When romantic partners grow together, it becomes inevitable that they will see each other through life's most tumultuous and traumatic experiences: death, loss, illness, failures, the list goes on. Often, you will be the first person that your partner turns to in times of trouble. It's often a lot to handle, but it's also a beautiful and necessary aspect of a strong partnership, which is why knowing how to help a partner grieve is key.
As Dr. Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist, the biggest challenge is that grieving people rarely know what they want or need in order to feel better. "But they do know what feels right and what doesn't feel right," he says. And that's why paying attention and keeping an open mind is one of the best things you can do.
While you have, of course, survived your own trying times and can reflect on your personal coping mechanisms, it is important to remember that your partner's struggle is unique and individual to them. You can't assume that what worked for you will benefit your partner, but you can listen to them, hold them, run errands for them, sit in silence with them, etc. Just be present.
As a side note, remember that in order to take care of your partner, you have to take care of yourself. Supporting them through a period of grief is necessary, but exhausting. Get enough rest, eat well, and relieve your own stress with friends, family, and relaxing activities.
Here are 10 specific ways that you can help your partner cope during tragic and stressful times.
1. Let Them Cry
No one likes to watch the person they love get upset. You feel powerless and desperate to ease the pain. You may even feel uncomfortable because you are so uncertain of what to do. But if your response to your partner's tears is "don't cry," even if it is meant in a comforting way, it can disrupt their healing process.
First of all, the act of crying can be extremely cathartic. Secondly, if your partner's grief is causing tears, then they really need to let them out in order to move on. It is something they have to go through, so let your partner know that it is safe to break down in front of you.
Since crying is not a part of each individual's mourning process, this sentiment remains true for anger, depression, silence, etc. Your partner needs to manifest their emotions, and knowing they can do so without judgement will be a big help.
2. Let Them Know It's OK To Not Be OK
Similarly, keep ensuring your partner that their emotions are valid, and that they don't need to pick themselves up and carry on just yet. "Simply be accepting of their pain or perhaps their need to avoid it (temporarily)," Catherine Saxton-Thompson, MPH, MSW, LCSW, a therapist and owner of Wholehearted Life Therapy, tells Bustle.
But if time goes on and it's been weeks or months, and they still aren't functional, gently bring up the benefit of seeking outside help. If they are missing work or falling into depression, for instance, it's time for them to reach out to a therapist for support and advice for coping.
3. Give Them Room To Grieve In Unique Ways
Remember, there is no right or wrong way to grieve after a loss. Your partner may need to cry, or take a few days off from work, or sit in silence, so allow them space to do all that.
It's also OK to plainly ask what they need. "See if they want to talk about the loss, or be held, or do something that they enjoy to take a break from their grief," Saxton-Thompson says.
Checking in will remind them you're there, while also providing them with a chance to explain exactly how they'd like to be helped on any given day.
4. Be Comfortable With Silence
Sometimes there truly are no words, so don't feel like you have to fill the silence while your significant other grieves.
As Dr. Varun Choudhary, the National Behavioral Health CMO of Magellan Health and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, says, sometimes your presence is all that's necessary. "Often, grieving people just don’t want to be alone," he tells Bustle.
Instead of talking, spend time together in bed, on the couch, on the porch — wherever they might feel most comfortable — saying nothing.
5. Offer Practical Help
The only thing that your partner really wants is for their grief to be less intense. You can't make that happen, as much as you may want to. But you can help them with daily tasks that will make their life easier.
"Don’t wait for them to ask," Choudhary says. "Instead, offer to help by bringing over dinner, shopping, gardening, etc." You can also help them with funeral plans, if that's still up in the air, or make phone calls that seem like too much.
Let your significant other know that you will take on all responsibilities. Or just do things on your own, if you know what needs to be done. Your partner likely won't be able to think of anything other than what they have lost, so this type of practical help will be necessary.
6. Avoid Potentially Hurtful Clichés
There are so many go-to statements that people use in times of loss. "They're in a better place." "God works in mysterious ways." "Look on the bright side." "Everything happens for a reason." "When my [insert loved one] died, I..."
Keep in mind, though, that not everyone finds them comforting. Maybe your partner doesn't believe in an afterlife or a higher power. Maybe they do, but that still doesn't justify their loved one's death. "The bright side" doesn't matter right now — what matters is that an important person is no longer in their life.
So instead of tossing around greeting card sentiments, "you can offer a simple expression of sorrow, such as, 'I'm sorry you're going through this,' or 'I don't know how you feel, but I'd like to help in any way I can,'" Choudhary says.
7. Let Them Talk About Things Over And Over
One of the most important roles that you will take on during this awful time is that of a listener. Your partner may initially react to the loss by not wanting to open up at all. Let them know that you are ready to listen whenever they are ready to talk.
Once that moment comes, your partner may need to vocalize the same emotions or memories over and over. That's normal and beneficial for the mourning process. If they need to talk about their loved one's cause of death, or take a walk down memory lane, let them do so as many times as they'd like.
8. Be A Spokesperson
Following the loss of a loved one, multiple people reach out to those in mourning. Their sympathy is usually beautiful and appreciated, but it can also be extremely overwhelming. If that ends up being the case, take on the role of spokesperson.
Your partner will probably not have the energy to respond to countless phone calls, emails, or Facebook messages, not to mention doing so may even be triggering, a people who mean no harm may ask invasive questions.
Spare your partner by acknowledging and thanking those people for them. It'll be one less thing they need to worry about during a traumatic time.
9. Remember That Grief Doesn't Have An End Date
Your partner will stop crying every day. Their routines will return to normal. They'll laugh again. It will be easier. But grief doesn't really ever end. It's important to come to terms with that, and to recognize there's often a lot more going on under the surface.
"It is easy to observe and assume how deeply the partner may be impacted by the loss," Dr. Sabina Mauro, a licensed psychologist, tells Bustle. "However, it is the internal struggles (guilt, feeling empty or that a part of the person is missing) that are more difficult to observe."
All you can do, as they sort through their grief, is continue to support them, Mauro says. It's an essential part of a relationship, but it won't necessarily be easy. Anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays will be heartbreaking, but together, you two will learn how to get through it.
10. Be A Stress Reliever: Sometimes Comfort Is More Important Than Anything Else
Remember, it's often tough for a grieving person to pinpoint what they need. If your partner doesn't know what will help, that's when you can offer ideas that may provide momentary relief, such a long hug, a back massage, a good laugh, etc.
Once they're ready, you can move onto other coping mechanisms, Saxton-Thompson says, such as going for a walk, planning a healthy dinner, running a warm bath. "These can all help with mood," she says, and will provide small moments of comfort and relaxation in an otherwise trying time.
Dr. Josh Klapow, clinical psychologist
Catherine Saxton-Thompson, MPH, MSW, LCSW, therapist and owner of Wholehearted Life Therapy
Dr. Sabina Mauro, licensed psychologist
Dr. Varun Choudhary, National Behavioral Health CMO of Magellan Health and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association
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