Almost all families seem to have at least one member who has made a career of being unhappy. In their distress, these people accuse, complain, sigh, and make it difficult for others to enjoy the moment. In their misery, it’s hard for them to let others be happy. In their loneliness and pain, they seem to do everything possible to stay lonely.

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, you’re probably dreading the fact that the cousin or aunt or in-law who always casts a pall on holiday get-togethers is going to be at your table again. You’re not looking forward to making small talk with someone who can make even the weather seem like a personal tragedy. It’s tempting to not invite such folks to family gatherings. It’s tempting to stay away yourself. But the bonds of family are such that to do either of those things just doesn’t seem right. To give in to these temptations feels like letting the bad stuff in the world win. Let’s talk about what you can do instead.

Merely “Down” or Really Depressed?

Some people do seem to look at the world through “dark, cloud-colored glasses.” Unlike the rose-colored kind, these glasses make everything look impossible, disappointing, or hopeless. People who wear them seem like they can’t be talked out of what they see or talked into taking them off. People who seem to be wearing them all the time are depressed.

It’s very important to distinguish between someone who is temporarily “down” and someone who is suffering from clinical depression. People who are “down” respond to the concern of family and friends and some common sense cheering up. Clinical depression is a serious mental disorder that needs professional treatment as well as the support of a loving family. “Down” usually has some “ups” throughout the day; depression is pervasive and affects the whole day. “Down” is usually related to a specific event; depression is a cloud that settles over someone’s entire life.

If you think a relative is clinically depressed, maybe it’s time for the family to face it together and to gently speak to that person about getting some professional treatment. Modern medicine, coupled with psychotherapy, usually can help.

Keep in mind that there are no quick fixes (and certainly not in time for Thanksgiving this year). It generally takes at least a month of taking medication to make a difference and many more months of psychotherapy to learn how to handle depression and prevent it from dominating one’s life. But even knowing that someone has begun treatment can help both that individual and the family. There’s some comfort to be found it knowing that someone is finally doing something about the problem.

Tips for Managing Unhappy or Depressed Relatives

Regardless of whether an unhappy or depressed relative is in treatment, he or she can still make the day less than enjoyable for everyone else. Here are some tried and true ideas for preventing one person’s negativity from ruining everyone else’s day:

  • Find compassion within yourself for this person.
    After all, here is someone who is partaking of the emotional feast that holidays offer and is still starving for compassionate attention. Do offer your heartfelt sympathy. Don’t get into an argument about whether the person really has things to be thankful for—it’s pointless. Even if he or she can acknowledge the truth of it, it won’t help him or her feel any better—and, pretty soon, you’re in an argument!

  • Strategize ahead of time.
    It’s not new information that so-and-so is critical and impossible. Think about ways you can excuse yourself from the situation when you need a breather. (There’s always the bathroom.)

    Talk to other family members about taking turns being the ear for the difficult relative. (It’s unfair to let anyone bear the brunt of it for a whole day.) Arrange ahead of time to have a distraction or two available. How about a new jigsaw puzzle to work on or new board game for everyone to play while waiting for dinner? How about a family-friendly video?

  • It’s hard to be active and depressed.
    Organize a hike or a walk after dinner. Touch football, raking the leaves, or tumbling with little kids is incompatible with the blues. Exercise releases endorphins, the natural antidote to depression.

  • Eliminate alcohol from family festivities.
    If you can’t eliminate it altogether, at least reduce it. Although many people have the idea that drinking makes them feel better, it can have the opposite effect — especially for people fighting depression. Depressed people who drink become more depressed.

  • Gently refuse to join in the negativity.
    It’s so easy to find things to complain about. And it at least gives you something to talk about with the person who no one wants to talk to. (Misery does love company.) But this type of complaining tends to feed on itself and grow. Next thing you know, you’ll be feeling as bad as the person who started it!

  • Most important, quietly count your own blessings.
    If you are one of those lucky enough not to have ever been depressed, you are fortunate indeed. If you once were depressed, you know how lucky you really are. Every day is a wonderful gift and every person in it who loves us (especially the depressed ones who have to struggle so hard to be in life with us) is part of that gift.

Remember, an unhappy or depressed relative doesn’t have to spoil your mood or that of the entire family, nor ruin the day. You have a choice about how you can react to such moods and such people, and you can choose to politely engage them in limited conversation. But then focus your attention and enjoyment on the holiday fun and family who are enjoying the company of one another.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!