When we love someone it’s painful to see them in pain; so supporting a partner who has lost someone can feel like an impossible task. Take these gentle tips on how to help a grieving heart.
When I was 27, I lost my big brother Ben to a drug overdose. When I was 37, I lost my dad to a massive stroke. I feel way too young to have most of my family gone, and these events have contributed deeply to the story of who I am.
I have learned some ways that a partner can truly help during these incredibly raw times, and some ways they can hurt.
Ways to help:
Let them share and share and share stories.
When you lose someone close, you spin around in their memories and hug onto anything that calls your loved one into focus. Over and over, you trace your last moments with them, and you want to tell and retell their stories. As a supportive partner, let them repeat and retrace, even if they are stories you have heard many times. There is a salve created from talking, and when you allow people to do this, often they begin to heal and organize the loss in their mind and heart.
Let them cry and cry and cry.
When my brother died I cried every day for a year, and some days I sobbed myself sick. I needed permission to unravel to the edge. I remember a dance professor at that time said to me, “Buffy, some days I have a hard time looking at your face.” I knew she meant that seeing me crying and raw called up her own sadness and unexcavated grief, but it made me feel hurt and alone. The people I felt most safe with were the people who let me cry and wail.
There is an image that I absorbed studying Mayan culture and the way they deal with grieving folks. It is said the Mayans wrap a theoretical rope around the waist of the grieving, and let them run to edge of the ocean and wail. After some time, it is the responsibility of the community to reel this person back to society and breathe. We need more of this permission in our culture.
Bring it up.
Bring up your partner’s loss. They are thinking about it anyway, especially right after it happens. It will help to make them feel less alone, and help you connect. They will tell you if they don’t want to talk about, but many times they are working hard not to inconvenience you. They are hungry for you to acknowledge it.
Help to memorialize.
My partner never met my brother, and he only met my dad once. When he creates a way to memorialize them, it always makes me feel great. There is a special book that was Ben’s, and my partner knows the story behind it. When we moved into our home, he was decorating the living room, and I noticed he pulled the book and put it on a table so it is seen in our living room every time you sit down. Two years later it is still there, and every time I see it I connect to a sweet memory. He remains aware of small, specific and special ways to memorialize my family. It matters.
Understand that grief is not linear.
Grief is not a linear trajectory of healing. That’s probably what surprised me the most. Some days/moments/weeks I was ok, and other days I felt overcome. Grief goes up and down and sideways, and feels like a roller coaster that you cannot exit from. As a partner, know this and just be steady and present with the fluctuations. They cannot help it. It will get easier for both of you.
Slather them with love.
Butter them up, love them completely, and be forgiving if they are grumpy, short tempered, tired and not totally themselves. Be more patient than they are, and know it won’t be imbalanced forever. They need you to scoop them up.
Ways that don’t help:
Don’t try to fix it.
You cannot raise the dead. There is nothing you can really do to make it go away. Know this and stay as patient and supportive as you can.
Don’t compare your stress to theirs
You might be stressed with work, deadlines, how to fit in a workout etc. While these things are valid, they do not compare with your partner’s stress. Be more patient than you have ever been, and decompress your stress with friends for a little while until their rawness lessons.
Don’t judge how they handle grief.
Everybody handles grief completely different, and each loss has a specific tone. Remove all judgment about the whens, hows, whos, and whats. Trust the process and trust your partner to heal the best they can. Be active in your support. Wrap a rope around the waist of your loves. Be there when it’s time to bring them in. It is an essential time to love.
[image: via Tim Hamilton on flickr]