Thriving, let alone surviving as a couple may seem out of reach when a family member dies. All areas of life are likely to be affected by grief. It is normal to question everything.
If you set only one goal while you’re grieving, here’s my recommendation: be emotionally present to one another and bring comfort, understanding, and connection rather than trying to fix each other.
Consider grief counseling with a professional if you begin to worry that you are overburdening your family or friends with your grief.
Please know that every couple has “cracks” in their relationship. Up to now, you have found ways to manage them. With the added stress and pressure of grief the cracks may widen or your ability to deal with them may diminish. It is imperative that you recognize these and make plans for dealing with them.
The topic of couples and grief demands a book. Yet I will summarize several couples’ issues likely to arise and will share 7 Do’s and 7 Don’ts to help you both through the loss of your family member.
You Are in this Together – Differently.
That’s because you are two individuals, and each person reacts to grief differently. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
What is important is to figure out your own way, recognize your partner’s style, and find what is common between you. Don’t judge the differences.
It’s easier to think “S/he’s not grieving right,” than it is to experience your own grief.
Another way of looking at differing styles of grief, and removing the stereotypes of gender roles, has been presented beautifully by Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin in their book Men Don’t Cry, Women Do: Transcending Gender Stereotypes in Grief (1999).
They introduce the concepts of “intuitive griever” and “instrumental griever,” and the “blended” style of grieving. In short, intuitive grieving is feeling based: crying, talking, processing.
Instrumental grieving is doing-based: reading, starting a foundation. Blended grieving is combining those two styles as it works for each of you.
When you are able to think more clearly, create a list of your coping strategies and share them with each other. Note how your coping strategies complement one another and where there might be friction.
Next brainstorm additional coping strategies that you can each experiment with. Try these experiments more than once as your mood(s) will affect it.
This process is an example of being explicit about your thoughts, feelings, ideas, views, needs and how things sound to you. Many couples’ issues arise from implicit, or assumed, understanding of the other’s perceptions.
The good news is that recent brain research has shown that people can grow and change throughout a lifetime (Cozolino, 2000), and that we can deliberately work to change ourselves (Siegel, 2010).
Enough theory. Let’s get to the essential things to know about grief and the 7 Do’s and Don’ts.
7 Things to Know About Grief
1. It can be tempting to set aside our grief, compartmentalize it, or otherwise find ways to go on with our lives without actually healing and integrating our grief. It’s hard, painful work, and there’s no defined roadmap or timeline.
You and your spouse probably will get through this on completely different timelines. Expect many ups and downs, twists and turns. Crying is okay, too.
Other types of grief also can affect your relationship: moves, job or financial loss, empty nest, loss of mental or motor function, loss of connection or sexuality. While the type of grief may differ, you are still in it together – differently.
2. Grief begets old grief. Expect grief to come rushing in unexpectedly. We don’t “get over” grief, we integrate it.
Perhaps memories of another loved one’s death will arise into the mix of thoughts and feelings you are already having.
Don’t judge your partner or yourself when this happens. Just listen and empathize.
3. Each of your reactions will differ based on who died, what the relationship was like, and how s/he died. A child’s death is usually the worst, an aging parent’s is tough yet it is at least in the “natural sequence” we expect.
If the relationship was difficult, that may be as hard, or harder, than with a close loved one.
The death of a step-child or an ex-spouse may impact you in unexpected ways – or have very little impact on one of you.
4. Grief is a part of life that is hidden in our culture. Yet it is expected for all of us.
One of the tasks of grieving is to convert the relationship with the person who has died from one of presence to one of memory – to emotionally relocate the deceased and continue living (Wolfelt, 1996).
5. After the initial shock, there are two kinds of grief: acute and abiding (Zisook, 2000); the horrifically painful loss, and eventually the softer missing over time with good memories.
It is unlikely you will get to these stages together. Be patient with each person’s journey through grief.
6. Kids and Grief: There are many good books on this topic. The high points are to explain the death and answer your children’s questions in age-appropriate ways, and to ask them if they want to participate in the funeral and/or memorial service.
7. Certain deaths are stigmatized and make it much more difficult to get the support you need. Examples include suicide, drug overdose, AIDS, even the death of an old boyfriend or girlfriend.
Support groups can help normalize your experience with these.
1. Let yourself grieve, and make time to grieve. There are many health issues, both physical and mental, that arise from not grieving. It can be very difficult to watch your partner grieve; it may activate your own grief that you wanted to take a break from. It is excruciating for many men to see their wives or girlfriends cry. Make time and space to grieve in your own way.
2. Offer support and attunement (see below for description). Do a daily check-in (Gottman, 2000). This is 15-20 minutes a day where you take turns sharing about your day while the other listens closely.
Ask questions and show your care. Do not give advice, try to fix, or minimize his or her experience. Here are open ended sentences you may try:
- Tell me more . . .
- Say more about that . . .
- What does that mean to you?
- How are you feeling?
- What are you feeling in your body?
- I’m curious about . . .
- What is most important in what you’re telling me?
- That must be [hard, sad, etc.] . . .
3. Take breaks from grieving. It’s okay to laugh, see a movie or distract yourself (in healthy ways). Schedule dates, even if it feels like just going through the motions. Do things you like to do individually and together (or at least you liked them before your loved one died).
4. Seek support from a wide range of people so it is not all expected from your partner. Family, friends, support groups, clergy people and therapists will listen, too. People really do want to help – often they just don’t know how. I encourage you to specific ask for what you want and need.
5. Be prepared for a resurgence of grief on special days, holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. Make plans for those days ahead of time.
6. Attend to your body. Have sex and attend your sexual relationship. Sex is life affirming. Sex can be a complicated issue between couples at the best of times. Sex can make you feel vulnerable, and maybe feeling vulnerable is too hard. Stay in the present, and talk about it with your partner. Eat healthy food and drink lots of water. Exercise regularly.
7. Seek professional support if grief turns into depression (e.g., progressive isolating, prolonged sleep issues, a sense of ‘I am bad’ instead of “This situation is bad,” etc.)
1. Don’t try to fix, give advice, or pass along the Kleenex too soon. Find a way to manage your own discomfort that allows your partner his/her grief. This is one of the hardest things: to see our partner upset. Grief is a natural and healthy response to death. It is not a medical condition that needs fixing.
2. Don’t judge his or her style of grieving, timing, or needs.
3. Don’t drink too much. Alcohol and marijuana are depressants.
4. Don’t hurry to make decisions. You will each have opinions on short-term decisions (about a funeral or service), and long-term decisions (about the estate, belongings and so on). The general rule of thumb is to wait for a year before making big decisions. Of course you have to make some along the way. Keep in mind you may be at low capacity when being asked to make early and important decisions.
5. Don’t disperse or dispose of belongings until you are ready. You may each be ready at different times.
6. Don’t “Erase” your loved one by never talking about him or her. Tell stories and share memories.
7. Don’t worry if you are forgetful or lack concentration and focus. It’s normal, but annoying. Be patient with your partner.
Attunement: Your Best Tool to Create and Maintain Connection
Attunement is the crux of connection. Attunement lets your partner know you are there, you care, you’re listening; you send the message that s/he is okay no matter what. First, listen well, and then feed back your understanding.
Attunement is when it is good to use “You” statements. For example, after you’ve listened to your partner, you might say, “You sound sad,” or “You feel lonely when I’m at work and you really miss [our loved one].”
This is where you don’t try to fix him or her, or minimize (so don’t say, “It’ll be okay,” and so on). Not fixing is frequently tough for men and also for many women.
When you are grieving, it is easy to quickly become irritable and defensive. And because we are human, we get defensive.
Imagine defensiveness as a wave: It rises steeply and quickly, and eventually comes back down. Your job is to breathe through it with your mouth closed. Really! Do not say anything until you are calm.
Grieving the death of a loved one is exhausting and difficult. You might want to keep the Do’s and Don’ts lists in a handy place to remind you to take of yourself, each other, and your grief.
There are many grief resources available online and in many excellent books. My free pamphlet, The Language of Grieving: A Brief Guide to Comforting a Grieving Friend or Loved One is available to download from my website, www.connect2.us.com.
If you are grieving the death of a child, look for my book, No U-Turn at Mercy Street: A Memoir and Resource Guide for Grieving Parents.
For my recommended reading list, tips, tools and book reviews on couples’ issues, please see the Connect2® Couples Blog on my website.
Most hospice organizations provide free or low fee grief counseling, and there are many wonderful grief counselors to be found.
Cozolino, Louis (2002). The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Building and Rebuilding the Human Brain. NY, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Gottman, John (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. NY, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Siegel, Daniel (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. NY, NY: Bantam.
Wolfelt, Alan (1996). Healing the Bereaved Child. (1st ed.). Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press.
Zisook S, Shear K, Irwin S (2009). Death, Dying, and Bereavement. In Sadock BJ, Sadock VA and Ruiz P, eds., Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins.
Copyright © 2012 Chandrama Anderson, M.A., MFT
About the author
Chandrama Anderson, MA, MFT is a licensed psychotherapist in Palo Alto, California (Lic#MFC 45204). She specializes in couples therapy and grief counseling.
In addition to maintaining an active practice, Chandrama speaks at conferences throughout the country. She also maintains a Couples Blog that can be found at www.connect2.us.com.
Prior to becoming a therapist, Chandrama worked in high tech at Stanford University and in Silicon Valley. Chandrama has spoken at industry conferences including Women in Technology (WITI), Seybold Seminars, Stanford’s Publishing on the Web and The Stanford Conference on eCommerce.
Chandrama is the author of Building an eCommerce Website (1998), No U-Turn at Mercy Street: A Memoir and Resource Guide for Grieving Parents (2010) and Connect2® Personality Mapping (2012).
Chandrama can be reached at 650-575-2167 or canderson [at] connect2.us.com replace [at] with @.
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