Supporting a loved one with depression can oftentimes be a difficult, emotional process, and searching for the “right” words to offer someone in the midst of their pain is not an uncommon struggle. In my previous post, I wrote about some of the well-intentioned things that people often say to their depressed loved ones, not realizing that their words may be causing more harm than good.
Understandably, whenever someone we care about is struggling, we yearn to fix their heartache—and may be quick to spout out eyeroll-worthy clichés, offer advice or suggestions, or default into problem-solving mode in order to rescue our loved one from the depths of despair and make their pain disappear. But it’s not our job to “fix” them. Instead, learn how to listen to your loved one without trying to problem-solve. Care for them. Be with them. Exactly as they are.
Here is a list of helpful things to say to someone battling depression (many of which have been said to ME at one point or another by those closest to me, during my own dark moments):
“Tell me about your pain…”
Open-ended questions like this will provide space for the other person to explore their feelings and reflect on their situation. Instead of saying, “I know how you feel”, you’re allowing your loved one the opportunity to share a part of their story with you and to speak about their own individualized experience from their deepest core.
“I’ve noticed ___________.”
that you’ve called in sick to work five times this past month…that you’ve been wearing the same outfit for several days now…that when I text or call your phone, you don’t respond. Focus on specific, observable behaviors, without trying to interpret, label, or judge the other person’s actions or experiences.
“I don’t know the right words to comfort you…just know that I care.”
Sometimes, we really just don’t know what to say, and it’s absolutely okay to verbalize that. It’s not always easy or comfortable to sit with someone in their darkness, and this is an honest and genuine response to share with the other person if you’re struggling for words. The second part of this statement is what truly speaks volumes, however, and will go a long, long way in supporting the other person. The best thing you can do for someone experiencing depression is just to love them. Unconditionally.
“What do you need?”
Instead of telling someone what you think they need to do (get out of bed, go for a walk, take their meds, find a new hobby, etc.), ask them to tell you what they need. They may have the answer(s) within themselves to share with you…or they may not have a clue in that moment what they need. But either way, this question will give the person a chance to “check in” with themselves and perhaps encourage them to dig into a deeper part of their being to search for their own answer. Ask the question. And then listen.
“You are important to me.”
People suffering from depression may feel inadequate, isolated, unlovable, and unworthy. They feel weak or lazy for not being able to change their current mood state. Convey to them that you value them. They matter. Their life is important to you.
“This must be really difficult for you.”
Although this is a skill that may take some practice, when you’re able to validate the feelings and experiences of another, you’re providing a space for the receiver to feel heard, acknowledged, understood, and accepted. Validating doesn’t mean that you have to agree with or accept the other person’s perspective. Rather, you’re putting yourself in their shoes and conveying to them that you understand their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The result? They feel genuinely heard.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Many people suffering with depression feel broken, empty, not good enough, and unworthy of being loved. Give your loved one reassurance that you are not going to leave them or abandon them. Let them know that you are there for them and will remain by their side—no matter what. Remember that your support and compassion are what they need most.
“How are you doing?”
I see this one as being somewhat double-edged, depending on who is saying it and how it’s delivered. Many times, it can be expressed simply as a societal nicety, with the questioner expecting nothing more than a trite response of “good” or “fine” in return. When you have someone in your life who will ask this question genuinely, then wait and truly listen for a real and honest answer, it can promote sharing and actually facilitate the healing process.
“What can I do to help you right now?”
Offer support and direct assistance to your loved one in their struggle. But be prepared to be met with, “Nothing. Go away.” If this is the case, honor your loved one’s request for space, and do just that. They may very well come back to you at some point down the road. Some folks may ask you for help with their groceries, cleaning, or for you to accompany them to a therapist or doctor’s appointment. Just make sure you follow through with whatever it is you’re offering to help your loved one with.
Although this may be the most uncomfortable choice on the list, because of the desire people have to quickly fill voids of silence, it can actually be the most powerful and the most appropriate of options. To quote Emily Dickinson, “Sometimes saying nothing says the most.” Instead of trying to fill space with words, just sit with your loved one. Look them in the eye. Hold their hand. Ask them how they are feeling and then let them talk. If they are not ready to talk, just be with them in silence. Remember that your caring presence is more powerful than any spoken words could ever be.
I’d love to hear from you! In the comment box below, tell me some things that others have said to you that you’ve found to be particularly helpful (or unhelpful).