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Coping as a Couple: Grieving through the Holidays

Hi! It’s good to be back to writing again, after a brief (11 month) hiatus. I recently had the idea for this new blog series focused on coping with external stressors as a couple. External stressors refer to things outside of your relationship, but that might impact your relationship. The importance of the way of a couple handles external stressors cannot be understated. We don’t live in a bubble, so, naturally, stress at work, with family members, with children, etc, can seep into our relationships and manifest through bad moods, distancing, and misplaced anger. With this series, I hope that you can learn to be a stress reducer for your partner and learn to trust your partner to be a stress reducer for you as well.

Coping as a Couple: Grieving through the Holidays

Winter is coming… not only a warning Game of Thrones fans will recognize as a prediction of coming doom, but also an ominous feeling in the back of the mind of a person who has suffered a major loss. The holiday season, once a symbol of light, joy, and cheer during the coldest and darkest days of the year, is now an emotional minefield needing to be crossed. The reason holidays are so difficult to deal with after the death of a loved one is that it brings up so many memories and highlights the loss, and it also brings out obligations to maintain the relationships you still have. The part of grief that I will be talking about in this post is not the individual’s experience with grief. Rather, how does a couple deal with grief together? It’s impossible to plan for how grief will hit you or your partner, and it’s impossible to ensure that your relationship will not be impacted. You are going to grieve; what you can do is keep your life from spinning out of control while you are preoccupied with grief. Couples can provide each other with the extra support they need to keep each other grounded during this painful time.

Partners Grieve Differently

You may have heard that old adage “Everyone grieves differently.” Like all cliches, that is usually said with the intention of making you feel better, but it can also be a reminder that your partner may be grieving differently than you are. No matter who the deceased was, they will have had a different relationship with you than they did with your partner (or any person in your family or friend group). If it was your father that died, you may have a lifetime of both positive and negative experiences that made of up the fabric of your relationship. He helped you form who you are in a major way. Your father played a different role in your partner’s life. He or she may be mostly sad for you, your children, or for the loss of support. Because the relationship was different, the feelings and expression may also be different. It is natural and completely normal to compare grief. We observe our grief and try to make meaning out of it. We take it to be an expression of how much you loved that person. But the way a person grieves is not an accurate measurement of how much they cared about the person they lost.

Another way partners grieve differently is if they are instrumental or intuitive in their grief. Instrumental grief is when a person focuses on tasks to overcome, most often tangible tasks, and intuitive grief is focused more on talking about the loss and emotional expression. Intuitive grievers are typically talkers and cryers, while instrumental grievers are more doers. After a death an intuitive griever may seek counseling or opportunities to share their story, while instrumental grievers may be the one who jumps into planning the funeral and clearing out dad’s closet. Most people are not purely one of these styles, but often both you and your partner will not be using the same style at the same time. In those moments it is good to remind yourself that this is a way of grieving.

It’s easy to say “respect what your partner needs to do while grieving” in theory, but what makes it so hard in practice? The challenge lies in the attempt to get needs met by your partner, when they have seemly contradictory needs. That is what creates an impasse with couples. Two people, trying to occupy the same need space at the same time, no one feeling able to move aside, and no one feeling like their needs are being met. It is hard to resolve an impasse in a relationship on a normal day. Add grief to the mix, it becomes exhausting. Basic roles you played happily in your relationship may be difficult to maintain while grieving. Does that mean your partner doesn’t need that anymore? Nope. Maybe they are willing to put that need aside temporarily, but how long will they have to do that? There’s not a timeline. Communicating what you need in a positive way and problem-solving as a team is essential during this time. Be an ally, not an enemy. Focus on being a good listener. This isn’t just applicable to the partner who is “grieving less”. If you are the person who was closer to the deceased, it’s easy to compare and determine that you are the one with the needs, not them, but that’s just not accurate. It often helps to be able to support and comfort another person as well, and just get out of your own head for a while.

Partners Have Different Perspectives on Loss

How did your family deal with loss? How does your family view death? These are the things that we don’t really talk about until the situation comes up. But how we deal with death is a huge part of our family culture. Like all cultural differences, we have to work with our partners to join those differences and make a new family culture. The focus needs to shift from how do I handle and view death to how do we handle and view death. Consider what you liked or disliked about your family’s way of grieving. Was there anything you feel was unhealthy about it or even just not right for you? Maybe they perceived stoicism as being strong and emotional expression as being weak? Maybe men don’t cry, but do express their anger in your family. How did that make you feel? Is that something you want to bring forward into your new family culture? Have a discussion with your partner about death and grief in general, not just relating to the situation occurring now.

One way we establish a family culture that deals with death and dying is through rituals. We talk about “Rituals of Connection" in couples therapy as those ways that we automatically connect on a daily basis through greetings, mealtimes, bedtimes, initiating affection, etc. There are also holiday rituals that provide a chance for special connections and memorable moments. However, you could establish family rituals of connection with those you lost as well. What can you participate in as a couple to remember your loved one? Maybe you both participate in celebrating their birthday by cooking their favorite meal. You might take turns sharing a fond holiday memory about them. It could be something as simple as a toast or prayer in their honor before mealtime. This is your opportunity to create something new and unique in your relationship that allows grief to be a bond, rather than feeling the isolation of being the silent sufferer.

Logistics: What are we going to do now?

As mentioned earlier, the holidays mean different things to different people, so figuring out how to adjust plans without a loved one can present challenges on all sides. You might want to make a “game plan” as a couple for how you want to celebrate the holidays, and how you are going to talk with extended family and friends about your plans. If you expect objections to your plans, discuss how to respond to those objections. Many people decide to forgo the traditional holiday plans and do something completely different. This may bring up sad feelings for other family members who are also grieving and want every thing to be exactly the same. Don’t be afraid to talk about those feelings and what is important about each of your positions. You may not be able to come up with a plan that perfectly satisfies everyone, but maybe everyone can at least be heard and understood.

If you do decide to keep with tradition, give yourself and your partner permission to be a little self-serving. Partners can be extremely helpful in recognizing when you are feeling overwhelmed, in need of a break, or need to simply be done for the day. The obligation to spend time with family and be what people need you to be can trigger shame feelings when you are grieving. You will not be the same as you have always been after a major loss. You will change. At times you may feel like your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are unpredictable. They are. But expectations from yourself or others to be the same as you have always been are unfair and unreasonable. Recruit your partner to be on the side of your own self-compassion, so that they are an ally, and not a source of pressure.

Finally, it makes it much easier to get your needs met by your partner when you both know how to ask for what you need. Work on communicating your needs with your partner. Practice doing this before it becomes a desperate need. Prepare your partner to receive your needs. Ask them to focus on understanding while you are speaking, rather than finding a solution. Solutions and advice are best after understanding has been fully achieved. Ask your partner to respect your pain by giving it space to exist and to try not to take away your ability to heal yourself. We feel weak when we are grieving, but we feel stronger than ever when we persevere through the hardship.

I hope everyone has a holiday season where they can find moments of joy with their friends and family, moments of love and remembrance of those they've lost, and time to practice self-compassion and care for themselves.

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