Dealing with the Effects of Grief In Your Marriage
A few months ago, I lost my dad to a brain tumor. Up until then, I hadn’t suffered much loss outside of one aging grandparent and a couple of dogs and hamsters when I was a kid. To say that I was blindsided by the effects of grief would be an understatement. I very quickly realized three things:
- I never knew how to deal with grief until I went through it myself.
- Many people around me didn’t know how to deal with grief.
- We are ALL going to go through grief at some point, so as a society, we need to approach grief differently. Individually, we need to know how to help our loved ones through tough times, loss, and grief. We need to be better prepared for our family and friends as well as ourselves.
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Grief Means Sitting in Uncomfortable Places
Of course, I had a few close friends and family who were wonderful at helping me through my grief. My spouse, in particular, has been an amazing example to me of how to help someone who is grieving. I will never forget a few years ago, I lost a cousin when he was very young. His sister was like a sister to me, and I went over to comfort her and then realized I had no idea what to do. I tried to talk lightly about other things and basically tried to make myself feel more comfortable. It wasn’t until her friend showed up and gave her a big hug that I realized: OH. I could have hugged her. Duh.
The problem is that grief feels so scary. You want to help your loved ones through it, but it seems easier and quicker to help them around it. It’s like the old kids’ book, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt“… you can’t go over, under, or around your grief. The only way is to go through it. And it helps to have someone there by your side when you do.
Differences in Grief
As much as we’d like this post to be the perfect guidebook on how to grieve, the truth is that different people grieve in different ways.
One study found showed that there are 3 different grieving styles:
- Instrumental Grievers: These are the fact-loving grievers who like to take action in the face of big emotions. They are the problem solvers who try to remain strong in the face of tragedy. They may appear cold and distant or unattached to their grief.
- How to Help Instrumental Grievers: Encourage these grievers to talk to a professional or even simply write about their feelings. Instrumental grievers might also do well to memorialize their lost loved one in some way: make a scrapbook, write down their life story, or donate a park bench in their name.
- Intuitive Grievers: These grievers seem to experience all the big emotions. They are the ones comfortable crying in front of others and find it easier to help others through their feelings. These grievers may appear overwhelmed by their grief as they aren’t turning away from the huge emotions.
- How to Help Intuitive Grievers: Encourage these grievers to write a letter to their lost loved ones and speak about them with others. Give them the time and space to feel what they’re feeling. Don’t put a time stamp on it—grief for intuitive grievers will often come and go in waves. Be there to ride out the storm with them.
- Dissonant Grievers: These grievers, for whatever reason, feel a constant discomfort between the way they are experiencing their grief on the inside and the way they are projecting it on the outside. These might look like men trying to hold in their grief to not appear weak or someone who feels they have to project a certain public persona and therefore can’t express their grief fully. They may simply not know how to grieve.
- How to Help a Dissonant Griever: The best thing you can do for a dissonant griever is to be their safe space to fall apart or even to feel happy again when they do.
The Space to Grieve
One of the best things anyone did was simply give me space to grieve. A close therapist friend of mine described it like this: grief is like your annoying Aunt Rose. You don’t like her, but she comes over anyway. She knocks on the door, and if you don’t let her in, she starts trampling the flower beds and breaking windows, trying to get in. But if you just let her in and give her a cup of tea, soon she will be on her way again. Avoiding her does more damage than accepting her.
For me, sometimes that means listening to a song that reminds me of my dad and just letting myself cry. Unfortunately, you can’t always plan a time to go sit alone and deal with your sadness. Often, it comes from out of nowhere, some unforeseen trigger causing you to break down in the worst places. If this happens to your spouse, just be there for them. Let Aunt Rose in for tea, don’t try to send her away until a better time. Provide that space for them to feel what they’re feeling, and she will slip away on her own.
Accepting Grief by Saying Their Name
By far, one of my biggest crimes against grief in the past was avoiding it. I had close friends lose parents and deal with the grief I was unknowingly about to walk into myself, and I hate to admit that I was quick to change the subject whenever their loss came up. I wasn’t trying to be heartless; I simply didn’t know what to say. What if I offended them or made them cry?
Now, I appreciate more than ever the people who are willing to talk with me about my loss. Once, I was recognized out in public as my father’s daughter, and that was such a great feeling to talk about him with someone who knew how great he was. I love when my friends ask me about him—not necessarily how I’m feeling, but what memories I have of him. What I miss most. Acknowledging the loss makes me feel less crazy for my wild emotions, and hearing someone say his name makes his life feel more real and closer than it has since his passing.
I believe this is true of all grief. Miscarriages, divorce, a home burned in a fire … loss needs to be recognized to be dealt with in a healthy way.
Of course, all these grieving styles represent extremes on a spectrum, and you or your spouse may fall anywhere in between. But simply being able to recognize that you are not alone in how you’re experiencing grief can be helpful in moving forward through it, or especially helping your spouse.
What Can I Do?
“Please let me know if you need anything.” While we all know the sentiment is kind, it also feels a bit lukewarm in the face of a tragedy. I remember hearing those words and thinking, “I do need something. I need a lot. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day until I can function. Someone to pick my son up from the bus stop. A babysitter. My house cleaned.” And on, and on, and on. But whether it’s the effects of grief or simply not my personality, I couldn’t actually find the way to ask for any of those things.
If you want to help someone, don’t ask. Just do something. Anything. If you bring dinner and they are already eating, they will eat it another day. No one is going to turn down a babysitter or help in any form if you’re truly offering. Most likely, that little idea in the back of your mind is exactly what they need. So, just do it.
Recognize Your Own Emotions
If you’re reading this because your spouse is the one grieving, then we commend you for caring enough about your spouse to read this. We want to remind you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Things will feel okay again—different, but not always in a bad way. There is a lot of growth to be found in challenging times, and your marriage can be stronger because of what you’re going through together.
Don’t forget that your feelings matter, too. Maybe this feels like a loss that only your spouse is experiencing, or it’s someone they were closer with than you were. But odds are, it’s someone you knew as well. You are coping with a loss on top of trying to care for your grieving spouse. Don’t forget to make space for your own emotions, too. Odds are, your spouse knows even better how to care for your grief now that they’ve walked through their own.
For more help coping with grief in marriage, check out our post on Breaking the Stigma of Couples Counseling. To prepare for the worst with peace of mind, read our Preparing a Will with Your Spouse post.