Grieving is an intensely emotional and unstable process in a marriage. As one or both partners grieve a loss, couples tend to downplay the extent of the stress it places on their partnership. They might not even recognize that escalation of fights or tension has its underlying source in grief. Marriages can expect to go through a period of turbulence.
If a marriage or partnership is to survive this difficult time, communication is critical. Many couples find that, at the very time they most need to, they are unable to talk with one another in a meaningful and supportive way.
With so much at stake, partners tend to hide their vulnerability and needs, mask their anger, and avoid discussion of sensitive issues. Unexpressed feelings then find expression in distorted ways—for example, in explosions of anger, repetitious arguments, and sarcastic and belittling comments.
After the death of a loved one, partners are more likely to take marriage much more seriously. They realize in a concrete way that time is limited, life is precious, and love is more important than anything else. This awareness can inspire partners to work on their communication in order to heal the patterns that might have created distance instead of connection and intimacy.
James and Cecile both lost their fathers suddenly to heart attacks, Cecile’s two years before James’s. As is often the case, the first death was the most difficult for their marriage, because James did not really understand what Cecile was going through. With the second death, their shared experience of loss drew them closer and helped them resolve earlier misunderstandings and hurt.
In the devastating loss of a parent, James and Cecile both appreciated the fact that the companionship and support of a partner are priceless. They each expressed faith in their partner’s ability to come through for them in the future. With this new understanding, many people have set out to challenge the conditioning that holds them back from the loving and supportive relationships that they want and deserve.
Here are eight suggestions for grieving partners:
1. Remind each other that grief creates considerable stress in your partnership/marriage. Escalation of fights and tension is common.
2. If you are the non-grieving partner, educate yourself about what your grieving partner is going through: talk to others about grief, read books, listen to podcasts to learn whatever you can about the nature and timing of grief. Understand that people grieve in different ways.
3. Actively communicate with one another. Set aside specific times to talk, exploring how you are supporting one another, what you need from one another (the nongrieving partner has needs too!), and how grief is affecting the relationship.
4. Take time for yourself, without feeling guilty for withdrawing. You need solitary time for reflection and healing.
5. Look at the issues that surface in your marriage—resentments, walls between you, compromises, unhealthy conditioned responses. Consider couples therapy for healing unresolved issues.
6. Review from time to time the daily losses your relationship has encountered. Have these losses been acknowledged, grieved and integrated into the marriage? Some losses may need additional healing—perhaps a miscarriage or infidelity. You may want to draw a loss timeline (p.16-19, Honoring Grief) to get an overall perspective of the presence of loss in your relationship.
7. Use grief as an opportunity to be more vulnerable and open with one another. Grief opens hearts.
8. Acknowledge that grief will change you and your relationship. Explore new visions and possibilities for a more meaningful and loving life together.