I have a close friend who recently lost his mom to a long-term illness. He’s really sad and talks about dreading holidays, his birthday and other events without having her to share them with. I have tried everything to cheer him up, but it only seems to make the situation worse. Should I just give him some space and leave him alone?
– Down and Out in Denver
First, my deepest condolences to everyone reading this who has sustained such a huge personal loss. Losses sustained around holidays, birthdays, or other significant dates can be particularly difficult given the complexity of the emotions tied to certain events. I have all too much experience with these situations. My oldest brother, who was also my personal hero, died relatively close to Thanksgiving one year from cancer. I myself sustained a catastrophic injury and was stuck in rehab shortly before Christmas. I could provide you with a laundry list of such unfortunate events, but the whole idea of responding to your question is to lift you up – not bum you out. The good news – if I survived and thrived – so can your friend.
Know this – You are a true friend. It is a rare person who has the intestinal fortitude to walk through the journey of grief with someone. This leads to my first point – “Just be there.” One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received in life came from my, then twenty-something, nephew. My mom was suffering from a long-term mental illness. She was incredibly lonely and sad. There was nothing I had in my toolbox to “fix” her. My nephew, in a very short response to a question I posed to him stated, “She just needs someone to be with her.” The genius lies in the simplicity of his answer. My mom, brother, and myself only needed our friends and family to be there. We just needed somebody close by to know that they cared. That we mattered.
The journey of grief is a long one, filled with endless valleys and peaks. In some instances, that grief never completely ends. And that’s OK. The key is to acknowledge the validity of your friend’s journey. You need to listen to understand, not necessarily to respond. Do not try to cheer him up. Your companionship is enough. I have some great sources in the library that you should review and look into to gain some insight into what your friend is navigating. Megan Devine’s “It’s OK That You’re Not OK” comes highly recommended, together with her website RefugeInGrief.com. Also, review the Resources page for agencies that can assist if the concern for the depression becomes significant.
Point number two, there are certain things when you are “just being there” for your friend that you can do without intruding. Depression is very much controlled by our biology. You can give his biology a boost without him even knowing. Activity increases adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. Go on a walk while you talk. Grab a coffee. Indulge in some dark chocolate. Check out my favorite neurobiologist, Dr. Andrew Huberman, and his podcast Understanding and Conquering Depression at Hubermanlab.com to understand the psychology and related biology of depression.
All of the Best,