Harry Connick, Jr. sang the words, as did Amy Grant, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis, so it must be true, right? It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Oh yes, it can be wonderful . . . if you’re not smothered by depression.
The extra stress during this season to show good cheer far and near can overwhelm even the most optimistic soul. How can you and I avoid adding more burden to a suffering friend? Sammy Rhodes, of college campus ministry RUF (Reformed University Fellowship), has good advice titled “6 Ways to Love a Depressed Person.”¹ His tips can help family and friends show the wonderful spirit of grace to those bowed down. During this season of giving, be grace to others. No gift wrap needed…
1. Keep the pin in the shame grenade.
Depressed people feel tremendous amounts of shame. The voice they hear most often in their head is like the anti-Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting: “It’s your fault. It’s your fault. It’s your fault.” The problem is not that they don’t know what they should do. The problem is finding the strength to do it. They’re carrying a heavy load. Don’t be the kind of friend who adds to it. Be the kind of friend who helps lighten it. Don’t patronize, empathize. In the words of Brene Brown, “Shame cannot survive empathy.”
2. Don’t be simplistic.
Depression is like a bruise. Sometimes you know how it got there, and sometimes you genuinely don’t. What makes it hard is that it’s “like a bruise in your mind” (Jeffrey Eugenides, Marriage Plot). Nothing is worse than treating it simplistically. It’s not always as simple as “Take medicine,” or “Go see a counselor,” or “Repent” (usually all three will be part of the healing process). To make one of those the “end all be all” is extremely unhelpful. Help them simplify things, yes. But don’t be simplistic.
3. Take the physical as seriously as the spiritual.
Don’t give a depressed friend a book. Give them a steak instead. Preferably an expensive one. And pair it with a loaded baked potato, a bottle of merlot, and if you want to get really spiritual, a whole pan of Sister Schubert rolls. That’s what God did for Elijah when he was depressed to the point of wanting life to be over. He didn’t give him a lecture, or even a devotional. He gave him a meal and then let him sleep (1 Kings 19:4-7). He didn’t Jesus juke him. He took the physical as seriously as the spiritual. Because sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap (or a walk, or a meal).
4. Embrace awkward silence.
If depressed people could take a book title for a life motto it would be More Baths, Less Talking (Nick Hornby). If they’re really depressed, the last thing they want to do is talk about why they’re really depressed. Don’t take this as a sign that they don’t want you around. They desperately do. They just want you to embrace the awkward silence with them. It shows them that sometimes it’s ok to sit in silence because life is hard and we don’t have all the answers.
5. Help them take themselves less seriously.
One of the best things you can do for a depressed person is to help them take themselves less seriously. Sometimes when Martin Luther would get depressed to the point of spending entire days in bed, his wife Katharine would dress herself in all black and put on a veil. And when he asked her whose funeral she was going to she would say, “God’s, because the way you’re acting so hopeless he must be dead.” She had a great sense of humor. Humor is actually a vital part of dealing with depression, because if you listen closely enough to laughter you can hear the echoes of hope. Which is why an incredibly wise pastor once told a struggling friend the most important thing he could do for his depression was to watch an episode of Seinfeld with friends every night before bed. “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly” (GK Chesterton).
6. Give them grace by giving them space.
Depressed people need the space to be alone, yet the security that you’re not going anywhere. Don’t get all up in their grill. Be content to hang out on their back porch while they’re inside on the couch watching their seventh episode of New Girl in a row. They need the space of you leaving them alone, with the grace of knowing you’ll never leave them. It’s the Lord saying he won’t “break the bruised reed, or quench the smoking flax” (Isaiah 42:3) Even though our depression is hard, he’ll be gentle. Even though our depression may never go away, he promises he’s not going anywhere.
Gracious words to sustain us, year round. Thanks, Sammy.
¹ “6 Ways to Love a Depressed Person” by Sammy Rhodes, November 22, 2013, http://sammyrhodes.co/embracingawkward
Also posted in More Than Coping, http://morethancoping.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/six-ways-to-love-a-depressed-person/