This week I have supported my husband through an incredibly difficult time. We learned on a Monday his mom had passed. It was a bit of an ordeal and I immediately rushed to be with him. Chuck and I have experienced a lot being together 30+ years, now including losing both of his parents 27 years apart. I, at the tender age of 23, found myself putting together an obituary program for his dad. And now his mom. A lot has changed but watching his heart in pain - still breaks mine.
Helping a spouse who is grieving can be really challenging. Grief can be very volatile and unpredictable.
Everyone deals with grief differently. Some people might be more communicative, whereas others shut themselves away. It can take a long time to work through, however sometimes people can surprise you and seem to progress much quicker.
The nature of grief can also be different depending on the person’s relationship and the circumstances of how the loved one died. If it was sudden and unexpected or if there were any issues in the relationship, they can be left with lots of unresolved feelings.
And progress is rarely a straight line. Sometimes people may slow down or speed up unpredictably. It might be that they find they’re better able to cope at first than they are a few months down the line, or that a setback in another area of their life — or a further bereavement — brings back lots of feelings. It all takes time - even years to experience.
How grief can affect relationships
Grief can create a whole variety of difficulties when it comes to actually trying to support someone.
It’s very common for someone whose spouse is suffering from a loss to feel they want to help, but don’t know how to. You may feel worried you’re going to say the wrong thing or make the wrong move. You may feel frozen on the spot – helpless to know how to act. Communication might begin to break down, especially if the grieving person is currently shutting themselves away.
You might also find that, sometimes, you’re on the receiving end of some of their emotions. Anger is a common response to grief — and this is often directed at the people closest to them.
It can also be a struggle to be patient. If the grief takes a lot longer – or comes on a lot stronger – than you were expecting, you might feel you’re not able to support your spouse.
Guilt can sometimes be a feeling associated with trying to support a grieving spouse — not just because you’re struggling to get things right, but also because you’re finding things stressful yourself.
So how can you help?
It sounds obvious, but the most important thing is to be there for your spouse and to be supportive in any way you can.
The biggest part of this is being flexible. If they want time to themselves, you may need to let this happen, even if it makes you feel anxious or shut out. Sometimes, the best way to be supportive is to back away a bit. And if they want to talk about things, you may need to be ready to listen and help them to express themselves.
It’s not uncommon for a grieving person to swap between these states rapidly, sometimes within the space of a single day. While this can be difficult to deal with, you may need to be understanding and ready to adapt depending on how they’re feeling.
This can also mean being understanding when they experience big flashes of emotion, or being prepared to endure grief resurfacing from time to time. You may need to disregard some of what you feel you know about grief — even if this is based on personal experience.
One way to simplify things is by regularly checking in with your spouse to see how they’re doing and how you can help. While grief is a complicated process, in many ways, it’s similar to lots of things that challenge relationships — it can be made easier by communicating effectively.
You might like to ask — every few days or so — how they are and whether there’s anything you can do to make things easier. Even if they appear to be coping, it will be a comfort to know you are there if they do need help. And if they are in need of help, they may be finding it hard to express this unless you make the first move.
Of course, they may not know how they’re doing — they may still be feeling confused and upset or unsure about what they want, especially if the grief is still raw. Again, the most important thing is to let them know you’re there and that your priority is supporting them.
One temptation can be to keep your distance until they make it clear that they’re feeling unhappy. A big risk with this is that if they don’t feel able to express what’s going on with them your distance might come across as neglect or indifference. It’s much better to find out they don’t need help by asking directly than to find out later that they did, but couldn’t say it at the time.
What if we need professional help?
If you think you or your spouse would benefit from the help of a counsellor, there’s no shame in asking for it.
Many counsellors are trained specifically to help with the effect of grief on relationships, and specialist grief counsellors can provide one to one support.
Sometimes, it’s easier to talk things over with someone who is outside of the situation — who can give a more objective view of things.
Author: Denise Taylor
I’m on a mission to help professional women thrive. Hear me loud & clear... Don’t Settle. You can have it all. I live a blessed life & you can too.