Monday, October 3, 2011

Monday Marriage Matters: Grief

We cannot be everything to everyone, even to the person that we are married to.  For us, there is no better reminder of this than when we are facing grief.  Because as much as we want to be there for us, neither of us is particularly good at consoling the other person.  As we have just lost a very dear friend, the question of how we as people, and how we as married people, manage grief is weighing on me.  Because what does it say about my marriage that my husband and I aren't very good at dealing with each other and raw, inconsolable grief?

Some people are good at managing other people's pain.  My sister, for one.  She is always funny when you need her to be, reassuring when you need her to be, and she never, ever says the wrong thing.  Myself, I am pragmatic, hysterical, and blunt.  I usually can be counted on to say the wrong thing.  I usually take the approaching of feeding people when they are grieving*, and trying my darndest to make myself useful.  I have learned, through much trial and error, that it is much better for me to just hold a person and say nothing than to try to console them, or to pick up the slack in other areas of their life so that they can focus on their own stuff.

My husband is equally bad, if not worse.  He is generally happy to hold me when I am sad, but he also falls asleep when I'm sobbing in bed after somebody I love has just died.  He listens while I talk about whoever I've lost, but he also doesn't understand when I don't go back to normal right away.  When I called him two weeks ago to give him the news, he told me he would leave work if I wanted him to, but otherwise he would stay and meet me in the evening wherever I was with my family.  I told him to keep working**, partly because I didn't want him to have to take the day off, but also because I knew he wasn't going to be nearly as helpful at helping me deal with the pain as my sister would be.  The next day, after making sure our friends made their flight and picking up the pieces, I called in the reinforcements and my bridesmaid (once a bridesmaid always a bridesmaid) came over for dinner and listened to me and said all the right things while my husband made us dinner.

And while I recognize that we all grieve differently, and handle grief differently, and neither of us is trained as a grief counselor, and I fully recognize that we cannot all be everything to everyone, I feel a bit concerned that neither of us is well equipped to deal with the other person when they are facing grief.  I don't really know how to improve this skill, because it's not really something I can, or want, to practice, but when we got married, we promised each other that we would be there for each other in the tough times, and I think we would both like to be there emotionally as well as physically.  So how do you and your partner handle grief?  Do you do everything together, like go to the hospital and the funeral and the services?  Do you have any tips for us when we face this in the future?

*I called my sister on the way to the hospital and said, "should I bring lunch?" and she said, "they aren't us...they don't have inappropriate food-grief relationships."   
**In retrospect, this was a mistake, because I could barely drive the car, and we have decided in the future, when something bad happens and I need to get somewhere fast while trying not to sob openly, Mark will drive me.  


  1. We haven't had to deal with this yet as a couple (thank G-d, though I know we will someday). Crises yes, grief over people not yet.
    I'm one of those people who's generally pretty good at helping others through grief, at holding space for them to be at grief. I have no idea how my partner is.
    I do know that talking about what we need in terms of support in crises or depression or any other time helps us grow. When we first met, if I started crying, my partner would get very uncomfortable and try to make me stop crying. I had to say explicitly: "I need you to hold me while I cry, and let me cry on your shoulder, so I can work through it rather than suppressing the tears and the emotion." He's much better about that now.
    So I think thinking about what you need and asking for it is certainly key. Also, at least in things which aren't as much shared grief (like helping a friend when you didn't know the person well), it's about trying to hold the space for them to be where they are at. About holding them and letting them lead the way. If they want to talk, listen. If they want to have a conversation, start it. If they need to cry, or be held, taking their cue. It's for me partly an intuitive thing, but by being grounded in yourself, and paying attention to the subtle cues they give about what they need.
    It's harder, I'm sure, when you are both grieving.

  2. First, I am so sorry for your loss. And then secondly, I am so sorry for the questions it brought up for you. It sounds like you know that you can't be everything to each other but also that you need a baseline of emotional support.

    We are lucky that we haven't had to deal with grief, but we have dealt with hospitals and illness. Like Caroline, I had to be very explicit about what I needed, and it helped. And then, I had to be equally understanding when I had to remind him how to REMAIN compassionate.

    For him, when bad things happened, I mostly stood back and gave him space. I definitely offered food, kept the house superclean (matters to him more than me), gave space, asked what he needed, understood that he had no clue what he needed, and was available when he could actually talk. I was there for him, but at a distance while he figured out for himself. I took care of life/the house to help make the day-to-day easier. But mostly, it was a mix of intuitive understanding and learned understanding (after years of practicing how to ask for what we each needed).

    I think, also, that it's okay that you're not good at this since you're both aware enough to work at it and forgive each other. You can practice listening to each other for cues, asking explicitly, and explaining clearly.

    I would also recommend talking with a counselor. Grief hits people differently and can feel isolating. If the grief affects one partner more, a counselor can help you work through your own pain and learn to ask for what you need. If the pain is largely shared, it helps couples understand each others' emotional needs.


  3. I can totally relate. My husband and I handle grief so differently. He is very blunt and, in my opinion, not very sympathetic. I want to talk it out, cry it out and reflect. He doesn't. He wants to move on. Like you said, it's something I wish we could improve upon, but something we don't want to practice!
    Callie @ The Wannabe Athlete

  4. Your way of helping other people deal with grief is more wonderful than you may know. Sometimes there are no words to say. Having someone just be there for you is worth more than anything that comes out of someone's mouth.

  5. As I mentioned on twitter last night, I'm not sure you can prepare or plan for grief. I wish you could. I wish you could plan so well, it wouldn't sting at all. But like you said, it hits people differently, at different moments, even. I have to admit, I'm terrified to have the roles reversed, as I know they inevitably will be someday. B seemed to just sense what I needed most, and I don't know if I'll be able to do that as well - esp. since he's so stoic.

    Sometimes I just wanted to be held. Sometimes, I wanted to laugh (one thing that surprised me was how the need to laugh was still there, even in the darkest spots), or rant, or go days without talking about it. On the day of the memorial service, I did't bring any tissues. Dumb, I guess, but I think I was hoping I would somehow be that composed. And then my nose and eyes started streaming... I tried discreetly wiping my face with the sleeve of my black dress, but it wasn't long enough to really reach. Next thing I know, B reaches up and gently wiped my face with his dress sleeve. Sometimes, you need a sleeve.

    The only thing I can think of as a way to "improve" before the fact would be practicing daily empathy for the other. Just when run-of-the-mill things go bad. I would also say DON'T EXPECT NORMAL. Possibly not for a long, long time. Maybe intermittently. Maybe normal will come back right away, and then 5 years later, you'll think of some random, stupid thing and become a sobbing mess. But *expecting* someone to feel normal right away is setting everyone up for disappointment.

    Also, feeding people may not be the healthiest way to cope, but I was grateful when friends looked out for us in that way.

  6. Thanks for posting this. I'm struggling with something quite similar and it actually makes me feel more at peace that not everyone has this figured out ahead of time. I'm at that stage of neurotically analyzing what we need to tackle *before* we formally commit our lives to each other and slowly coming to terms with the fact that we will never have everything perfectly ironed out. We, too, deal with grief very differently and, frankly, incompatibly. It's such a unique, hopefully rare emotion, and yet also very universal, and I think it's common for couples to avoid talking about it before there's a concrete reason to because it's just so heavy.