When you and your partner exchanged vows on your wedding day, you may have used some sort of sentiment describing “for better or for worse.” While you know that you will be there for your partner in times of need and great sadness, it takes on an entirely new meaning when an event of such nature actually happens.
The knowledge of how to help your spouse deal with the death of a parent does not come naturally to most. In fact, it’s usually not something that we mentally and emotionally prepare for, even though we know full well that such a day will come. “Experiencing a significant loss changes you forever, and while it might be obvious that a person who lost a parent, for example, would be in grief, there is also the less-obvious but very real impact on the partner,” explains Emily Shutt, A.C.C., W.P.C.C., Certified Grief Coach and Founder of Umoya Institute. “You're essentially tasked with learning very quickly how to interact with and support someone who might seem like a different person entirely.”
The changes in your partner after the loss of a parent may last merely a few weeks, but may carry on for many years—and that's what makes it tough, notes Shutt. “There's no real timeline, so the challenge for both partners is to learn to stay connected and open through all of the waves of grief rather than just trying to ride it out until your partner is ‘normal’ again,” she says. “While both partners might be grieving the loss of the person who died, the ‘less impacted’ partner is also likely grieving the loss of the person their partner was before, and a lot of times that isn't acknowledged at all.”
It’s also important to acknowledge that people grieve in different ways. In other words, couples experiencing a grief situation may not share the same grief process, explains Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. “In such cases, the partners have different rituals, values, expectations, or customs that may divide them and challenge their unity,” she says. “One partner may need hand holding in a way that the other partner is not used to providing.”
While the road to recovery after the loss of a parent is certainly not linear, there are several things you can do to help ease the healing process for your partner. Here, experts share their best tips and strategies for how to support a grieving partner during the loss of a parent.
Manage your own expectations.
Whether or not you’ve experienced losing a parent firsthand, you may have your own beliefs about how a person should grieve the loss, explains Emily Guarnotta, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist and blogger at The Mindful Mommy. “Remember that grief is a personal experience that affects each one of us in its own way,” she says. “Be careful about expecting your partner to grieve in a specific way and make an effort to respect their own grief process.”
When helping a partner deal with the loss of a parent, Guarnotta recommends educating yourself on the stages of grief mode developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. “People may go through one, several, or all of these stages and there is no specific order,” she says. “Having knowledge of these stages can help you better understand your partner and where they stand in their process of grief.”
Acknowledge that you can’t fix the problem.
When we see a loved one suffering, it’s only natural to feel an immediate urge to try and resolve the problem at hand. However, Shutt points out the importance of acknowledging that grief can't be fixed, it can only be witnessed. “A lot of times we think we need to be doing or saying something profound to be a part of the solution to a problem, but the most valuable thing we can offer to support a grieving partner is open space to share (or not share) how they're feeling, without trying to change it or distract them from their pain,” she says.
Rather than trying to "fix" the situation, Shutt suggests trying to anticipate your partner's basic needs in an effort to help make their days go a bit more smoothly. “That might mean walking the dog when it's usually their ‘job,’ running errands, picking up their favorite meal for dinner, doing the laundry or dishes, etc.,” she says. “Just paying a bit more attention and doing things without being asked will go a long way.”
Say their parent’s name out loud.
One of the biggest fears of grieving people is that their loved one will eventually be forgotten, explains Shutt. “While hearing the name of their loved one out loud can be painful at times it can also be cathartic—a reminder that their loved one was known and loved by others,” she says. “It’s really meaningful to hear other people talk about our loved ones who've died, and relate to them in new ways through the memories of others.”
Recognize your own grief over the loss.
While your partner may understandably be more distraught than you over the loss of their parent, try not to deflect your own grief over the situation. “If your partner is devastated by a loss of a loved one, chances are you knew and loved that person as well, and have to be gentle and supportive with yourself, as well as your partner, as you both embark on the healing journey,” says Shutt. “Know what helps you feel healthy and safe, and make sure those things are in place before you try to help others (true in all areas of life, not just grief).”
Learn to accept uncomfortable silence.
In an attempt to help your partner get through difficult moments, you might be tempted to say something that can help. However, Shutt points out that more often than not it’s best not to say anything at all if it’s not coming out naturally. “Sharing your own stories and memories of the person who died can be really helpful and encourage your partner to open up about their own experience and memories, but trying to force it will almost definitely backfire,” she says. “In general we're really uncomfortable with silence in any scenario, and it's really amplified when we're with someone in pain, and a lot of times we blurt out things that are totally unhelpful, just hoping to relieve our own sense of awkwardness, which takes the support focus away from the grieving person.”
Continually check in to see what they need from you.
According to Pilar Jennings, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Religion at the Union Theological Seminary and a lecturer at Columbia University, a simple: “Honey, how can I help you today?” will go a long way toward helping your partner remember that you are fully there for them. “Assumptions about what they need may lead to conflict and resentment that creates ongoing difficulties in the relationship,” she says. “Assume that you don’t know what your partner needs even if you’ve been partnered for decades and convey that you want to be supportive in any way that meets them where they are.”