When Robin Williams died I remember a debate over, ultimately, whether kindness can heal depression. Many felt a natural desire to reconnect with their loved ones, and made the assumption that the lack of this connection had led to his suicide. However, saying that more love could have healed Robin Williams can imply that those close to him didn’t love him enough, which from what I’ve read couldn’t be further from the truth. I was touched by the heartbreaking words of Zelda Williams, Robin Williams’ daughter: “…I’ll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay…”
Anyone that loves someone struggling with depression knows how difficult it can be. All the kindness and love you have seems to have no effect. Most people struggling with depression have loving family and friends that want nothing more than for their loved one to see themselves through their family’s eyes. Yet expressions of concern often also create unwanted pressure for a person with depression; now they need to reassure someone else that everything will be okay. Taking care of their own emotions is daunting enough without feeling responsible for someone else’s as well.
Yet knowing that someone struggles with depression – especially when it leads to suicide – naturally evokes compassion in me. It makes me want to slow down, to be kinder, to deepen my connections. But I’ve learned that my love and kindness alone can’t heal anyone’s depression. Recovery from depression involves taking risks and making changes that only that person can make. What my love and kindness can do, though, is make that journey a lot less lonely.
I’ve come to believe that what matters is to be kind and loving without expectation. When I expect something of someone, I’m subtly communicating that they need to meet my expectation in order to be okay with me. This isn’t to say that I can’t have opinions. I can share with them my hopes and dreams for their future, but that feels very different when done with expectation versus without. “I really hope you can find the strength to go to work tomorrow” feels very different if they know in their bones that my love for and acceptance of them won’t change if they don’t. Dinah Craik captures this beautifully in her book, “A life for a life:”
“Oh, the comfort — the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person — having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”
Isn’t that powerful? I love it. Cassie, one of the doctoral students at the university where I teach, said it differently:
“I want to just BE with you in moments of suffering. I don’t want to take care of you, enable you, I don’t want to worry, I don’t want to give advice, I don’t want to tell you I don’t know what to do so you have to comfort me and assure me it’s okay. I don’t want to judge you, or tell you what you could have done better. I don’t want to say one thing and mean another. I don’t want to race through thoughts anxiously about how I can fix it, I don’t want to wish away your suffering. I don’t want to tell you you’re right or wrong. I don’t want to agree or disagree with you. I want to BE. With you. Your whole. I want you to feel me present with you, and to know that it just is, and we just are. Together.”
That, my friends, is what a depressed person needs most. It’s what we all need most! Because it’s usually not until someone is loved and accepted as they are that they grow into the person they want to be. Or realize they were that person all along. Or they may choose to stay the same. Or it may end tragically. But whatever happens, you know you love them purely, and they know they are loved purely. They’re not alone.
And that’s all any of us want.