Sometimes people are sad. There can be all sorts of reasons why a person might be sad, ranging from intense personal loss to an imbalance in one’s brain chemicals and all sorts of other things. I don’t mean this to be targeted to any specific type of sadness, but more just sadness in general.
I’ve been running into an increasing number of people wondering about how to talk to or interact with loved ones who are sad, and I’ve also had a lot of experiences with times I have been sad, and people who care about me not knowing how to react or what to say. I know, the internet already has guides for talking to depressed people and whatnot out there, but I figured I might as well throw another one into the mix.
Now, I am not an authority on sadness, or on talking to sad people. The most I can claim is a whole lot of experience being sad, and experience with people saying helpful things and unhelpful things. However, people are individuals and no one answer will work for everyone. The best I can offer is general guidelines and directions to go when talking to someone you love who is sad. Ultimately, though, your best bet is to ask them what they need, and then believe them.
All that said, the first thing I want to address is a really big no-no; a mistake I see far too often. Never ever try to fix it. I think, when faced with someone who is extremely sad, people get uncomfortable. You may want to help but not know how, so you go into “fix it” mode. This is a Very Bad Idea.
With most of the types of sadness that I know about, there really is no fix. And even if there is a possible path to fixing it, the path is almost certainly long and stressful and fraught with difficulty, and the sad person will have to do most or all of the work themselves. If they are sad due to loss or mean brain chemicals or something, there really is no fixing it. There is only going through it. Trying to fix, while you may be trying to be helpful, can actually just come across as belittling. Don’t do it.
So what can you do instead?
Well, it may seem like a useless, not-helping thing to do, but you can offer comfort, acknowledge their pain and sadness, and be willing to sit with them and love them anyway.
I know that when I am sad, these are the things that people can offer that help me the most. These are the things I crave. These are the things that are surprisingly hard to come by because people are too busy either not knowing what to say, or trying to fix that which they cannot fix.
It’s like that Hyperbole and a Half metaphor with the dead fish. People kept (metaphorically) trying to help her find her fish or reassure her that her fish weren’t dead or otherwise try to fix the problem but these were ultimately completely useless things. Just acknowledging the very dead state of the fish, and telling her that you like her anyway was all she wanted, but people were too busy trying to look on the bright side or be cheerful or fix things to do that.
Sometimes a person will be sad because they are dealing with something in their life that is very stressful. I’ve seen people feel guilty for spending time with a friend who is dealing with Stressful Thing, or wish they could help but felt helpless to do so. So I just want to say – if a friend of yours is dealing with a Stressful Thing, time with you can be time off from The Thing. Maybe they’ll want to talk about being sad, or maybe they’ll want distraction and someone cheerful to be around, or maybe something else entirely. I don’t know. The point is, you can be very helpful just by being a friend, even if you aren’t doing anything extraordinary. So if you want to help a sad friend, be willing to do that.
Feeling helpless or useless or uncomfortable when someone you love is sad is fairly normal. It can be hard to deal with. Also normal but BAD – don’t do this – is dumping all those feels onto the sad person that you want to help. Never, ever put the person you should be comforting into a position where they feel the need to comfort you. If you need to talk about your feels in this context, go to your own support network. Or as Susan Silk and Barry Goldman say, comfort in, dump out.
Finally, always take care of yourself. It’s really awesome if you want to be supportive to someone you love, even if they are very sad, and I congratulate your for it most heartily. The world needs more people like you. An important step in this process is making sure you are stable and ok; if you sometimes need to take a step back to breathe and recover, then do so.
If I was going to try to sum this up, I’d say let go of trying to do big gestures, and remember that the small gestures are a lot bigger than you might think.