When it comes to feeling low and lousy, I can safely say I have seen and done it all. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that when you’re depressed, getting support from the people around you may be one of the hardest things to do. Telling someone how you feel can be risky, especially when you’re not sure how they’ll react; asking someone for help and support can be even worse, especially when you’re not even sure what they might be able to do for you.
A couple years ago, I was working with a psychiatrist in a residents’ clinic. He had a great sense of humor, a very thorough approach to things, and he was always impeccably dressed. But the thing I liked most about him was how genuine he was in everything he did. He was still doing his residency, and so when I started working with him I didn’t expect him to necessarily have the seasoned wisdom of someone who’d been in the profession for several years. It turned out, though, that he didn’t need it; he had the sort of compassion and empathy that you’d want anyone in psychiatry or any kind of therapeutic capacity to have. And on the days when things seemed the most bleak to me, he had four words that were always a comfort: “I’m sorry you’re suffering.”
It’s an incredibly simple phrase, and also incredibly effective and powerful. It’s hard to know what to say to someone who’s depressed or deeply saddened by something. Depression in particular is a strange animal for those who haven’t experienced it firsthand; it can even be hard to see or relate to in others for those who know what it feels like. Knowing what to say or do can often appear like an insurmountable challenge. The truth of the matter is, though, that it takes very little to communicate a lot.
Something like “I’m sorry you’re suffering” allows the speaker to acknowledge that their interlocutor is going through a difficult time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the speaker completely understands the experience, or claims to know how to fix it; these things aren’t needed. It does, however, put both the speaker and the depressed party in a position where they both can recognize their relationship to each other, and obfuscates the potential for miscommunication–one of the worst things that can happen is that both people remain silent, or fail to appropriately convey what’s going on.
Hopefully, the phrase can also serve to put the people involved at ease, and facilitate a conversation about what’s going on, or maybe other ways in which the speaker can support the person who’s depressed. The next steps may be just as simple as the first one: I know that when I’m depressed, sometimes the best thing someone can offer me is just their company, or a hug. The most important thing is understanding how crucial that first step can be.