My dear friend lost her father to cancer two weeks ago. Everyone who knew them appreciated their father-daughter relationship. Sweet, connected, intimate and loving. She now lives with a broken heart. When speaking to her the other day, she said, “I feel so lost. Mark (her husband) doesn’t know what to do to help me”. What do you do when your partner is in grief?
The need to “do something” becomes strong when you witness your partner crying what seems like a river of tears. You want to help, make it better, feel like you have some control over your partner’s suffering. The practical way to help is to make meals and offer to perform extra domestic responsibilities. These gestures not only demonstrate support to your partner but also helps satisfy your need to “do something”.
However, you must be careful. These gestures will not help the grief go away. There is little you can do to influence how long the grief will last or how deep the grief will feel for your loved one. The most important expression of support that you can offer your partner is your unconditional presence. This carries more weight than any other act you do.
What does unconditional presence look like? I think many times, partners feel the need to say the “right” words, or without realizing it, lecture their partners on the brightness of the future in an effort to convince them “it’s going to be okay”. If you do this, you are potentially projecting your own concerns about the future more than attending to your partner’s needs right now. Simplify your efforts. Hug your partner if they ask for this, listen to them with an open heart and allow yourself to experience your partner’s grief without trying to change it. Sometimes your physical presence without words is enough.
To help you understand what your partner may be going through, Ashley Davis Prend, A.C.S.W., author of Transcending Loss, offers a guideline for the grief process. Through her thoughtful reflections, she manages to break down the process into accessible parts. Remember this journey is not linear. Many people move back and forth between these stages. Below, I summarize some of her conclusions:
1) Shock: Here your partner feels emotional anesthesia. They are numb. They may want to be alone or surrounded by others. There is no set time frame for when the shock ends. The goal for this stage is to accept that their loved one is dead. This usually involves the closure process of attending the funeral and burial services.
2) Disorganization: During this phase, your partner may experience a flood of emotions. They may be overwhelmed, not know what they feel, not make sense, become forgetful. During the first year of the death, they must confront many secondary losses such as who assumed what role in the family, who paid the bills, who organized the family functions, etc. The goal for this stage is to face and experience all of the feelings associated with the death.
3) Reconstruction: In this phase, your partner goes through the motions of living: going to work, buying groceries, paying bills, etc. They rebuild physically by cleaning out the deceased’s closet, sell the house, etc., and psychologically by living their life with the memory of their loved one but not their physical presence. The goal for this stage is to adjust to the new world without their loved one in it.
4) Reinvestment: With time, your partner begins to make meaning out of the loss and integrate their experience emotionally, physically and spiritually into their overall life. Forever changed, they begin to embrace life again. “Reinvestment really means accepting the loss and channeling your pain, creating something new that didn’t exist before, creating something meaningful that is a direct result of your experience with loss”.
Use this framework to help you understand your partners’s behavior. Remember that your greatest gift to your partner is to be fully present, loving and accepting of their journey.
“Death does not end a relationship, it simply forges a new type of relationship – one based not on physical presence but on memory, spirit and love”. ~ Ashley Davis-Prend, A.C.S.W.