We have all faced moments in our lives where we felt completely inconsolable. Maybe it was after a loss like the death of a loved one — or perhaps after a devastating breakup, job loss, or any other life-change that seemed out of our control and that we grieved deeply.
At times, though, there is no discernible cause: those of us who suffer from depression or anxiety know that sometimes our feelings overwhelm us so intensely that they become hard to shake — and it feels like nothing can console us in those moments.
But what if you are on the other end of such an experience, not suffering from these feelings yourself, but witnessing an inconsolable loved one?
By definition, someone who is inconsolable can’t really accept or receive comfort in their state, so it can be difficult to know what to do. You desperately want to make your loved one feel better, to release them of their feelings. But you also know that comforting them too intensely might push them away. In fact, you may have tried to console them, only to find that your efforts were rejected.
So how can you walk the line of supporting your loved one, and also accepting their feelings for what they are? What words of support are actually helpful, and which are not?
While each situation is different — and you will need to “feel out” the person you are consoling to see what works for them and what doesn’t — here are some general tips to make the comfort you are offering more effective and welcomed.
Don’t Say Anything
Sometimes — especially when someone is deep in the throes of sorrow or grief — the deepest comfort you can offer is your presence. A non-judgmental, listening ear. A shoulder to cry on. Someone who will just “hold space” while your loved one lets it all out.
Reflect Back What You’re Hearing
If your loved one is allowing you to be present with them, they trust you. One of the greatest gifts you can give them now is empathy. And while you are not going through the exact experience that they are, you might recall times you felt like they did — and you can listen to what they are telling you about their experience. This opens a door for you to help give voice to their feelings and gently add your own perspective.
If your loved one has lost a family member, instead of saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” you might consider something like, “Losing a loved one can hurt so deeply. It sounds like you are feeling like your world is coming apart right now. I’ve been there; I understand. It is such a devastating loss, and my heart is breaking for you.”
You might have a million and one ideas about what would make your loved one feel better, and that’s very kind, but it may not be the best approach here. When someone is inconsolable, it can be hard to listen to others’ ideas. Your opinions have a tendency to come across as judgments or directives and can be hard to hear. Instead, turn your thoughts into questions.
For example, if you think your loved one would feel better if they took a walk outside, say, “Do you think there are any activities we could do today that might bring you some relief?” This way, your loved one feels like they are in control, and can come up with idea themselves (or even ask you for suggestions!). Or, they can reject the idea, but on their own terms.
One the one hand, you want to remind your loved one that “this too shall pass,” but you also don’t want them to feel like their very real feelings are somehow invalid. So while you want to add positivity to their lives, you want to do so with discretion.
Rather than saying, “You’ll feel better tomorrow,” you might consider something like, “I know how much you are suffering today. Tomorrow is a new day, and I hope you will experience some relief soon.”
This being said, if your loved one is inconsolable to a point where you are concerned for their well-being, or if they are exhibiting signs of possible self-harm, do not hesitate to intervene and get them help right away. And if the feelings of inconsolability seem to last beyond a reasonable amount of time (inconsolable feelings lasting months or years, may actually be considered complicated grief and require a different treatment regimen), you might consider suggesting professional help via counseling or therapy.
For many situations, however, one of the most powerful comforts you can give to someone who is suffering inconsolably is simply your loving presence, a few words of compassion, and a whole lot of hugs. You need to let your loved one heal on their own timetable, which may be longer than your expectations. After all, what you want more than anything is for your loved one to feel better.
But remember that what you are doing really is necessary. None of us can get through difficult times alone, and your love and comfort does a world of good, even if the results might not be seen immediately.