Although grief is a part of life, it can be one of the hardest parts of life, and one of the most difficult to understand. At the end of the day, grief is a very lonely journey. People who are ensconced in the process of grieving often say they feel like they’re alone, like they’re going crazy, like the rest of the world is buzzing around them while they’re trapped in a bubble, and like they’ve lost themselves and wonder when they’ll be “normal” again. It’s a process that is very internal and confusing, and it can be difficult to feel a sense of connection in the world.
To be in an intimate relationship with someone who is in this space can feel just as lonely and confusing. You want to be there for your partner, but don’t know what he or she needs or wants. You want the person to feel better. You want the person to be him/herself again. You want the person to be able to support you on those days when your life feels hard. Or maybe, very simply, you just want that smile or playfulness back that used to be so fun.
When a person is grieving, his or her capacity for giving to a relationship is far less than normal. He or she is consumed with comprehending the loss experienced, and with coping with the multitude of feelings that accompany grief. In many cases, a person experiences depression alongside the grief, which can feel like another barrier to relating with him or her.
I’ve seen many couples, of all lengths of relationships, struggle through these issues and wonder how their relationship can survive such a raw and inevitably difficult time in life. It would seem that the longer a couple has been together, the greater the ability of both people to stick through the hard times with each other, possibly because they have made a commitment to each other, or because there is more trust developed in the relationship. But what I’ve witnessed is the success of many of these couples, regardless of how long they have been together, as they have moved toward each other, rather than away from each other, during this hard time. If two people believe in their relationship AND feel that they can get their needs for connection met AND there is patience available in the partnership, the outcome is usually positive. How long they’ve been together is less of an influence if these pieces are present.
- Get some of your needs met outside of your relationship. The simple truth is that your partner can’t be there as much as he or she could before the loss because the person is busy experiencing so many feelings and reactions to that loss. You may feel upset or angry that this is the case. If you do, talk with someone about it. If you’re judging yourself for feeling this way, talk with someone about that as well. And amid all of it, understand that your partner just can’t be there as much right now, and it’s OK for you to seek friendship and social connection with your friends or social spheres more regularly. You are experiencing something fundamentally different than your partner, and you cannot expect yourself or your partner to be in a different place.
- Have patience. Your partner will return. The grief will integrate into his or her life and psyche, and be less of an overwhelming force that shrouds each day. Grief doesn’t ever go away; however, it does subside, and your partner’s “normal” personality will come back, albeit with more of a personal understanding of what life means to them. This is an opportunity for you to connect with the person in a very deep way. The things your partner will come through this experience with are incredibly important and will offer you not only a perspective on how grief feels, but also a perspective on your partner’s unique way of finding meaning in life. This could be an amazing source of connection for you both as you gain understanding about this deep and sacred aspect of your partner’s psyche.
- Understand your own grief. Grief can beget grief. Seeing someone we love grieve often reminds us of our own grief, and can remind us in very visceral ways what it was like to lose someone—or a pet. In the grand scheme of things you do not have to put your experience on hold; in fact, this would be detrimental to your relationship and to yourself. In the moment, you may have to put aside what you’re feeling in order to be fully present for your partner, but please come back to it. Give your own experience the space it needs, whether by talking with someone, journaling, making art, taking a walk, or just sitting with it. When your partner is ready, he or she may even ask you about it.
- Let your partner feel all of his or her feelings. For those of us who take our responsibilities seriously, the experience of watching someone in discomfort or distress can trigger a cascade of our own discomfort that we often assuage by trying to say the right thing or by trying to find a solution to the “problem.” If there is one thing you remember from this article, remember that feelings are not problems. Your partner must feel the entirety of his or her experience if he or she is going to get through the grief in one piece. This means that there is nothing “right” to say, there is nothing you can do to make the person feel better, and in fact when you try to make the person feel better you’re creating a dissonance between the two of you that will just make your relationship suffer. Your partner needs you to simply hear what this is like for him or her, and to accept it. Accept your partner’s feelings as his or her truth, and accept the fact there is nothing to do about it. The act of simply listening without rushing in to change anything will offer more than you can imagine.
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