lying upside down on the sofa, probably watching CBeebies (who remembers that?!) as the phone rang. One of my two bestest best friends had been hit by a car. I remember my mum telling me she had been knocked over so hard she flew feet into the air. I remember she had broken more bones that I knew the names for. I remember it was quite unlikely she might get to carry on being alive.
She did, luckily, and get to live on and finish off being ages six and seven and eight and grow up happily ever after (as far as I know - sadly we lost touch when she moved away.) But having that happen to your child, to your big sister - and even to your best friend - is something hard to deal with, especially at age six, when life has never been quite this serious before. She should have been giggling in the playground and chasing her constantly escaping pet rabbits round her back garden. She shouldn't have been in an ambulance with flashing lights and having paramedics tell her mum that if she didn't survive the journey to hospital, she might not get her daughter back. She - if you want to get really picky - definitely shouldn't have run out into the road. The one road in our town where people drive as if they think they're on a motorway. But you don't know these things, not when you're six.
I made her a get well soon card - as soon as we knew this was definitely going to be an option - wrote xoxoxox inside in smudgy felt tip pens, coloured in the outside, and as a last thought, added a message in messy, primary-school, joined-up handwriting. Something along the lines of.... feel better soon, love from Jessica. Oh and P.S. This chocolate is for you but if you don't feel like eating it you can always give it back to me at school. Innocent, six-year old logic. My parents dropped it off at the hospital for me and her dad told them it was the first thing that had made them laugh since the accident.
This tiny, random memory colours so much of my attitude to life now I'm older. I'm just as bad as anyone else at using the phrase "let me know if there's anything I can do." We're all guilty of it, when a friend needs help, when someone is ill or has lost someone or even is just having a rough time. I should try harder not to say it though - I know first hand just how irritating this meaningless combination of words can be - even when meant with the best intentions, in cards saying "With Sympathy," with bunches of flowers that slowly die, from faces that just don't know what else to say.
Do something. Don't ask the sick person, or the family that have just lost someone "if there's anything they need." Of course they need something - they need their daughter out of the hospital, or their friend not to be dying or for the person they love to be alive and well. So do something, don't ask. Even if you just buy them some chocolate. Or make them a cake, everyone loves cake. And then you've done something and you don't have to say those meaningless words any more. Make people laugh, even when they're sad, Actually, especially when they're sad. Laugh through your tears and they dry a lot faster.