It’s never easy to see someone you care about depressed and down. Your impulse is likely to do anything and everything to solve the problem as quickly as possible, but what should you do if your consolations fall on deaf ears? What if their sadness is seemingly resistant to reassurance?
Here are a few ideas…
Your sheer presence is more valuable than anything you can say or do. “Maybe they’ll want to talk, and you just listen,” says psychologist Ann Buscho, author of The Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting: A Child-Centered Solution to Co-Parenting During Separation and Divorce. “Maybe they don’t want to talk, so you just sit quietly with them. Your presence can be very supportive and comforting.” They’ll let you know if they want to be alone.
In fact, allowing the person to be a desolate blob of sadness is an integral part of the healing process. “Acknowledging and giving them permission to be inconsolable is very important so that you don’t minimize their loss and despair,” says psychologist Jeanette Raymond.
If they say nothing whatsoever when you hang around, you could say something along the lines of, “If you feel like talking, I can be a good listener. If you don’t, that’s fine too.”
At the same time, try to avoid clichés. “There are so many unhelpful things people say with the best of intentions,” Buscho says. She’s talking about exhausted sayings like, “If you need anything, just call me,” or “he’s in a better place,” both of which can sound vacant and neither of which go far when someone’s absolutely devastated.
If they don’t speak up, consider what may be driving them to cope in silence. Maybe they’re in shock. Maybe they’ve already been forced to explain what’s going on to 20 other people. Or maybe they just need some time to figure out how they feel.
Their preference for quiet could also be a symptom of childhood trauma. Perhaps they weren’t consoled much as a kid, or were forced to retreat to their bedroom alone when dealing with problems. Or maybe they were always told to “suck it up,” so they don’t trust people to comfort them anymore. As a result, Raymond says the metaphorical walls they’ve put up “became a blanket of strength where the outside world couldn’t come in and threaten them with more uncertainty.”
All of which is to say, be gentle.
Bear Their Burdens
It’s hard to keep up with responsibilities when you’re having a rough go, so consider helping where you can. “Send food or a gift card,” Buscho suggests. You may also offer to take their kids out, send a housecleaner over (with their permission) or even just welcome them for tea and a movie.
Don’t go overboard with helping out, though. “They need to feel the pull of their responsibilities,” Raymond says. Eventually, those responsibilities may help them snap out of their current conundrum.
Grief can last for weeks or months, so prepare to walk on eggshells for a while. “People don’t realize how long perfectly normal grief can last,” Buscho says.
However, if your person is dysfunctional for longer than a few months or seemingly suicidal, it’s probably time to recommend professional help. Again, though, tread lightly. “If you suggest professional help or medication, it has to be done sensitively,” Buscho says. “Otherwise, you might be sending the message that the grieving person is doing something wrong.” She recommends saying something as delicate and nonjudgmental as possible — for example, “If you think it would help, I know a good shrink.”
Maintain Some Distance
Hard as it can be to watch someone you love struggle, it’s important to let them solve their own problems. It’s equally important that you don’t add extra pressure by making it about yourself, so if they’re not reacting well to your encouragement, consider taking a step back. “You may feel like that person is abandoning you by being in a place of inconsolability where you can’t join them,” Raymond says. But that’s just your own insecurities coming through.
The most important thing to remember is that you can’t solve another person’s problems for them. The best you can do is be there if they want it, but don’t take it personally if they don’t.