I bumped into a friend recently whose wife had lost her job a few months ago. As we chatted it became clear that she was depressed. She was grieving. It made me wonder what advice I could give to my friend about how best to support his wife.
We know that ‘depression’ quite often forms part of a person’s grieving process and, as such, is a natural way of coming to terms with loss. It is not the same as clinical depression and I feel it is a shame we haven’t the vocabulary to express it in a way that doesn’t more clearly delineate this. In my mind, the ‘depression’ experienced in grief is a period of sadness, specifically associated with loss, which is to be expected. It does need to be watched as it can turn into clinical depression and is obviously linked to the complexities of the individual and the full circumstances of their lives.
None the less, it is ‘normal’ for people to be sad for a period of time after loss. So how do we support people when they are in this state?
It’s a tough question to answer because in part we need to let the individual have the space to feel sad and process their loss. I have heard of GPs who won’t prescribe anti-depressants to people who are grieving and of counselling organisations who won’t provide support in the first few weeks of their bereavement. In any case, I would always urge those who are wanting help to seek it as soon as possible.
People will have good and bad days. The thing to watch for is when the bad days seem to be continuous. A person may not recognise they are depressed and may need to be coaxed into acknowledging their situation. Remember that the sadness may not be felt immediately following the loss, it may be some time later when the individual has had chance to assimilate their loss or when it’s triggered by a key date or time of year such as Christmas.
It’s a difficult issue to address and some people will not open up ever, but, if you are worried about someone, try gentle questioning starting with something like ‘You seem a bit low at the moment, are you OK?’. If the answer is ‘Yes’ follow on with ‘Are you sure? You can talk to me if you want to’. If I knew the person well I would say something like ‘I’m worried about you. I think you should see a doctor/counsellor or talk to someone’. Avoid being heavy handed or challenging the person as it could just lead to resistance.
Opportunities to listen
When I felt depressed after my mother died. I did tell a few of my friends, some of whom (bless them) weren’t very good at supporting me. They didn’t know what to say. So, if someone does tell you they are depressed try ‘How long have you been feeling like this?’, ‘Do you think it’s because of your mum?’, ‘Do you think you need to see a doctor or counsellor?’, ‘Is there anything that makes you feel better?’
Just giving someone the opportunity to open up might help a great deal. If you’re the kind of person who likes to do things to help you could do some research on which bereavement charities and groups are situated in your friend’s area. There are all manner of organisations out there providing support which many of us are unaware of. You could also ask your friend if there’s anything practical they might need support with. If they’ve got children, maybe arrange to do something where the children can have some fun.
We can become very insular when we are depressed, we lose our ability to think about others. It’s not intentional. It is hard coping with someone else’s unhappiness over a prolonged period. The more familiar you are to the individual the more likely you are to just be the part of their new norm – you won’t necessarily be seen as a source of support. The trick in this situation is finding someone external to the relationship for them to open up to.
Try to be patient and supportive and make sure you have someone to talk to too. If you are concerned that the individual is clinically depressed seek advice from a GP or mental health specialist as soon as possible.
If you want to learn more about how to support bereaved colleagues see details of our Managing the Impact of Grief in the Workplace workshop in our ‘Services‘ section