Loss is an undeniable part of life, and yet there’s no rule book on how to navigate grief — let alone how to support a grieving partner. No one wants to see their partner suffer, and knowing how to help them through the grieving process can be really challenging.
“The grieving process is complicated and often gives rise to many different emotions. When someone experiences grief, coping can be difficult and time-consuming,” says Dr. Marisa T. Cohen, a relationship scientist and therapist.
“As a partner of someone who is going through the grieving process, it's important to recognize that these feelings won't be linear and that being a source of support will be instrumental in their recovery,” she says.
But how do you support a grieving spouse or partner? It can be a lot to handle, and you might feel helpless or like you’re going to say or do something to upset them even more. If you’re concerned about how to support a partner who is grieving, Dr. Cohen shares some useful advice below.
“Grief is not easy, but it’s part of the normal process of dealing with loss,” says Dr. Cohen. “Supporting your partner as they determine the most effective coping strategies and work through the grief is an act of empathy and love that can help them through this challenging time.”
Grief is not one-size-fits-all, so the best way to support your partner through this difficult time will be entirely unique to their circumstances. There are, however, a few things you can do to be there for your partner through their grief journey.
There’s no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a loved one, and everyone’s grieving process will look a little different. You and your partner might have different ways of grieving — and that’s ok — but you have to respect your partner’s feelings and let them grieve in their own way.
“Psychiatrist Dr. Adam Blatner notes that people coping with loss and dealing with grief often experience many contradictory thoughts and emotions,” says Dr. Cohen.
“On the one hand, a person may think it’s time to move on and return to business as usual. On the other, the person may be suffering, wanting to bring the person they lost back. To support the person dealing with loss, the partner needs to validate these varied emotions and complex feelings.”
Acknowledge their loss and let them know there is no “correct” way to grieve, and that whatever they’re feeling is valid.
Grief isn’t a linear process, and it can be fairly volatile and unpredictable. You’ll have to be patient with your partner as they go through the stages of grief.
“Feelings are likely to ebb and flow, and at times the sadness, anger, etc. may seem insurmountable. When supporting your partner, ride the wave with them as they experience these emotions,” says Dr. Cohen.
Crucially, give your partner the space to feel whatever they’re feeling. “Trying to mask or push down the emotions can strengthen the feelings and complicate the grief work being done. Instead, be there with your partner if they choose to steer directly into these emotions and process them.”
Keep in mind that withdrawal is a normal reaction to grief. Don’t take it personally if you notice your partner drifting away from you or being less present in your relationship. And know that you can always seek the help of a couples therapist if grief is affecting your relationship.
You might be tempted to try and “fix” anything or problem-solve as a way to help, but sometimes the best thing you can do for a grieving partner is to simply listen. “Offer to listen whenever, wherever, and about whatever your partner is experiencing,” says Dr. Cohen.
“There is no correct way to grieve or the most helpful way to cope. Some days will be easier than others, and on other days, tried-and-true coping mechanisms may no longer seem to work. Just being there to offer an empathetic ear may make a big difference to your partner.”
Check in with your partner regularly to see how they’re doing, and be responsive to how you can help them. On some days they might want a distraction, but on others, they might just need a shoulder to cry on.
Another crucial way to support your partner as they grieve is to take an active role whenever you can, says Dr. Cohen.
“Your partner may choose to honor their loved one with their own unique ritual(s). Whether it’s celebrating their life with a party, creating an album with photos of times they shared, talking to them before bed each night, seeking out a medium, etc., be there,” she says.
Aside from being supportive, you can also take a proactive approach to help your partner with the admin that accompanies the death of a parent, family member, or loved one. Help them organize the funeral service or wake, and be sure to take on extra chores around the house and give them room to grieve.
“Some rituals may feel more meaningful to your partner than others, but to whatever extent possible, take an active role so that you too can honor the loved one your partner lost.”
For more advice on how to support a grieving partner, download Paired and complete Dr. Chen’s exercise “Dealing With Grief”.