When your partner has lost a loved one, try what this marriage therapist says

Several years ago, my partner’s stepfather died after a long battle with emphysema. My partner and his stepfather weren’t particularly close and the death wasn’t entirely unexpected, but my partner was nevertheless shaken in a way I’d never seen him before. I remember standing with him in a line of family after the funeral, seeing tears stream down his face as he gripped my hand hard, like we were about to jump off a cliff.

The event stirred something in my partner that had laid dormant in the six years we’d been together, and I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. Did he want to talk about it? If he did, did he want to talk about memories of his stepfather, or how his mom is doing, or maybe just death and loss in general? I wanted to be there for him, but I also didn’t want to make things worse in an already tense and difficult time.

After my partner’s loss, I would have done well to do some reading up on how to best support a loved one during the grieving process. Obviously it’s a delicate situation, but there’s certain tactics to help you best navigate it; getting through the process can be a matter of trying different things at different times and seeing what works best. Tools like Emi Couple can serve as a resource when difficult situations come up in a relationship. I asked Emi Couple’s resident relationship therapist, Dr. Dominique Samuels, PsyD, for her thoughts about how to best support a partner when a loved one has passed away.

Q: How do you suggest someone support their partner when a close family member of theirs has died? How do you know when it’s best to just give your partner space and time to grieve?

A: Everyone grieves very differently. There are multiple stages of grief — the researcher Kubler-Ross named them: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance — that can be distinct, fluid, or feel like a merry-go-round. Each person grieves differently. If a close loved one has died, it is likely your partner does not know what they need, or needs very different things day-to-day. The best way to cope is to offer support at all times. Be available. Help them by cleaning the house, making food, taking care of daily chores that need to get done but the grieving person has no capacity to do. Hold them, have tissues on hand, just sit by them. Some people may want you to help out with tactical chores (calling the funeral home, scanning pictures for a slide show, shopping for proper funeral attire) while others will feel that those chores are the only thing keeping them rooted in the present. It is always possible to give someone space to grieve while being available or even in the room — just don’t helicopter around them. There is no “right way” for them to go through the process, so there is no “right way” for your to help them.

Q: Do you have any tips on how to interact with other family at this time? How can you tell when you’re overstepping when you’re just trying to help?

A: When it comes to other family members, it can be hard to know how to act. In general, look around and watch someone who is also a bit of an outsider, but has been in the family for longer. Copy their methods if they feel right to you. How do you know if they feel right to you? It should not feel so uncomfortable that it pains you. But do expect to feel somewhat uncomfortable. Death, sadness, tears — unfortunately, these are all very taboo areas in our culture. It may be strange to see your father in law cry, or your usually completely put together husband fall apart. It is a vulnerable time for all, so treat people with kindness and think about what you would want in each situation.

Q: For some, the idea of death is extremely anxiety inducing. How do you suggest talking to your partner about such big topics in a manner that’s sensitive but still helpful?

A: Like I mentioned, death, dying, sickness, getting old — all taboo areas in American mainstream culture. We as a society should talk about all of these things much more than we do. One way to cope with anxiety you feel about talking about it is to talk about the anxiety itself. “I’m finding myself scared to do/say the wrong thing” or “I know this may feel like poor timing, but this death has made me really worried about my own mortality.” Most people will have empathy for these perspectives and feel connected to you for sharing the vulnerability. The most important thing to remember is that you should not judge a person by their grieving style — it all shifts and changes. The first week they may not even know what day it is. The second week they may not know how they’ll go on. But in time, all will go back to normal, even if it is a ‘new’ normal. Sometimes the hardest and best thing about human’s reaction to death is the same thing: life goes on eventually.

Finally, always remember that reaching out to a therapist is a good idea to help process grief. There are specific grief therapists and groups as well (often provided by places like hospice centers) who can be called upon for a few months for some extra support.