You want to do something, but don't know where to start. These ideas will make a big difference to loved ones going through a tough time.
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We've all been there: A friend or family member is dealing with a tough situation, whether it's a critically ill child or the sudden loss of a spouse, and we want to help but don't know how. We offer our sympathy; we say, "Please let me know what I can do to help." We might drop off a meal, but so often, we feel helpless and wait for the person to reach out. Next time you're in that situation, consider these ideas, from families who remember the gestures that really made a difference.

Think of the basics

One mom found herself parenting two young children alone when her husband abruptly left the family. She says that everyone thought to bring meals, but the biggest help was the person who brought her staple items each week. Groceries like bread and milk helped her ensure that her girls had breakfast each morning before school and something to take for lunch. As she struggled to adjust to her new single-parent lifestyle, having a friend bring over toiletries like toothpaste and toilet paper alleviated the need for her to run errands between working and trying to provide a stable home environment for her children.

Create a mini film-festival

"One of the best things was my friend brought me a portable DVD player so I could watch movies during treatment," said Chase Jones, who was diagnosed with brain cancer while in college and now runs the non-profit VS. Cancer Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising money to fight childhood cancer. Jones says his friend constantly brought him new movies to watch during treatment. You can keep costs down by loaning out your own movie collection or renting for under $2/night from a Redbox kiosk.

Make time in the car easier

A mother whose child was diagnosed with leukemia at age 6 says that her biggest challenge was keeping her other two children, ages 2 and 4, occupied during the long drives to and from the hospital. Her friends chipped in to have a DVD player installed in her car. "It was something fun for my other kids at a time in their life when they probably felt like they weren't getting much attention," she says, "and it definitely made the ride to the hospital less stressful for me."

Don't forget the caregiver

"We have to do all the worrying without showing it, so that we don't upset our child," says Judith Jones, mother of Chase Jones. "Often we don't take care of ourselves, so a treat to the nail salon or hairdresser is special."

Use your words

You don't have to spend money to help people out in their time of need. Judith Jones says that one of the best things anyone did for her was when her sister started a blog about Chase's journey. "By doing this, it cut back on the amount of phone calls and personal communications that we had to have with so many," she explains. It was also a great way to let people know about things Chase wanted so people could help if they were so inclined. ( allows you to create a free site to keep your circle informed.)

Get behind the camera

Just one week after giving birth to her daughter, Lindsey Bullock found herself in the hospital with a broken leg and hip as the result of a car accident. Newborn photos were the least of her concern at the time, but almost a year later, she's grateful that a friend thought to take them. No matter how old the children, parents never want to miss out on a moment, so capture some for them on film when they're unable to do it themselves.

Remember the siblings

When a child is sick, it can be a huge help to take his or her siblings for an outing as simple as an afternoon at the park. "So often they get overlooked and can feel like everything revolves around the sister or brother," says Judith Jones. Along the same lines, kids with an ill, deceased, or otherwise absent parent could benefit from some quality time out of the house for a few hours.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.