Depression: What to Say & What Not to Say

When someone is experiencing their own Desperate Days and going through grief and suffering, here are some things to say and do and things not to say and do. This is an excerpt from the message “Good & Bad Counsel.”

1. Don’t be a fixer. It’s been said that suffering attracts fixers the way road kill attracts vultures. If you have that “fixer” tendency, harness it before you spend time with someone who is going through grief. Assuming that you want things to fix things for the right reason (and that’s a big assumption), there are times that you won’t be able to fix what’s broken in someone’s life. Think about it this way, especially guys. When your wife is going through something and they share it with us, what do we guys tend to do? Shift into “fixer” mode. And what do they say, “I don’t want you to fix it. I just want you to listen to me!” Don’t be a fixer.

2. Your presence & tears often say more than your words. Pastor Charles Swindoll once told a story about a little girl whose friend died. One day she told to her family that she’d gone to comfort the grieving mother. Her dad asked, “What did you say?” The little girl replied, “Nothing. I just climbed up on her lap and cried with her.” Your presence and tears often say more than your words. As a pastor, I’ve been around my fair share of grief and suffering… families making the hard decision to take a loved one off life-support… people experiencing depression so deep they can’t even get out of bed… a spouse who just found out that their husband or wife had an affair and is leaving them. There will be time later for words. But in that moment of grief and suffering , your presence and tears say more to than your words.

3. Don’t be turned off by distasteful sights. When we journey into somebody’s pain, sometimes we experience some distasteful things. Sometimes we go to the hospital, and we get that queasy feeling. On the way to our friend’s room, we look through the doorways of people plugged into all kinds of machines. And we get to our friend’s room, and it’s not any better. Or we go visit a friend who’s going through some deep depression. We walk into their home. Curtains are closed, dirty dishes are piled up in the sink, and the house is a wreck. Even if you find yourself overwhelmed by all of this, pray to Jesus that your face won’t show it. There are times when I feel that unease come, and I pray for strength in that moment to be fully present and not distracted by distasteful sights.

4. Understand the Cycle of Grief. Grief needs to run its course, even in the lives of people who deeply know and love Jesus. The Swiss psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed the cycle of grief model. People who are suffering or grieving are usually in one of these stages. And they move through the cycle at different paces than others. Here are the stages the cycle of grief:

Denial. This occurs when the tragedy first hits. There’s shock and denial of the reality of the experience. “This isn’t happening to me.”

Anger. Frustration at God or other people sets in. This is when some uncomfortable things come out of the mouths of grief-stricken people.

Bargaining. People start bargaining with God. “God if you’ll fix this, heal this person, take away this pain, I’ll do this or I’ll never do this again… I’ll be this kind of person…” We bargain.

Depression. The weight of it all finally settles and depression sets in. Sometimes the depression comes across like utter apathy. But it’s really the person simply being exhausted by the grief and suffering.

Acceptance. This isn’t simply resignation to the reality. It’s a “I know I’ll always live with this pain, but I’m ready to move forward.”

Don’t play junior psychologist with them and tell them what part of the cycle they’re in. “Oh, you’re in the anger phase right now… bargaining will come next.” That’s a sure way to get punched in the nose. But when your friend or family member is going through grief, discern what stage they’re in and temper what you say (or choose not to say) in response to where they’re at in the cycle of grief.

5. Don’t pretend you know it all even if you think you do. Please note the intended sarcasm. The last thing a person who’s going through suffering and pain needs is someone who thinks they know all the answers to all the tough questions. Job’s friends had pat answers to every question and a fixed formula for solving every problem. There are some reasons and purposes for suffering in our lives that will only be understood on the other side of eternity. Be careful about believing that you can understand what those reasons are on this side of eternity. Don’t pretend to know it all even if you think you do.

Here are some recommended resources for grief.

What would you recommend saying or not saying when someone is going through grief and depression?

8 Replies to “Depression: What to Say & What Not to Say”

  1. As a chronic pain sufferer myself from cancer treatment I’d add: Don’t continually tell the person, “I’m praying that God will heal you”. Of course, we’d all like for God to deliver us from all things painful in life but sometimes He has another plan.

    I would prefer to hear, “I’m praying that God will comfort you in your pain”. Only those who’ve experienced similar loss can understand. – 1 Cor 1:2-3

    1. diane, i agree. while i do pray for healing for people, i always pray that God would give them the peace and strength they will need to live well through whatever God allows.

  2. Every one of these is so true – and I also agree with Diane about not focusing too much on healing when someone is facing chronic pain or health issues … having the focus be on one specific outcome can make us feel like if God doesn’t give that outcome everyone will be disappointed or that our life isn’t as valuble if God chooses not to heal us.

    1. thanks ali. as you personally know, there are times that God chooses not to heal. and if He chooses not to heal, then it means He has something “better” in mind for us. and the reason I put “better” in quotes is that it often feels like its not “better” for us. that’s where faith comes in… faith in trusting that God has our BEST in mind… for His glory and for our good.

  3. It’s comforting to know someone understands a good response to grieving.

    My cancer and the collateral damage from treatment is why I’m a part of Cancer Comfort Ministries. A Christian non-profit in Edmonds. We serve the suffering.

    Thank you!

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