“To Be a Friend In a Time of Need, Talk Less, Listen More.” by Elizabeth Bernstein. The Wall Street Journal, 8/26/2014.
After my mother and her four siblings became adults and began their own families, my pioneering grandfather lived on for many years in the East Lansdowne home he built with his own hands. My grandmother died first, then her spinster sister who lived with them in a back bedroom—and he was alone in the empty, once-bustling house for the first time in his life. My wife and I would often visit him on a Saturday morning. His hearing was shot, so we would let ourselves in the back door and listen for where he was. We often came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. He was never startled and would calmly greet us, always happy to see us. These must have been very difficult years of loss for him, but he gave no indication of sadness. Finally, he lost even the home that he lived in for so long and finished his last year in a Moorestown nursing home. Throughout it all, he never uttered one word of self-pity, at least to us, knowing we, with our young and growing family, could not possibly relate to his staggering losses. He is the inspiration for me now.
Aware of my age, I have tried to steel myself for whatever losses are waiting just around the corner. I know they will soon be something—I just don’t know what. But I did not expect the pain of those around me dealing with their losses. That, I was not prepared for. I feel their losses as my own, yet feel very inadequate to help.
As Roger Angell said at age 93 (quoted in the 2/13/2014 posting), “The downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.”
Helping others we love deal with their losses is the subject of the Wall Street Journal article, and it gives this list of practical advice (paraphrased here):
- Start by asking how they are doing, then listen to the answer. They want understanding, not banal advice from someone who knows less about the situation than they do.
- Don’t analyze or minimize the pain they are going through in a noble attempt to “accentuate the positive.” (“Just give it some time. You’ll soon feel better.”) That only isolates them further.
- Do not wait for them to reach out to you. Reach out to them, perhaps with only an email that does not require a reply, if only to let them know that you know and care.
- Be available to listen whenever they are ready to talk. Don’t offer to help if you are not ready or able to fully commit. (“I can’t take you to the doctor on Wednesday. My exercise group always goes out for lunch that day.”)
- Share any similar experiences to help them feel less isolated and unique, but avoid any suggestion of belittlement, such as, “Boy, you think you have it bad. Wait’ll you hear what I had to go through!” This is not the old TV show, Can You Top This. But, of course, you, kind reader, would not be as unfeeling as that.
- Suggest professional help if the depression is deep, or if there is any suggestion of self-harm. Be willing to make the appointment and take them there. A characteristic of depression is that there seems to be no hope, and there may not be for the situation. But the attitude to the situation can change profoundly. Do not leave it to them to take the necessary steps.
Experts say we are hesitant to council a loved one who is despondent for fear of saying the wrong thing. We think we know how they feel, but they know that we don’t. Any advice we give seems presumptuous and judgmental. Suggestions from those who have gone through tough times is to treat them as normal—just listen, and trust them to sort out things for themselves. A depressed person wants most of all to be heard, be respected, and gently loved.