To the Outsider Looking In

Several months after I was out of the woods with PPD, a gentleman at my church came up to me and asked if we could talk.  His niece was struggling with depression and he wanted to encourage her. He was overwhelmed, not sure  what to say or how to help. Knowing about my experience with depression, he wanted to ask me what I thought would be helpful. This is a very relevant topic as many people who have a loved one going through a season of PPD or depression can feel the same way.  They want to help, but don’t know how and are crippled by the delicate nature of their loved one’s experience.  If you or someone you know is in this position, this post will act as a starting point as you seek to help anyone suffering from depression or anxiety.

These are the main three things that I would advise if you want to be helpful. 

  1. Reach out and try to physically be with the person.
  2. Work hard to discover what they are truly saying.
  3. Be humble.

1. Reach out

Admittedly, I was a tough person to reach out to and be with during that postpartum season. Simply put, I was a major bummer to be around. It will be a challenge to reach out due to the isolating tendencies of depression sufferers, but don’t let that overwhelm you. Go to them and be with them anyway. Depressed people will isolate themselves, which is exactly the opposite of what they need. I had friends that would insist on visiting and spending time with me. One friend would simply just show up with a hot cocoa in one hand and a movie in the other. Encouragement would be interspersed in our times together and I felt loved. And that’s what I needed: friends who wouldn’t take no for answer to penetrate my gloom.

In John Bunyan’s famous book “Pilgrim’s Progress”, there is a scene in which characters, Christian and Hopeful, were locked in Giant Despair’s dungeon and severely beaten for days. I completely identified with Christian when he bemoaned their plight and cried, “what shall we do? The life that we now live is miserable! For my part, I know not whether ‘tis best to live thus, or to die out of hand. My soul chooseth strangling rather than life, and the grave is more easy for me than this Dungeon!” His fellow friend and prisoner was named “Hopeful.” He responded to Christian’s cry with  a validation and then an admonishment: “Indeed our present condition is dreadful, and death would be far more welcome to me, than thus for ever to abide: But yet let us consider, the Lord of the Country to which we are going…” 

The character Hopeful admitted that the circumstances were overwhelming and dire. Then he pointed his despairing brother to the “Lord of the County” who is Jesus Christ the Risen Savior. Where I had given up almost all of my hope, the consistent care of undaunted friends and family helped me schlep through the muck and mire. I needed people like “Hopeful” in my life to remind me over and over and over again of the path to freedom. 

Some gave up on me or distanced themselves from me. Some were persistent who kept coming back to point me to the promises of God. Of the people that stayed the course with me, I felt heard (like when Hopeful validated Christian’s statement of life being miserable) and gently uplifted by their presence and kind words.

2. Work hard to understand

When I was heavily weighed down by the discouragement and pain of PPD, I would sometimes share my experiences and feelings with others. Most people indicated that they had no understanding of what I was going through. It was incredibly lonely. My husband saw more of my struggle than anyone else and though he tried his hardest to understand, he didn’t have an experience to compare my PPD to. He has told me that it was agonizing to watch my struggle and felt like no matter what he did, it didn’t help me. But he was operating from his own limited knowledge and experiences. It wasn’t until I asked him to read the book “Depression: Looking up from the Stubborn Darkness” that his heart softened toward me. Edward T. Welch, who is a licensed psychologist and Christian counselor, guides his readers in how to initiate with depressed loved ones:

“Depression is a form of suffering that can’t be reduced to one universal cause. This means that family and friends can’t rush in armed with THE answer. Instead, they must be willing to …take time to know the depressed person and work together with him or her. What we do know is that depression is painful and if you have never experienced it, it is hard to understand.” 

(Depression: Waking up from the Stubborn Darkness, Edward T. Welch, p.14)

So, this is what I would suggest. Ask open-ended questions and listen. Let me be more clear: talk less, listen more. James 1:19 says “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” in reference to quarrels and arguments, but it is still a good reminder to seek to understand the other person above seeking selfish interests.  

One friend would simply say “Tell me all about it,” and I would unload all my thoughts at that moment. I can’t recall exactly what it was about our interaction, but I would leave those conversations feeling more understood. Maybe it was her calm, gentle demeanor or it might have been because she just let me talk while she listened. Either way, I liked feeling like a person and not a problem. 

K.J. Ramsey urges all of us to remember that people who are suffering should “be encountered not as problems to fix but as people enduring meaningful stories through which we all can behold a better, truer light.

(This Too Shall Last. K.J. Ramsey, p. 172) 

I encourage anyone who loves someone going through a tough trial (like PPD) to learn as much as possible about where the person might be coming from. Observe them, ask questions, read materials that help you to understand their struggle better, and pray for wisdom. 

3. Be Humble

It’s not up to you to make the person better.

Only God can remove the hardship or change the heart of a person struggling with depression. What you can do is make a concerted effort to understand the sufferer and show loving compassion to them just as Jesus did to the people He healed during his earthly ministry.

The Bible doesn’t say to try and make those who struggle to snap out of it or for you to stop their suffering. And Scripture also doesn’t say to leave that person to climb out of the valley on their own.1 Corinthians 12:26 says that “If one member suffers, all suffer together…” in order to foster compassion and build fellowship amongst Christians. Be patient with the downcast and seek ways to love them while they endure the trial.

So, if a conversation comes up where your loved one shares a heavy burden and you have no idea what to say or do, my suggestion is to check with your friend first. Maybe say something like, “I am so sorry you have this pain. And I want to be a friend who is there for you. What would be the most helpful right now?Do you need someone to just listen? Or would it help if I shared Scripture with you or can we pray right now?”

To the person struggling: reach out and often. Nobody knows anyone else’s thoughts. You have to be open and honest and willing to put in the work of seeking help.

The quotes from this post come from wonderful resources that I wish I had back in my PPD season. I highly recommend them for a person trying to define their struggle and/or for a person wanting to understand and help. And just to make things easier for you, I’ll list the two books with links below:

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