Sadness can be difficult to witness. Someone you care about is in pain. It makes you feel helpless and vulnerable, so a classic response is to jump into action and start offering advice. While this approach rarely ever works, it really doesn’t when it comes to sadness.
“You can’t undo it,” says F. Diane Barth, a psychotherapist in New York City and Western Massachusetts and author of I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives.
The sadness involves some kind of loss, and as Barth adds, “the only way to get over grief is to grieve.” At first, it’s not that difficult to be present and supportive. Your spouse or friend seems to be getting “better”, but then they struggle and keep struggling, and you keep hearing the same lines and your frustration builds because you don’t know what to do and you soooooo want to do something.
“It’s a messy, messy process because it’s unpredictable,” says Val Walker, educator and author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress.
But it’s not like there’s nothing to do. You can listen. There are times you get to talk. You can suggest going out for a movie or grabbing a beer. Really, there’s not much that’s wrong if you accept that it’s going to take time, it’s not your problem to fix, and you’re prepared to be strong so they don’t have to be.
And if there’s only one thing to remember, it’s to keep being the person you’ve been to them. That’s who they’re looking for. It sounds simple, and it is, but sadness has a way of making us forget what the person needs. It helps to remind yourself.
What To Do When It’s Your Spouse Who’s Struggling
Much of your relationship is unspoken, which can be effective, efficient, and sometimes fun. But being silent and hands-off can’t be the go-to approach with sadness. “Communication without words is open to interpretation and you both could be getting it wrong,” Barth says.
This is where you want to be direct with, “I’m here for you when you want to talk, but you don’t have to.” After that, you want to show empathy and understanding. It could be as soothing as, “I hate that you’re feeling this way.” It could also be as short as, “That sucks.”
What you’re doing is acknowledging the sadness. Often, your spouse feels bad for feeling bad, as if it’s not allowed. You saying the words out loud shrinks that worry and the corresponding loneliness. And if you’re not sure what to say, “I wish I knew what to say” or “I wish I could take this feeling away” are plenty supportive without imposing a solution they’re not looking for, Barth says.
The main thing to keep in mind is that whatever you say should come with zero pressure. “Be strong” or “You’ll get through this” sound helpful, but they’re not. Your spouse doesn’t feel the former and doesn’t believe the latter. “It can make them feel like they don’t measure up,” Walker says.
Now in a twist to the above, what you can say is, “I’m sorry you’re feeling this way, and I trust that you’re going to feel better.” You’ve put no deadline on the process, but you’re conveying that there is an eventual endpoint, which can contain the sadness and make it at least seem manageable. It’s like when someone is in the middle of a bad cold and thinks it’s eternal, when it’s not. “It feels bad, but you won’t have it for the rest of your life,” Barth says.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you have an established relationship with your spouse that includes inside jokes and dances that embarrass the kids. None of that has disappeared, and while you need to calibrate your happiness level a touch so they don’t feel worse, there’s nothing wrong with trying to distract them with something that you already enjoy – getting coffee or watching a cooking show with your own running commentary. You’re just not upset if it doesn’t work or they don’t want to do it.
“It’s an offering rather than an answer,” Walker says. “They can say yes or no.”
What To Do When It’s Your Friend Who’s Struggling
The same general rules apply. You acknowledge their sadness; that you’re there for them; and that their sadness doesn’t scare you. One difference is that you don’t live with your friend. You can be with their sadness and then go home, which is helpful to you but can leave your friend feeling isolated.
This is where texting especially works. “How’s it going today?” doesn’t ask for a report on everything, merely the present moment, and that can be particularly helpful for people who aren’t great with expressing feelings. But you can also just bang out, “Thinking of you.” It doesn’t stress out the person for any answer or updates. It just lets them know that they haven’t been forgotten, Barth says.
And like with your spouse, you have a relationship with your friend. Again, use that. Invite them over for the game, out for a run, or whatever you enjoy. Just keep inviting them to stuff. They can blow you off, but they also get your message of: No matter how down you are, I still want to be around you.
“Friends like to feel they’re not being pushed away,” Walker says.
And when you get together, if you think it fits, give them a shoulder bump, a good invasion of their space. The physical contact can equal physical connection. It’s also a sign of comfort and closeness that you only do with people you care for, Barth says.
With anyone, it’s the constancy and the little moments that count the most. You might feel like you need to have a big conversation, but while it might not be your intention, the implicit message is that their sadness should be gone by now. You’re not looking to hit home runs or find the one “thing” that makes all the bad stuff go away, because that doesn’t exist. It’s just about being the good spouse or friend that you’ve always been.
“You don’t need to say the right thing. The right thing is letting the person know that you’re thinking about them,” Barth says. “They’re important to you and you care that they’re hurting.”