The Best Way to Help a Partner Coping with Grief, According to Experts
Being in a relationship means being there for your partner during tough times — like when a loved one passes away. As they grapple with a variety of complex and ever-evolving feelings, you may be left lost and helpless in terms of how to be most helpful. Should you allow them to ride the rollercoaster of emotions on their own, offering an ear to listen when they need it? Should you be more proactive in helping them to heal by seeking out potentially relevant resources and suggesting therapy?
Unfortunately, grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Your partner’s reaction to their loss will depend on their own unique nature, as well as their relationship with the person they lost. That means that what works for someone else in terms of coping with grief may not be effective for them.
While the process of grieving is definitely individual and can vary, experts say there are certain strategies that may help your significant other to feel supported, loved and cared for during this vulnerable time.
How to Best Support Your Grieving Partner
According to Dr. Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist, there is a wide range of emotions and experiences that can be common after a loss, including sadness, depression, anger, guilt, regret and emotional numbness. it’s important to prepare yourself for all of them. Doing some research online about grief may help you to understand what to expect, and therefore, to ultimately be a more compassionate partner.
As a general rule, Klapow says “less is more” when supporting a partner who’s dealing with a loss. While that doesn’t mean ignoring them, trying too hard to cheer someone may unintentionally invalidate their feelings. Ideally, you want to make sure your partner knows you’re there for them, while also giving them any space they need to process their feelings.
Rebecca Gerstein, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who specializes in grief and loss, advises against forcing your significant other to open up about their grief if they aren’t ready and willing. However, she says that avoiding the subject of their lost loved one can be just as detrimental to the healing process.
“Don’t assume that your partner doesn’t want to talk about the person who died,” she explains. “A lot of well-meaning partners don’t bring up the person for fear that this will be triggering.”
While it can be painful to talk about the person they lost, acting as if they never existed may prove even moreso. While you’re at it, you may want to be careful about how you talk about your own loved ones during the grieving process.
“It’s important for a partner to be mindful about how much they speak to their grieving partner about their mom, dad or sibling if the partner has lost a mom, dad or sibling,” adds Gerstein.
If your partner just lost their sister, complaining to them about your own sister or venting about a fight you had with them may be painful to hear. Gerstein also urges non-grieving partners to mark down important dates on their calendar relating to the lost loved one — heir birthday, the day they passed away and so on. Being aware of these dates will allow you to be more in tune with any re-traumatization that occurs around those difficult times.
Therapy can also be a powerful tool during this time, but you shouldn’t pressure your partner into seeking it out. Deciding to talk to a mental health professional is a move your partner will need to make in their own time, and pushing them to do so may cause tension in your relationship or potentially breed resentment. According to Klapow, waiting at least a month to allow your grieving partner the freedom to explore their emotions on their own before bringing up the subject of therapy.
“If they are struggling after a few weeks to engage in normal activities (work, school, getting out of bed, eating, sleeping, etc.) then it may be time to let them know that you are concerned about them,” he says, noting that the only exception is if you believe your partner may harm themselves.
“If a partner is suicidal or is an imminent threat to them then getting emergency help is important,” he adds. “Otherwise, processing grief must occur at an individual pace.”
If you do eventually propose therapy, it should come in the form of a question or suggestion rather than an order. Saying, “I think you really need therapy,” which could come across as a judgment, is likely to put your partner on the defensive. Instead, try approaching it with genuine concern. You might say, “I’ve noticed you seem to be having a hard time moving forward from your loss. Do you think it would be helpful to talk to a therapist?” If they’re on board with the idea of talking to a professional, Gerstein recommends looking into therapists to take some of the burden off your partner.
“For a lot of people finding the right therapist is overwhelming, so doing the legwork to find a therapist, a group (or both) may be beneficial,” she says.
It wouldn’t even be a bad idea to accompany your grieving partner for the first couple of sessions. They may prefer to talk to a counselor alone, but at least they’ll know the option is on the table. Also, after learning the circumstances, the therapist may be able to provide some super insightful guidance for you on how to be most helpful to your partner.
If you’re really not sure how to support your partner during this difficult time, the best thing to do is simply ask them what they need from you. Regardless of how you choose to support them, however, patience is key.
“I always say this is a marathon and not a race, so as a partner, you really have to be in it for the long haul,” says Gerstein. “We live in a mastery culture that expects people to ‘get over’ loss quickly, so being mindful that it takes way longer than most people think. The goal is not to help your grieving partner find ‘closure,’ but to make meaning out of the loss.”
As you attempt to take care of your partner during this painful time, remember that you also need to take care of yourself — in other words, putting on your own oxygen mask first. Taking care of your physical, mental and emotional needs ultimately means that you have more energy and emotional bandwidth to be as supportive as possible.
The grieving process is not a straight line. Your partner may make immense progress, and then begin struggling with the loss again. As Gerstein says, the best thing you can do is be willing to “show up and sit in the discomfort.”
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