Welcome to the last episode of our eight part series “How To Support a Spouse With…”! The Relationship Helpers are glad you have joined us today. Today we learn about what we can do as spouses when our significant other has experienced loss.
Leading up to this episode, we have looked at how to help a spouse who has been traumatized, has anxiety, has depression, has a substance abuse addiction, has anger issues, comes from a toxic family, or has a non-drug addiction. Be sure to check these episodes out if you need some ideas to support your spouse through difficult times.
Today’s episode may apply to you more than you think. Often we consider grief and loss a time when someone has experienced a death in the family, but that is not always the source of grief. Sometimes it is the loss of a job, a dream, or a disappointment in an unmet expectation. With a broadened scope of what grief and loss look like, let’s take a look at how you can support your spouse during this painful time.
Grief & Time
There is no timeline for grief. The length of time to grieve is different for different people. A couple may be experiencing the same loss, but take different amounts of time to heal. Have patience with your spouse during this difficult time. Just because you feel you have grieved and are done grieving doesn’t mean that they should be done grieving too.
Don’t assume that once someone is back at work or back at school that they have “moved on.” Just because the person is back to their normal, everyday responsibilities does not mean that they have overcome the grieving process or that they don’t need your support. It just means they are trying to get back to their obligations. They very well could be ignoring their emotions just to get through the day.
Don’t Say or Imply That They Are Crazy
There is an assumption that people should be functioning at their pre-loss level when they are back at work or school. It may be hard for you, as the supporting spouse, to understand how much this person or thing that was lost meant to your spouse. Bear that in mind as you interact with them.
Sometimes “unfinished business” is the cause of pain during the grieving period. If conflict was left unresolved or if some sort of closure was not experienced, then the grieving spouse may be struggling with the fact that the loss happened without an opportunity to try to improve their relationship with the deceased.
Vincent describes how often men identify with their jobs and how when a man loses his job, he can be sent into a grieving process. He did not know how much he identified with the job, and it can be hard for his spouse to understand that. This requires the supporting spouse to “put on their empathy hat”. Rather than treating him like he is odd for behaving this way, try to understand what this job loss means to him.
Be Aware of Their Triggers
Someone who has lost may be particularly sensitive to things they see, hear, touch, smell or taste that reminds them of who or what they lost. These are called triggers. For a man who lost his mechanic job, it may be something like the smell of oil. Don’t forget how powerful our senses can be.
You can probably pretty easily remember certain smells from your childhood. If you’re able to think of these smells this easily, just think how easy it is to be triggered by your senses while grieving. Our brains make all sorts of associations, positive or negative, so don’t forget this when your spouse is grieving.
Laura mentions how going to the grocery store was difficult for her after her miscarriages because she would see pregnant women or the baby aisle. She also would find it difficult to see dates on packaging or on checks because it would remind her of due dates that were not going to happen. So even numbers can be triggering. Be sure to check out our episode on Triggers or Pregnancy Loss for more information on these topics.
Find Ways to Celebrate Who They Lost
Do an activity that the lost loved one used to enjoy or plant a tree in honor of that person. Some people take their loved one’s clothes and sew them into pillows or quilts. Creating a memorial fund or scholarship in honor of their loved one can be a positive way to memorialize a loved one. Doing something for the good of others in that person’s name continues that person’s legacy and helps to keep their memories alive. This helps to communicate the impression that person had on their life and the difference they made to them.
Don’t forget humor. It may be healing to participate in an activity that the deceased enjoyed.
Be On The Lookout for Depression & Isolation Behaviors
Being alone during a difficult time allows someone to collect and process their thoughts, BUT too much time spent in isolation can be unhealthy. Reclusive behaviors and sleeping a lot can be signs that depression has set in and needs to be addressed.
The inability to function during daily routines, weight loss or gain, difficulty sleeping, and having difficulty with responsibilities all could be signs that depression has set in.
Allow Them To Talk About It & Don’t Shut Them Down
It’s important for your spouse to talk about the sad and happy memories. They need to be able to share with others so that they are able to work through their feelings. As mentioned before, loss is not necessarily the result of death, but could be the loss of a job, a friendship, or even maybe a church home. Be open to the possibility that your spouse could be grieving due to significant changes in his or her life.
Divorce is an incredible loss. The divorce process has a lot of similarities to the grieving process.
Health scares can also be a type of loss. If your loved one was an active person and has lost mobility, that can be life-changing. A cancer or disease diagnosis can mean having to change how they go about day-to-day activities.
Getting your loved one to talk helps them to acknowledge how important whatever or whomever they lost meant to them and helps them to process the grief.
Allowing your loved one to talk about their loss will help prevent them from “stuffing their feelings” as well as prevent them from living in denial. Both of these coping mechanisms allows negative thinking and feelings to fester. This requires you to be empathetic. You must “sit” with their grief. Instead of minimizing their feelings, dig deeper. Allow them to explore how they felt about the person or thing they lost. Help recognize and validate their pain.
Understand That You May Be In A Different Place In The Grieving Process
Elizabeth Kubler Ross is known for the Five Stages of Grief Model. It is not a fluid model. People can fluctuate between stages.
The first stage is denial. Often this is a state of or reaction of shock. This person may not be showing emotion, yet.
Anger is the second stage. Examples could include, “If the doctor had not done this, my loved one wouldn’t have died,” or if “(my loved one) would have eaten healthier, driven more safely, taken better care of himself, etc. they wouldn’t have died.”
Anger could be towards the person who died, towards a person at the scene of the death, towards themselves, or anger at God. Survivor’s guilt could be figuring into their anger, too.
Bargaining is the third stage. It could sound like “If I do this, you do that…” It’s often directed towards God. Examples could be, “I’ll go to church every Sunday if you…”or I’ll read my Bible or pray every day if….” or “I’ll do this with my family if you’ll…” etc.
The fourth stage is depression. This is where the person actually grieves. This is when a person cries. Our bodies are amazing vessels. We are designed to hold so much, but at some point, we have to spill out. Crying is a healthy release. Holding back keeps us stuck. We’re not able to work through the loss.
Some sort of reconciliation has occurred. The person has moved past anger, has physically and emotionally grieved their loss and is allowing what they have learned through the grieving process to positively impact their life.
This may mean that they have stopped looking for answers. They no longer question or challenge why the loss occurred.
Connect Them With Support Outside of Yourself
Your spouse may need more help than you can give. In fact, being married does not mean that spouses should be each other’s only support. That’s too heavy a burden to bear.
GriefShare can be a helpful lay support group that gives reciprocal support. You can find GriefShare at your local church.
Laura notes that therapy can be particularly important for people who experienced a loss years ago that never was processed. As therapists we often find that people bury their grief and it comes out in unhealthy ways later. One example of this may be years after the death of a parent. An adult may find themselves triggered when they start their own family and certain milestones or events bring memories to the surface of their lost parent.
A therapist can help those who have lost process grief. They can help individuals overcome the “should of beens” and unmet expectations that have kept them stuck.