Grief seeps into the cracks that already exist in a relationship and has equal capacity to break it wide open or to seal and strengthen it.
We’ve all heard the hordes of experts tell us there is no “right” way to experience grief. It is not something at which you can “win” or “lose.” And when you are grieving on your own, as an individual, this truth might be a little easier to believe in. But, when you are grieving as a couple, this concept can feel more elusive. A couple who is grieving a shared loss or trauma, the death of a pet or a person close to them or even a shared child, will be very tempted to expect that their grief will look similar or march to the same timeline. But because grief tends to layer itself onto our old losses and onto our personal history, it will affect each of us differently and individual reactions can vary greatly. It can be quite challenging for a couple to seek out the commonalities and simply attempt to understand the other person’s journey, rather than focus on the differences, judge them or try to assign meaning to their behaviors.
If I could go back in time and say something to myself and my husband as we were launched on a grief journey together - something I wish we had heard from one of the therapists we met with - I think it would be this:
“As you navigate this loss together, seek UNDERSTANDING and seek CONNECTION.
Do not waste precious energy comparing yourselves, looking for solutions or even relief.”
In the months following the death of our son, I very clearly remember thinking, “He never cries. He doesn’t seem sad enough. He just went right back to work. I can’t seem to get out of bed. What’s wrong with him? Or wrong with me?.” In the years since, sitting with the newly-bereaved in my office and in support groups, I’ve heard a thousand variations on this same circumstance. It is so tempting to make our own meaning of the behavior we see in others who are sharing in or witnessing our experience, but it is rarely helpful. Over and over again I see that when couples can maintain a position of curiosity about what grief looks like for the other person, they are more likely to maintain connection and avoid feeling isolated or wrong.
When I finally spoke up and asked my husband about his own ways of coping he explained to me, “Of course I am sad. I cry in my car, alone. When I’m with you, I feel like I should be pulled together so you don’t have to be. I’m tired of feeling helpless...what happened to us feels so far out of my control. Going to work makes me feel less helpless. It makes me feel like I am doing something productive, shielding you from having to go yourself… it lets me feel like I have some control over something again. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not also very, very sad.”
I was able to tell him that I was tired of feeling so lonely in our ocean of sadness and that while I greatly appreciated everything he was doing for us - things that seemed to demonstrate his obviously-miraculous abilities - I needed to see the falling-apart parts, too. Maybe he could save a little bit of his grief to do with me at home instead of always protecting me from it?
We discovered that even though we were walking through our loss in very different ways, we could still find places to intersect and overlap and we could seek to understand each other’s journey as a way to stay connected and a little less lonely in the maelstrom.
I listen to grieving and give permission for these kinds of things all the time:
Go back to work. Or don’t get out of bed.
Talk to everyone all the time. Or refuse to answer your phone or door.
Cry and wail and rant like it will never stop. Or take deep breaths and seem stoically resigned.
Go ahead, be angry.
Yes, be peaceful.
Submerge yourself in your faith...it’s there for you.
Turn completely away from your faith...it won’t go anywhere.
Read every book and blog you can get your hands on.
Or read absolutely nothing because it is all too sad.
Find a support group. Or find a therapist. Or talk to your dog.
Feel grateful for your family and friends.
Or feel smothered and misunderstood by your family and friends.
Believe that in six more weeks you’ll certainly be “better.”
Believe that forever is not long enough to ever be “better.”
When I sit with couples who are grieving, I try to help maintain a focus on how understood they each feel and on how to create opportunities for increased connection and communication. We try to steer away from the tempting distractions that sound like: “How long will this last?” “When will we be back to normal?” “How can I make him less sad?” “Why can’t she just do what I do?” (For the record, the very unpopular answers to those popular questions are: “As long as you need it to.” “That old normal probably doesn’t exist anymore. You’ll have to find a new one.” “You can’t.” and “She’s doing this the way she needs to and that’s OK.”)
It is true. There is no “right” or “wrong” way... there are as many paths through grief as people who must walk them. And when you are walking alongside someone else, chances are very good their path is going to look different.
Here are some of the ways I’ve encountered over the years that couples use to increase their understanding, connection and communication:
The Grief Check-In
When grief is acute and new, this is probably a daily occurrence. (John Gottman’s research, 2000, demonstrated that a regular check-in is a fundamental presence in the healthiest relationships. When a couple is grieving its importance is even greater.) Whatever the frequency of it, it is crucial for couples to make time to communicate about how they are feeling - not just in general, but today, right now . These check-ins often sound like:
“I had a pretty good morning, but then a song came on the radio that caught me off-guard - it was pretty rough after that.” or “I didn’t think I would be able to get up this morning, but I had an unexpected call from my sister and it really lifted my spirits. I even made it to the grocery store.”
And as grief becomes less acute:
“This week has been OK overall. I’m still having some trouble sleeping and I got angry over some really small things...but I think I’m mostly OK.” or “I’ve been feeling really sad again lately - her birthday is coming up and I’m anticipating how hard that is going to be.”
People often ask, “But won’t it feel weird or intrusive to ask “How are you?” when we already know they are obviously incredibly sad?” These check-ins are meant to go beyond the generic “how are you” and get to more sincere “how were you today, really ?” or “what’s been good or hard about this particular week?” Couples often make the mistake of assuming that because we already know the other person is sad, we don’t need to keep asking and learning about it. Grief is incredibly dynamic and complex. People are usually shocked at how complicated and multi-layered it can be; there is probably always some new twist to notice or talk about. It has never been too long to check in and ask the question, “What does that loss feel like now?” even after it’s been years.
It is very common for bereaved people to want TO DO something. Grief can propel people into action, service, and any number of memorial activities. When a couple can come up with their own way to join together in an activity that expresses their grief or helps create meaning for their experience, their connection can be immensely improved. This is sometimes a challenging endeavor, naturally, not every activity will be appealing or feel right for everyone. Not every grief-related activity we participate in must be shared, of course, but it is helpful when a couple can find at least one or two that can be. Couples who do this will nearly always report much less loneliness (which, second only to sadness, is the most commonly-reported emotion in my experience in grief support groups.)
Over the years I’ve heard so many ideas for shared grief activities: family gatherings on birthdays/deathdays, ritual visits to cemeteries, baking their loved one’s favorite dessert or meal, doing charity work/volunteer service in their loved one’s honor, a trip to Africa to dig a water well, a backyard memorial garden that is added to each year, creation of a scholarship, artwork and photo memorials, activism campaigns and legislation, annual trips or dove/butterfly/balloon/lantern releases… there are Pinterest boards full of ideas for how to connect with partners as part of a grief journey. And a side benefit for couples who create a repetitive or annual ritual is that the loss conversation doesn’t feel like it has to come to an end. This is one of the healthiest integrations of grief: the idea that we don’t have to “move on” or decide when it is “over,” but rather that it will be an on-going part of a couple’s life together.
In my own family’s experience, the differences were clear: I was much more open with our loss and would talk to nearly anyone who made the mistake of asking one too many questions. My husband, on the other hand, discussed it with virtually no one outside of family and never felt compelled to attend a group meeting. My mother cried readily and talked to friends and made a scrapbook while my father silently dug a giant hole, alone, by hand, so he could plant a tree. However, when it comes to our son’s birthday, my family is united in a whole day spent doing acts of kindness in his honor. And now, eleven years in, I feel incredibly connected every year on that day - a day that once held so much potential for disengaged isolation.
And finally, another suggestion that helps couples stay connected while they grieve is attending to self-care and supporting that of your partner. Grief takes an astonishing physical toll on most. Commonly reported symptoms are headaches, fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, muscles aches and shortness of breath. Whatever self-care routines might have been in place before the loss will most certainly be put to the test and, generally, people have to expand their coping abilities and include new tools. It is recommended to take a break from the work of grief and tend to your body and your soul and help your partner tend to theirs. Everyone must find what works best for them, and ideally, some of the self-care routines can also be shared: take a walk together, exercise, get as much sleep as possible, nourish yourselves with good food, spend time with loved ones, meditate, pray, have sex, take a trip or a long drive, get lost in your favorite music, take a technology break, go dancing, have a spa day, go see a show, do yoga, sit in the sunshine in a park, help someone else, spend time with your pet…and it is important to remember that when you feel like you can laugh again, do it. It’s OK. It’s good for you.
I still remember the first time we really came up for air and did something that looked like self-care together. It was May in Seattle - and the sun was making a glorious reappearance. On a whim, we accepted an invitation to go out with another couple we hardly knew. It was such a relief to be around people who didn’t automatically think of us as the saddest people they knew. We ate at a new restaurant in the open air where the drinks had disclaimers. We saw a rowdy live band who drank Texas beer in a smoky dive. And we laughed. Real laughter. We believed, maybe for the first time, that we were going to survive this - together.
So, if John Green is right and “grief does not change you, (but rather) it reveals you” then as a grieving couple we don’t have to fear the immense damage that loss can bring. We can, in fact, find ways to use the opportunity to deepen our relationship, create new layers in our intimacy and allow the experience to strengthen our bonds. And we can do it together.