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Victoria was 37 when her husband died. Suddenly, she became a widow and the single parent of a four-year-old daughter. Although she received generous support from friends and family, it was the response of one woman—“a mere acquaintance”—who most helped Victoria make the journey through grief. That woman wrote Victoria a note every Friday for an entire year. “The early messages acknowledged my shock at losing my husband. Later ones focused on loneliness, finances, and being a single mom. These notes assured me that at least one person on earth knew what I was experiencing, and because she did, I could heal.”

That incident was related by author Victoria Moran. Her experience is a clear demonstration that gifts of caring can touch the heart, encourage the spirit, and nourish the soul. They usually have a greater impact than monetary or material gifts. The Greek poet Pindar wisely noted, “Every gift which is given, even though it be small, is great if given with affection.” Here are some “gifts” that show you care.

The gift of kindness to a stranger. It’s easy and natural to be kind to the people we know and love. But go an extra mile by offering the gift of kindness to a complete stranger. The Bible reminds us: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

Consider this memorable experience of a young woman I’ll call Carolyn, who was driving alone from Atlanta to a small town in North Carolina. The rain was pouring down, and her car slid off the road. Another woman, Suzanna, happened to be driving by and saw Carolyn’s dilemma. She stopped to ask Carolyn if she was OK. “I assured her I was fine,” Carolyn said later, “but I felt a little panicky about being so far from home.” Suzanna responded by calming her, helping her out of the car, and inviting her to sit in her (Suzanna’s) car until help arrived.

After the tow truck hauled Carolyn’s car back onto the highway, Suzanna “insisted that I come to her office to catch my breath and compose myself.” Additionally, Suzanna took her to a mechanic friend, who repaired the minor damage to the car without even charging for it. Though it has been several years since that experience, Carolyn felt positively impacted by Suzanna’s kindness. “She reminded me that good Samaritans still exist in this world. I will forever be grateful.”

The gift of presence. Zach Snider of Tulsa, Oklahoma, achieved one of his dreams, a football scholarship to the University of Arkansas. However, when the 21-year-old learned that his father, Gary, was diagnosed with colon and liver cancer, he gave up his scholarship and transferred to a school in Tulsa nearer to his father. The elder Snider was in daily, agonizing pain, which was somewhat controlled with heavy doses of morphine. Close to Father’s Day, Zach called his dad to let him know of his decision to leave Arkansas so he could be with him in Tulsa. Gary said, “It was the best Father’s Day present I ever got.”

When someone you know is ill, in a crisis, or dealing with a tragedy, often the best gift you can give is that of your compassionate presence.

The gift of faith. Help people “put on the full armor of God . . . the shield of faith” (Ephesians 6:13–16). When she was 18, former supermodel Kathy Ireland, began her modeling career. It required traveling on her own to photo shoots all over the world. “Like many teenagers, I was rebellious and didn’t think I had anything to learn from my mom. But once, before a trip, my mother slipped a Bible into my suitcase. Out of boredom, loneliness, and jet lag, I picked it up and began reading. So many passages were relevant to me; it changed my life. I credit my mom with giving me faith.”

The gift of an unexpected favor. Reach out to someone—perhaps a family member, friend, neighbor, work colleague, or even a stranger— and offer the gift of a completely unexpected favor. This gift always makes an impact and becomes permanently etched in the memory of the recipient.

Manhattan Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach practiced giving this gift. One day a young man walked into the synagogue where the members had gathered for a meal. The man had obviously not bathed or changed his clothes for some time. Even though his clothes were “rumpled, torn, dirty, and emitted a sour odor,” Rabbi Carlebach led the young man proudly into the synagogue hall, his arm draped warmly around his shoulder. He introduced the young man to a woman and said, “She will gladly help you.” As the young man was escorted to a table, Rabbi Carlebach whispered into the woman’s ear, “Please give him as much food as he wants to eat.”

The woman sprang to her feet, ran into the kitchen, and heaped generous amounts of food onto a plate. In a matter of moments, the plate was empty, so she went back into the kitchen for seconds. This, too, was consumed quickly. After several more helpings, the young man appeared satisfied so the woman engaged him in conversation.

“Are you Jewish?”

“No ma’am,” he replied courteously. “I’m a Christian from Texas.”

“So how did you end up at our synagogue dinner?” she asked.

“I was sitting on a bench in Central Park late this afternoon when your rabbi walked by. I’d never met or seen him before, but he asked ever so gently, ‘Brother, do you need a meal?’ I began to cry and gratefully told him, ‘Yes, I desperately do.’ ”

Rabbi Carlebach gave the young man the name and address of the synagogue and told him to come over for the evening dinner. “That’s how I came to be here tonight. I really don’t know what I would’ve done if your rabbi hadn’t come by,” the Texan explained. “This is the first meal I’ve eaten in three days.”

The gift of listening. When you encounter people who appear anxious, irritable, or angry, offer them the gift of simply listening. Be sure to listen for the meaning behind the words. Through this type of listening, you give people a safe place to speak their true feelings and, in so doing, you offer an opportunity for them to be understood, accepted, and comforted. In his book The Lost Art of Compassion, Lorne Ladner tells of an encounter his wife, Terry, had while managing a cosmetics counter at a department store.

One Valentine’s Day, Terry noticed an older customer shouting at two of her coworkers. When she went to assist, the woman threw a near empty container of eye cream in front of her face and shouted, “This was supposed to get rid of the wrinkles around my eyes, but just look at them! The stuff doesn’t work! I want my money back. It’s useless!” When Terry asked for the receipt, the customer tossed it toward her.

Rather than becoming angry, Terry listened carefully to the woman’s complaints. At the appropriate moment, she responded, “We’ll be happy to help you make a return.” Then she paused, adding, “Your eyes are very puffy today. Is everything all right?” The woman confessed things were not all right. “I’ve been crying. Every night, I’ve been crying. You girls don’t know what it’s like to be getting old, to be alone. It’s just terrible.” The woman’s eyes welled up with tears. Listening uncovered the customer’s loneliness beneath the anger. The woman cried softly for a few more moments and then left the cosmetics counter appreciative of the fact that Terry had listened and befriended her.

This story also illustrates the next gift you can give—empathy.

The gift of empathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for a person. Empathy is feeling with a person. Sympathy is distant, detached caring. Empathy enters more closely to share and bear the pain. And it’s a great gift to offer someone who’s been emotionally wounded. Sadly, many people go through painful experiences without receiving this kind of nurture and support from others.

One woman tells of being a 16-year-old high school student when her older brother, Guy, was killed in an auto accident. He was not only her brother but her confidante, counselor, role model, and mentor. She felt comfortable speaking and confiding in him.

His death devastated her. “I went to school to pick up the schoolwork I would miss,” she recalls. “I was met in the parking lot by the vice principal, who asked me, ‘Why weren’t you in school today?’ ” When she explained, “My brother died,” his response was a weak, “Oh,” and he walked away.

Don’t be like this administrator. You’ll encounter many people, often on a daily basis, who’ve been wounded by life. Take time to be with them in their pain. Listen to them. Let them share their hurt. Offer the gift of empathy.

The gift of light on the path. Jesus described His followers this way: “ ‘You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light shine’ ” (Matthew 5:14, 16). See yourself as a lighthouse for others in the sea of life. Some may be caught in a storm, some may be drifting aimlessly, and some may be completely lost. To such people, shine some light on their path. Be a lighthouse to a young person forging his own identity. Be a lighthouse to a couple struggling with marital issues. Be a lighthouse to an older person who’s feeling lonely.

Whenever you encounter people in trouble or trauma, be there with the gift of light in the darkness. A small gesture of support or a gentle word of encouragement can make the difference between giving up or going on.

And wrap up your gifts in some attractive packaging—yourself— and give, expecting nothing in return.

Gifts That Show You Care

by Victor Parachin
From the December 2009 Signs