When confronted with a profound loss, all marriages and committed relationships are seriously tested. A tragedy or profound loss acts as a magnifying glass focusing on and enlarging the weak spots in a relationship. For many couples, the pressures of grief are devastating and ultimately lead to a break up. Yet, this result is not inevitable. If a couple can understand the forces of grief, their relationship has a greater chance for survival and ultimately for emotional growth.
The grief process following a loss, while natural, is an emotional roller coaster. No two people ever grieve the same way even if they have lost the same person or experienced the same tragedy. Each person’s grief process evolves and changes over time. An individual may struggle to keep peace with his or her own grieving while having little capacity to be responsive to his or her partner’s experience. Being aware of this and other facts about grief may reduce the misunderstanding and blame that often develop between a couple experiencing profound loss.
Grief often affects couples in the following ways:
Feelings of blame and anger are normal and are often displaces onto those nearest — especially partners.
Grief attacks ones feelings of security, strength, and independence which are necessary components for a positive, healthy relationship
Normal ways of relating are disrupted by grief. Communication about day-to-day problems may be avoided due to preoccupation with the loss, a desire to protect the other, or just plain lack of strength. Without regular communication, everyday problems accumulate and lead to larger misunderstandings which spiral into greater feelings of helplessness and aloneness.
When both people in a couple are grieving, finding a respite can be difficult. Partners often feel intense guilt about asking the other for help or taking time out for self-care.
The painful emotions experienced in grief are difficult and, at times, impossible to put into words. As a result, people tend to retreat from others and close down. This creates communication problems and may fuel fears that ones marriage and family will be lost also.
If couples believe they should be able to grieve together and find that they cannot, they may experience a sense of failure. It is common for partners to think “since we share a love for this person, we should be able to share our grief and lean on one another.” But the fact is that one can not lean on someone bent double from their own burden.
Suggestions For Easing the Strain During Times of Grief
Recognize that change will occur in the relationship as a result of the loss.
Become familiar with the process of grief and what to expect. What may be a perfectly normal part of grieving may be seen as “crazy” if one does not have accurate information. Realistic expectations can create space for both partners and decrease feelings of guilt and failure.
Recognize that each person’s experiences a different loss and has a unique way of grieving. In a couple, each person has a separate and distinct relationship with the deceased and each will grieve for different things. Patience and tolerance for differences is important; one partner may be expressive while the other may be restrained. When one is having a good day,
the other may be struggling. These differences are normal and do not mean there is less love in the couple.
Recognize the differences in how men and women grieve. Usually, a woman’s grief will be more intense and last longer than a man’s. A man must respond to a woman’s need for compassionate listening and dialogue during her grief, while a woman needs to realize that she can not expect to remake a man into a female mourner. A woman must offer respect and support for a man’s more physical expressions of grief through work and activity.
Make a commitment to each other to keep the lines of communication open despite the tendency to close down and retreat.
Set specific times aside to discuss events that have taken place as well as to share thoughts and feelings. Be an attentive listener— hear what your mate is sharing about his/her feelings and needs.
Agree on family activities which will always be shared by both of you. Examples might be: social gatherings, church functions, soccer games, certain kinds of shopping, school conferences, visits to certain family members.
Agree on activities that can be done by one of you without the support or attention of the other. Examples include certain kinds of shopping, helping a child with homework, household chores, certain kinds of socializing.
Express affection throughout the day. Sometimes feelings of deep concern, care and pain can not be expressed in words but a hug can get the message across as well as give comfort. Find small ways to convey the love that continues to exist between the two of you in spite of the grief you are experiencing.
Recognize the need for solitary time—for reflection, respite, and healing. Each person will need some time to get away from the burden of constant grieving. Do not take it as rejection if your mate needs to have time to go off alone.
Have other people to talk to. Do not expect to have all of your needs for support, sharing and understanding met by your partner. No single person can help with all the feelings a grieving person has.
Find ways to have fun together. Laughter is healing and, contrary to what it may feel like, having fun once in awhile is not a betrayal of the one you have lost. It is possible to laugh while deeply missing your loved one. This may involve getting away or engaging in familiar ways of playing which distract you, however briefly, from your grief.
Work with a counselor who is familiar with the grief process if your relationship seems to be having difficulty. It may take only a few sessions to clear the air and get your relationship back on track. A counselor may act as a coach as you go about the difficult work of grief.
Therese Rondo in her book, How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, suggests that “there are positive responses to bereavement as well” (p.176) She notes that the work of grieving may result in “deeper family commitment and unity, increased personal growth, closer relationships, increased sensitivity, new meaning to life, and increased awareness of life’s preciousness and fragility, and an improved ability to express feelings.”