Updated: May 29
At some point, we all have a friend, family member, or co-worker who goes through a difficult time. Whether they’re grieving a lost loved one or navigating a period of depression, it can be tricky to figure out how to continue to show up for them in a meaningful way.
We often try to get back to our daily lives as quickly as possible once the acute grief period has passed. That means those daily check-ins with loved ones, the lifeline that helped them get through those tough times, become less and less frequent. But it’s during this time–the “chronic” phase of grief–that our loved ones often need us the most. Once the constant barrage of phone calls and casseroles dies down, the loneliness starts to really set in.
If you’re searching for ways to show up for the people you deeply care about, the following might help:
Try not to give a depressed person advice on how to “get better.” The intention is good–you want them to heal! – but what you’re actually conveying is that you don’t understand what they’re going through. Instead, create an atmosphere in which they can share their experience. Swap the question “How do you feel?” for “How do you feel today?” It acknowledges the fact that every day is different, and you’re dialed in and wanting to know the specifics.
Don’t be afraid to mention the person they’ve lost. They want to remember, and it means everything to know that they’re not carrying that memory alone. You aren’t going to make them uncomfortable. If you don’t know what to say, ask them to tell you a favorite memory, like “What was the most fun thing you ever did with your dad?”
Don’t ask them what you can do; just do something, whatever it is. You know this person well, so you know what will make a difference in their day: bring food, wash dishes, etc. This moves the burden of deciding on a helpful action from the grieving or depressed person (who probably can’t handle it) to you, who probably can. Rest assured that it doesn’t have to be the “right” thing. Any loving action is a huge positive.
In a recent editorial in the New York Times on this subject, David Brooks writes: “A friend’s job in these circumstances is not to cheer the person up. It’s to acknowledge the reality of the situation; it’s to hear, respect and love the person; it’s to show that you haven’t given up on him or her, that you haven’t walked away.”
Small touches make a huge impact for those suffering, whether they’re quick emails, texts, or postcards to let them know how much they are on your mind. For example, when he wrote about his own depression in The Atlantic last year, Jeffrey Ruoff mentioned that his brother sent him over 700 postcards over the years, from all 50 states, Central America, Canada and Asia. Jeffrey Ruoff writes: “Wherever he bought the postcards, I know he didn’t travel to all these places. On the front of one, a city skyline; on the back, the promise that my pain would one day be ‘a distant memory.’” Those kinds of small touches say: I’m with you. No response necessary.
Are there other ways that you’ve been able to help your friends work their way through despair, depression, or grief? Let us know at email@example.com, and we’ll share them in a future post. Your responses will be anonymous.