Has this happened to you? You are feeling sad, scared, or vulnerable. You share those emotions, and the response you get is not what you expect. You may not be able to recall the exact words someone said or what the well-meaning piece of advice they gave was, but you remember how it made you feel: diminished, condescended to, misunderstood.
We’ve probably all done it. In an attempt to make someone feel better, you said: “I know how you feel.” In trying to show you could relate to their pain with your similar story, you made it about you, not them.
The sad truth is, we only learn what not to say the hard way, when we’ve had something said to us that feels like a punch in the gut. Then we realize we may have done the same thing to someone at one point.
I had a miscarriage when I was 40. The pregnancy was a total “oops,” and after we got over the shock of my being an “older mom” and the fact that there would be an 8-year separation between the new baby and our youngest-we were excited. At the second trimester checkup, there was no heartbeat. We were told my body would “spontaneously abort”, and when that didn’t happen, they induced labor, and I delivered a tiny baby girl. I wasn’t prepared for the grief I felt. I had known many people who had miscarried, and I realized that I didn’t understand how hard it was, and that this growing baby was already a part of you, your family, your future. It was then I realized that I probably said things to others that were not helpful when I heard them said to me. “Things happen for a reason.” “There was probably something wrong with the baby.” “God has a plan.” “You can have another.” “You were on the older end, having a baby would have been hard.”
Two years after that, my husband got a cancer diagnosis and was gone the following year. More well-meaning phrases: “He’s in a better place.” [I’m not] “You’re young; you’ll remarry.” [Oh great, I’ll set up my dating profile right now.] “It was God’s will.” [Well then, He is mean] And the best one ever… “At least you’re skinny. If I were widowed, no one would want me cuz I’m fat.”
Everyone meant well. I didn’t hold any of those comments against anyone and don’t even remember who said what (except for the skinny comment, but actually, that one cheers me up every time I think of it!) I do know that my experiences helped me learn what NOT to say when someone feels bad about the most mundane thing (like the weather) to the most serious (grief).
Lately, I’ve been struggling with a seemingly mundane thing, but it is NOT mundane to me. I’m a glass-half-full person and positive in my overall life outlook, so this funk I’m in is starting to concern me. But since this happens to me about this time every year, I now understand it to be a genuine seasonal depression. The odd thing is, it occurs not in the dead of winter, but in the Spring. The gray skies, cold and snow don’t bother me from December to March, because my expectations are low. By April, I start to get hopeful, though, even though I should know that Spring in Ohio is a big tease. But like Charlie Brown trusting that Lucy won’t pull that football away, a sunny 70-degree day has me setting up the patio furniture, only to clear snow off of it the next day. Add that to this year’s pandemic fears, being isolated away from my family, and the onslaught of negative news, and I’m at my wit’s end.
Listen, I logically know there are far more serious problems in this world right now. I know I should be grateful I have a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and an amazing husband who is doing this stay-at-home thing with me. And I am! But still, I struggle. And sometimes, I share that struggle thinking it can be therapeutic; that maybe others feel this way too, and if so, it’s helpful to know we are not alone.
What is not helpful? Being told to: focus on the positive. Smile. It’ll pass. It could be worse, and other well-intentioned platitudes that shame and gaslight what for me is very real.
So what can you do or say when someone you care about is struggling with depression, seasonal or otherwise, grief, loss of a job, or pandemic fears? You can offer two things: acknowledgment and support. Acknowledge their feelings regardless of whether you relate to their pain or not, and keep your words to ones of support, not advice
Acknowledgment phrases: I can see that you are in pain. I’m so sorry you are hurting. This sucks (one of the most comforting things someone said to me after my husband died) because it just does. This must be so hard. I can see you are frustrated/angry/sad.
Support phrases: I’m sorry. My heart is heavy for you. I wish I knew the magic words to make you feel better, but I can listen. I’m here for you now, and I’ll be here for you down the road as you go through this. Support actions: Show up with a cup of coffee. Suggest you go on a walk. Offer to do a grocery store run, mow the lawn, clean the house, watch their kids, walk the dog.
Acknowledging feelings and offering support are often the most helpful things you can do.
And if you find your words moving from support into advice or platitudes that sound like a self-help meme–however well-intentioned: STOP.