How to support a grieving partner

Helping a partner who is grieving can be really challenging. Grief can be very volatile and unpredictable. Everyone deals with grief differently. Some people might be more communicative, whereas others shut themselves away. It can take a long time to work through, however sometimes people can surprise you and seem to progress much quicker. 

The nature of grief can also be different depending on the person’s relationship and the circumstances of how someone died. If it was sudden and unexpected or if there were any issues in the relationship, they can be left with lots of unresolved feelings. 

And progress is rarely a straight line. Sometimes people may slow down or speed up unpredictably. It might be that they find they’re better able to cope at first than they are a few months down the line, or that a setback in another area of their life — or a further bereavement — brings back lots of feelings. It can also bring back feelings of past bereavements. 

How grief can affect relationships

Grief can create a whole variety of difficulties when it comes to actually trying to support someone. 

It’s very common for someone whose partner is suffering from a loss to feel they want to help, but don’t know how to. You may feel worried you’re going to say the wrong thing or make the wrong move. You may feel frozen on the spot – helpless to know how to act. Communication might begin to break down, especially if the grieving person is currently shutting themselves away. 

You might also find that, sometimes, you’re on the receiving end of some of their emotions. Anger is a common response to grief — and this is often directed at the people closest to them. 

It can also be a struggle to be patient. If the grief takes a lot longer – or comes on a lot stronger – than you were expecting, you might feel you’re not able to support your partner. 

Guilt can sometimes be a feeling associated with trying to support a grieving partner — not just because you’re struggling to get things right, but also because you’re finding things stressful yourself. 

How do I support a grieving partner?

It sounds obvious, but the most important thing is to be there for your partner and to be supportive in any way you can. 

The biggest part of this is being flexible. If they want time to themselves, you may need to let this happen, even if it makes you feel anxious or shut out. Sometimes, the best way to be supportive is to back away a bit. And if they want to talk about things, you may need to be ready to listen and help them to express themselves. 

It’s not uncommon for a grieving person to swap between these states rapidly, sometimes within the space of a single day. While this can be difficult to deal with, you may need to be understanding and ready to adapt depending on how they’re feeling. 

It’s helpful to understand the various stages of grief, a model that was developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book “On Death and Dying in 1969. She developed her model to describe people with terminal illness facing their own death. But it was soon adapted as a way of thinking about grief in general. 

The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are not linear, and people can experience these aspects of grief at different times, and they do not happen in a particular order. Not all these stages might be experienced by a grieving person. Also, some might be more prominent than others.  

Denial is common in the early days following a bereavement, as it can be hard to believe that someone important is not coming back. Anger is a common and completely natural emotion after someone has died. This can be towards the person who has died and left us, or towards ourselves for things we did or didn’t do before their death. Bargaining, for instance,” if only we could go back and change things would they have turned out differently?” Depression, overwhelming sadness and longing, this pain can be very intense and continue in waves over many months and years. Acceptance, usually most people find that the pain eases and it is possible to accept what has happened. We may never “get over” the loss of someone precious, but we can learn to live again. 

Having an understanding of the above can enable you to be more supportive when they experience big flashes of emotion linked to these stages. It may also help you to feel more in control. You may also be grieving too for the partner you had before the bereavement. It may also put you in touch with your own past losses, so it is important to look after yourself too. 

One way to manage things is by regularly checking in with your partner to see how they’re doing and how you can help. While grief is a complicated process, in many ways, it’s similar to lots of things that challenge relationships — it can be made easier by communicating effectively. 

You might like to ask — every few days or so — how they are and whether there’s anything you can do to make things easier. Even if they appear to be coping, it will be a comfort to know you are there if they do need help. And if they are in need of help, they may be finding it hard to express this unless you make the first move. 

Of course, they may not know how they’re doing — they may still be feeling confused and upset or unsure about what they want, especially if the grief is still raw. Again, the most important thing is to let them know you’re there and that your priority is supporting them.   

One temptation can be to keep your distance until they make it clear that they’re feeling unhappy. The risk with this is that if they don’t feel able to express what’s going on with them your distance might come across as neglect or indifference. It’s much better to find out they don’t need help by asking directly than to find out later that they did but couldn’t say it at the time. Remember that if your partner does talk about their feelings with you, it’s not usually helpful to relate your own experience of grief as everyone’s view will be different. If you want to truly empathise with your partner listen to them and let them know you are trying to understand their pain. 

On a practical note, try to encourage your partner to do something pleasurable with you, like some kind of exercise, go for a walk etc. Something you both enjoy doing together. Exercise can improve mood as it releases Endorphins, chemicals (hormones)our body releases when it feels pain or stress. Endorphins can also relieve pain, reduce stress and improve well-being.  It can also be helpful for your partner to be distracted from his/her grief for a short time, this isn’t ignoring it, it’s just having a break from it. Sometimes people who are grieving can feel guilty doing something pleasurable so it can be good to remind them that the person who has died would want them to be happy. 

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