In the fifteen years that I have been married to my husband, we have buried three of our four parents. Each loss was different, devastating in its own way. Until you experience the loss of a parent, it is difficult to understand the sense of emptiness or fear that fills the hole left by their departure. When my husband’s father passed away unexpectedly, I had such little experience with loss that I had no idea of the complex emotions he must be having. I loved my father-in-law, and I felt genuine grief along with sadness for my husband. It is hard, losing a parent.
Grief looks different on each of us. Physical signs of grief like headaches, fatigue, and aches are common. Some people completely break down for a few days and others stay stoic, silently dealing with their pain while trying to appear strong for those around them. Some people appear detached, and others can be irritable. It is important to give your spouse the breadth that they need to come to terms with his dramatic change in their lives.
Stages of Grief
Throughout the last half-century, we have often heard of or studied the stages of grief. The five stages of grief were originally popularized in On Death and Dying, by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The 5 Stages of Grief are
This does not cover the full spectrum of grief, but it is useful as a reference.
Kubler-Ross, before her death, lamented teaching these stages of grief so absolutely. While the stages of grief do often follow the pattern, Kubler-Ross went on to say,
“They were never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.”Elizabeth Kubler Ross
Do not worry if your spouse is not fitting into a neat little package. Losing a parent is a major life event, and in some cases, a major life trauma.
When your spouse loses a parent, there is no way to predict exactly how they will handle it. This is why it is important to keep an open mind and offer support and love. It can be intimidating to know exactly what to do or say to help ease their pain. To start, trust your instincts. There are healthy ways with which you can support your spouse through such a loss.
Methods for Supporting a Grieving Spouse
- Remember that there are no rules to grieving.
Everyone grieves differently. Some people immerse themselves into work or taking care of the details of the death. Others will be almost unable to function. In some cases, people express grief with an abundance of tears and emotion, and others are silent in the presence of others.
It is important to reassure your spouse that whatever they are feeling is ok. If you must, say the words “give yourself permission to just feel what you feel.” This can be an immense relief to a spouse who feels numb or disconnected from the world instead of overwhelmingly sad.
- Keep the negativity to yourself.
When it comes to in-laws, there are sometimes past incidents that leave us feeling slighted or bitter. Whether or not you got along with your in-laws, now is not the time to bring it up. Even if you are estranged from the deceased, let that go for now and let your spouse grieve their parent in their own way. I am not suggesting that you forget the past, just have some tact and prioritize your spouse’s grief.
- Take over whatever responsibilities you can from them.
“Focus on comfort, not on fixing it,” says Lori Cluff Schade, PhD. Think of details that your spouse might not be concerned with, such as clothes being cleaned for the memorial services, household chores, etc. Taking care of these details can free your spouse up to grieve however they feel the need to.
When my father passed away, my husband handled everything from food to funeral arrangements while I walked around in a disbelieving haze. When my mother-in-law passed away recently, I did whatever I could to make him comfortable and make sure that he did not have any added stress to deal with.
- Keep an eye out for important appointments.
This is closely related to the prior suggestion but with a slightly different focus. One of the side effects of grief is the loss of focus and ability to remember things. There could be an important payment to send in, a meeting to attend, or something else that completely slips their mind.
If they have a digital calendar, subscribe yourself to it for the time being. If not, keep your own calendar of their appointments just to help remind them in case they are having a bad day.
- Keep an eye out for their physical health.
A study about adult bereavement by the National Institute of Health found that the immune system is impaired following a difficult loss. Prepare healthy meals or snacks for your spouse and encourage them to take their regular medications and vitamins.
The healthy food will help them physically, and they will feel cared for and loved, helping them psychologically as well. Getting outside for a walk can be restorative for both one’s mental and physical health.
- Remind your spouse that they can lean on you.
Losing a parent can feel isolating in a unique way. It can feel lonely, losing the people who brought you into the world and nurtured you into adulthood. Tell your spouse that they can lean on you. Remind them frequently that they are not facing this loss alone.
While you may not be able to feel what they are feeling, they are not feeling it alone. Encourage them to talk about it, or not, depending on what they seem to want to do. Do not pry if they choose to be silent. Just be there, silent with them.
- When appropriate, share your stories and memories of their parent.
A year or so after my father passed away, my husband and I were splashing in the water with the children, when he grew silent. “I miss your dad,” he said. “It never feels right to be swimming without him.” My dad had spent many summers swimming with the grandkids.
It gave me great comfort to know that my spouse genuinely cared for my dad and remembered him fondly. We often share happy memories of our parents with our children so that they remember their grandparents as much as possible, and this brings us comfort, as well.
- Show up. Be there.
Make it a given that they are not alone emotionally by showing up physically. From the hospital to the funeral home to the gravesite: show up. Unless the spouse specifically requests to be alone, you should be at their side.
Try to be with them as much as possible so that if they reach a difficult moment in their grief, they have your support. Your steady presence by their side will be much appreciated.
- Give them permission to move on.
The earlier referenced NIH study found that the bereaved may have better outcomes if they have been given permission to grieve or, in some cases, permission to stop grieving. Giving these words to your spouse can help them emotionally transition to their natural next step. “It’s ok to grieve.” or “It is ok to move on. They would want you to move on and be happy” are both pieces of advice that may mean a great deal to your loved one.
- When appropriate, encourage them to seek outside help.
In some cases, bereavement can be debilitating. After a reasonable period of time, if your spouse seems stuck in a stage of grief, do not hesitate to reach out to a professional grief counselor to help. Make the appointment and go with them, if you must. Grief professionals are incredibly well trained and offer tools that will help your spouse move on.
- Assist them in planning a memorial.
From planting a tree with a plaque in their honor to sponsoring a park bench at their favorite fishing spot, there are many ways to posthumously honor our loved ones. Sometimes your spouse will express that they feel they should have grieved more or done more. Planning an extra memorial event to display the love for the lost parent to the rest of the world can be a wonderful way to express your love and feel closer to the person who has died.
Basic Rules for Supporting Your Spouse
This is a simple foundation of how to be there for a spouse when they lose a parent.
- Be kind.
- Be gentle.
- Be open.
- Be there.
There is more to it than just support, however. A good marriage becomes even closer after the death of a parent. There is a feeling of disconnection from the world when you lose a parent, like you are floating in an abyss and there is no solid ground to hold on to. When you reach out and find your spouse there, you feel reattached. This fosters a closeness and a connection that can sustain you through the process of grief.
Have you dealt with the unfortunate experience of losing a father, mother, or in-law? Or even just someone very close to you or your spouse? What helped you get through it? What takeaways from the experience can you share with our readers? Comment below.
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