Supporting a friend or family member suffering from Depression can be tough. In episode 259, I received a question from a listener who was at a loss in what to do when trying to support her mother-in-law who had spiraled into depression after her son took his own life. In this post, I take a look at this in more detail and outline my thoughts on how you can support someone struggling with depression.
Hey Dr. Duff, my someday-to-be mother-in-law has lost her son to suicide. He just had a baby and was planning a wedding. The baby mama is very cold and distant to her since the beginning of the relationship. My mother-in-law is someone who spreads the gospel, helps strangers, and loves everyone even through her own depression. Recently, my boyfriend and I witnessed her have a breakdown. She became the opposite of who she is and threatened to take her own life. We had never seen her get to this point before. This is a pain I can’t imagine and I feel lost on how to be there for her. How can I be a better support for her? P.s. thank you for creating this podcast and your F**k Depression book. You’ve helped me visualize my struggles in a different light that lead to better days.
Wow! What a tough situation. My condolences to the whole family.
It sounds like from the outside, this sort of came out of nowhere. That’s one of the things about depression and suicidality. I have actually talked about this a lot with people recently. They try to keep themselves safe by staying hidden. There may be thoughts that you have that you can recognize are not helpful or logical, but you don’t share them with others because depression tells you to keep them private. The thing is, suicide risk becomes much greater when it’s suffered in isolation.
All of this is to say that I understand how it can seem like it doesn’t make any sense from the outside, but there may be a lot that even close people just weren’t aware of because it was happening under the surface and was being hidden away.
Understanding the situation
This is a really tough situation for your boyfriend’s mom. There are so many layers to the difficulty of what happened. It can be unimaginably painful to lose your child. That it was death by suicide can elevate that difficulty even further. That it happened in the context of a new baby and plans for a wedding just compounds things and adds to the shock of it all. She is going through a very confusing and painful grief reaction right now.
You mentioned that she has her own depression and this is very likely causing a worsening of that. It sounds like she tends to be a very optimistic person and tries to have hope for the world, but this may feel like a confirmation of some of her worst fears. At this level of pain, it is normal and understandable that her regular forms of coping aren’t doing the trick and that her normal self-care has broken down. I’m not sure exactly when this happened, but it sounds like it was somewhat recent.
I know that it also probably hurts and feels scary and confusing to see her like this as well when she is normally such a kind and resilient person. Please keep in mind that the life she knew has totally been annihilated and she may have not seen it coming. She may also harbor some self-blame about it as well. I don’t know much about the situation or about anyone involved, but in many cases, it isn’t a big leap for someone who has a history of depression and loses a child to suicide to blame themselves for “giving” their child mental health issues.
Time is needed
Please know this – there is no perfect way to help here. This is something that does not have a solution. Her son is gone. Nothing is going to fix that. She can absolutely return to a better level of functioning and she can still live a wonderful life, but it will take some time to get there. In other words, if she is struggling hard, that’s not because you or her are not doing enough. That’s because that’s just what happens when you lose a child to suicide.
You just being there and caring is already a huge deal. You can help her understand that she’s not going through this alone. It can feel shallow and you want to be sure to not burden her with managing your guilt about not knowing how to help her, but a few reminders go a long way. She may not make use of your help right now and there may not be much that you can say, but simply telling her that you are there, that she is not alone, and that she is allowed to struggle can go a long way.
You may also be able to make a difference by making her life easier. One of our go-to methods of support is to buy people Postmates gift cards or something like that. This is especially helpful if they are typically expected to feed their family. You know her better than I do, so if there are any ways that you can help her not have to work hard, make big decisions, etc. that could go a long way.
If there is a way to direct her to professional help, that could also be really important. She may have a lot of friends and family support, but there is something to be said for having professional help and someone that you don’t have to filter yourself at all around. She may have a reputation that she tries to live up to in her daily life and especially if she is religious how you mentioned, she may feel guilty about burdening other people or being inappropriate in some way. Maybe she needs a place that she can really let go. If she is active in a church or similar organization, maybe there is a pastor or elder that she can speak to as well if she hasn’t already.
Essentially what needs to happen is for her to survive long enough for her psyche to do the automatic work of healing. This will take time and she will never be exactly the same. But she will gradually become more comfortable and functional and safe.
So do what you can. Check-in. Remind her that she is loved. Make her life easier in any way you can. Ask if she’s getting help. And repeat. That’s really all you can do here. It’s a shitty situation and it’s going to feel shitty until it starts to feel less shitty. Now is not the time to look at the silver lining or to make her understand that she can still have purpose in life. Now is the time to be kind, soft, supportive, and help her get through this period of time.
You can listen to this on Episode 259 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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