If you’re in a relationship for long enough, eventually one of you will experience a major loss. The death of a parent or family member, whether of origin or chosen, can be one of the biggest life changes to have to cope with. On the stress scale, it’s up there with divorce, getting fired or laid off, major illness, or a jail term. When your partner experiences that kind of loss, it’s easy to feel helpless or awkward or like you don’t know what to do. Here’s where to start.
Let Your Partner Feel Their Feelings
Your partner’s grief is (1) theirs to feel and (2) theirs to process and move through.
Is it hard to see your partner sad? Yes. Is that as hard as the type of loss they’re experiencing? It is not. Sure, you miss seeing them smile and laugh as they head out the door for the day. You want them to get back to their “normal” self. You want them to be able to comfort you when you have a hard day. You want them to reassure you that they’ll be back to their old self in no time. But they can’t. For one thing, that’s not true. Grief can change people. For another, it’s not fair to ask someone grieving if they can share the timeline on that with you. They won’t know, for one, and that’s not how it works, for another. Instead, you can support them in ways that feel good to both of you and give them time to go through it.
Ask What They Need (But Remember That It’s Okay If They Don’t Know What They Need)
Even if it feels like it should be obvious between you, ask your partner how you can support them as they grieve. “What can I do to support you?” is a classic, but sometimes can be too broad to feel useful. “What would feel good to you this evening?” is a lot more specific.
Don’t fawn, and don’t offer things that you don’t have the bandwidth to follow through on. At a certain point, you also have communicated that you are available should they need something, and that they will ask if they need it. Anticipating what someone else needs and trying to meet their needs before they express them is not healthy and won’t establish good relationship dynamics now or later. Your partner is sad, not helpless. Let them advocate for themselves and their needs – just make sure you listen and create the space for them to do so.
Remember That It’s Not About You
When someone acts differently towards us because of things happening in their life, it can be hard to remember that it’s not personal. But it’s not.
Although grief is a part of life, it can be one of the most difficult and painful experiences anyone can go through. Emotions can range from almost feeling nothing or “numb” to extreme sadness. Going through grief is usually a very lonely experience where most people feel completely disconnected from the rest of the world. The grieving partner may tend to isolate as they try to really accept and make sense of what has happened. They will probably spend a lot of time internally processing their thoughts and managing their painful emotions.
Give Your Partner Space to Share
Sure, you can say “I’m here to listen if you want to share.” But saying it is different from making space for it. What questions can you ask to make that space more explicit?
For instance, if your partner has lost a parent and wants to start a Friday spaghetti night because that’s what that parent did and it makes them feel connected to that memory, ask questions. When did they start spaghetti night? What was their recipe? Was there anything else on the table your partner wants to include? Being curious and interested is what really creates space to share.
There truly is no time limit for how long someone can take to grieve. You may miss your partner – but your partner is still your partner, they’re just going through something. Take care of your own needs, give them room to express theirs, and be gentle – you’ll want the same things when it’s your turn.