Supporting your partner when they have lost someone close.
My wife lost her father. This is what I learned through it all.
It was a year ago today. Up to this point it is the worst moment of my life. I was in our living room sitting across from my wife like any other normal morning. She received a call, her face went pale, and her eyes welled up. She dropped her coffee on the table, screamed and pleaded “no” in grief. Her father was gone.
Seeing your spouse suffer so much emotional pain in a single moment is a horrible thing. It was the most helpless I have ever felt.
This year has been challenging. We’ve had ups and our downs, but our marriage is the one thing that has remained constant in the midst of chaos. This loss is hands down the most stressful thing that we have gone through in our relationship. We have lost jobs, had financial issues, been diagnosed with disease, but nothing compared to this. I haven’t perfectly navigated being a strong support system to my wife through this. But I have learned some things, and our marriage is as strong as it has ever been. I feel the need to share my experience in the hope that it will help someone going through a similar situation.
A few things that I learned
- Give your partner/friend time and space to heal
They need time to heal. The first weeks and months following may seem like a never ending wave of grief, but it does get better. Others may place unspoken timelines for recovery on your partner. “It’s been six months, life should be normal”. It may be for the people placing these expectations, but life isn’t normal for your partner… it may never be. Hold the line, you are the last person they need this expectation from. No matter how much time goes by it is going to suck for them. Love them, be there for them, serve them. For better or worse, this is your role, do it well.
- Every relationship is different
Empathy without a dose of humility is dangerous. No two relationships are the same. You may hear others say to your partner “I know exactly what you are going through”, this seems like a good thing to say. But they definitely don’t know exactly what your partner is going through. They may have experienced loss, but they didn’t lose that specific relationship. No one but your partner knows exactly what they are going through. Losing a 95 year old parent isn’t they same as losing a parent in their 60’s. Don’t get me wrong, it still must hurt like hell, but it is not the same. Some may lose a parent and quickly go through the grieving process. Others will be wrecked for months, or years. Even between siblings, losing a parent can be felt in completely different ways. Knowing that their relationship was unique will help you support your partner. You may not understand the relationship they had, and you don’t need to. Just be there for them when they need to vent and cry. They are processing a loss that is unique to them. They are the only one who can comprehend the full weight of this.
- People say stupid things
They will say them out of love. They will say things because they are uncomfortable. And they will say things because they don’t know what to do. Your partner is going to hear unhelpful and hurtful advice. If you know it is coming you will be better prepared to help and protect them. My father in-law’s passing came rather unexpectedly. We heard “oh, well at least he didn’t suffer, you didn’t have to go through a long battle with cancer.” Are you serious? Some people just want to connect dots to make themselves feel better. If you don’t know what to say to someone who just experienced a loss, just say “I am so sorry. This sucks. This sucks so $@%&ing much. I hate this for you.” If they don’t approve of cursing, you can leave out the swear.
- Plan things for your partner to look forward to
This was huge for us. We lost my father in-law in September so we had a full fall and holiday season. After that I realized my wife was still down and needed something to look forward to. I surprised her with a trip to Punta Cana in February. In March we went to Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. In June we went to Vermont and Oregon… You get the point. She loves to travel, so I made it happen. Even if you can’t swing a big trip, plan things for them to look forward to. Don’t under estimate a day trip or a special night out, they can help. If planning isn’t your thing, step up and make it your thing, they need this, you need this.
- Marriage/relationships aren’t a 50/50 split. That’s okay, don’t be selfish
There has been a thought that a marriage and relationships should always be 50/50. This belief is a pile of garbage. When your partnet experiences something like the death of a parent, they need more from you. You should be happy to play this role. In the year previous to losing my father in-law, I was diagnosed with a heart condition. I was a mess and my wife definitely held more than 50% of the weight in that season. Sharing the weight in our relationship has been one of the most beautiful things I have experienced. When I married my wife I promised to serve her, and walk with her through the good and bad. What a gift it is to live up to the promise that I made when we started our life together.
- Give your partner the space and opportunity to talk
Talking to a counselor/therapist is so healthy. They are a third party outside of the situation. Talking to someone like this can create a safe place for your partner to share their fears and pains. I made it clear to my wife that pursuing counseling was available to her. Regardless of finances or other concerns, we would make it work. I wanted her to know that I fully supported her. The one thing I didn’t want was to force counseling on her. Don’t push your spouse into counseling, it can be destructive. If they are interested in it, let them go in their own time. Help them in whatever way possible. Once my wife found a counselor she wanted to pursue she asked if I would call and make an appointment for her. I didn’t tell her to do it herself. I knew she was capable of the task, but I also knew this was a big step for her. Help any way you can, without being pushy or condescending, this may be difficult for them. Counseling doesn’t negate the fact that you should be a great ear for them, listen well, create space for them.
- Your partner may feel forgotten
I think one of the hardest things for my wife was the feeling loneliness. It was an interesting type of loneliness. She just wanted to know that people were still thinking of her 3, 6, 9 months later. Life will go on for your partner’s friends, and maybe you, but when they are still grieving they can feel forgotten.
- There is now a hole in their heart that you can’t fill
My wife let me know through this process that she lost her unbiased supporter system. Her dad was her number one fan, she could do no wrong in his eyes. Losing his encouragement was a blow. I try my best to encourage my wife, but I also try to push her and help her to see things she may not be aware of. She does the same for me. She let me know that when she lost her dad, she lost her biggest cheer leader. She didn’t want/expect me to fill that role. I was playing the role that she needed, but she needed me to know what she had lost. This perspective helped me understand her better and gave me some awareness to try and fill gaps where and when I could. I will never replace this hole, but I can be aware that it’s there, and that I need to help her in the ways that I can.
- As an in-law there may not be space for you to grieve
I loved my father in-law. I don’t mean this in the sense that you have to love your family. No, I loved the man. For the past 10 years we have spent loads of time with my in-laws. They would come stay with us, we would visit them. In that time I developed a great relationship with my father in-law. He made me laugh, he was my buffer at family events, he gave me life advice. He never met a stranger, and if you knew him there was at least one inside joke he had with you that he would never let go. The man was a second father to me, and I sorely miss him. That said, when he passed it was my time to step up and take care of my wife and her family. I didn’t have much time to grieve. People would ask me how my wife was doing. I was rarely asked “how are you are doing with everything?” And I don’t think I ever heard “how are you dealing with your loss?” This may not apply to you. But if you were as fortunate as I was to have a great relationship with an in-law, it is going to hurt when they are gone. It’s been tough, it gets better.
- Loss can be stressful on a marriage or relationship. Don’t let it destroy your relationship
Since losing my father in-law we have talked to a lot of people who are now separated from their spouse. One recurring theme was: losing a family member can add a ton of stress to a marriage, and even destroy it. My plea to you; hold on for dear life, your spouse or partner is worth fighting for. Dig in, love like you have never loved before. Eventually things will get easier and you will come out with a deeper love than you had before. My wife is amazing and I am so fortunate to walk through life with her. Through the good and the bad, it’s all worth it.