Here’s The Best Way To Support A Grieving Partner
Actions speak louder than words.
Grief is never easy to navigate — but what about when your significant other’s going through it? If you’re wondering how to support a grieving partner, it’s a great question. After all, there’s no official handbook with the “do’s” and “don’ts” of grieving since it differs for everyone. Your partner may want space while someone else may want more togetherness.
“Whether one or both of you are grieving, it can be difficult to anticipate how each will cope,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, NYC neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend The Mind, tells TZR in an email. “Some cope by reaching out to friends and loved ones, talking about it until they feel they have everything they need to say out of their system. Others refrain from bringing it up, isolate themselves for a while, and can even shut down.”
And if you and your partner have different ways of showing — or accepting — your grief, it can strain the relationship. “As a result, you may not know how to support one another in a way that makes the other person feel heard and seen,” she adds. So what are some things to keep in mind when trying to help your significant other as best you can? Ahead, Hafeez and other grief experts chime in.
Listen — Don’t Feel Pressure To ‘Fix’ Or Take Away Their Pain
When your partner loses a loved one, there are certain things you can do, and say, to help show them you care. “Let your partner cry it all out,” says Hafeez. “Let them feel what they want to feel by ensuring they are comfortable around you. But remember, everyone mourns differently, so be there for them whichever way they choose to cope (unless it’s dangerously unhealthy).” Emma Payne, CEO of Grief Coach, a text-based grief support network, says that when a partner is grieving, we feel we need to do something to take their pain away. “But that's not possible when someone has died,” she tells TZR in an email. “Instead, simply listen and sit with them as they grieve. For many people, once they remove the pressure of having to somehow ‘fix’ or take away the pain, they're better able to simply share in the experience and feelings their partner is having.”
Talk About Their Favorite Memories & Celebrate Monumental Occasions
Payne says one wonderful gift you can give your grieving partner is to talk about favorite memories you shared with their loved one — and to ask for their favorite stories and memories, too. “Playing music that the person loved, or going to their favorite restaurant, helps to keep their memory alive and shows your partner that the person who's died is special and won't be forgotten,” she says. “Also make a note in your calendar with important anniversaries and try to acknowledge those dates every year. For example, the date of death or the birthday of the deceased. This lets your partner know that you understand grief lasts a long time and that you're there for them, for as long as it takes.”
Marisa Renee Lee, author of the bestseller Grief Is Love, has a whole chapter in her book about the role grief can play in a romantic relationship. In her book, Lee writes, “I quickly learned that finding your way back to unconditional love after grief is akin to finding your way out of a house of mirrors at a carnival. It's all about, ‘How do you show up for someone you love who's living with loss?’” she tells TZR.
She explains that she met her now-husband of four years after her mother died. “If someone you love, are married to, or in a relationship with is grieving the loss of someone they love, it's really hard,” she says. “Sometimes, it can seem easier to walk away from the relationship rather than potentially expose yourself to that type of grief again.” And to maintain or build any type of an intimate relationship, it requires some level of shared grieving. She calls her now-husband her Grief Partner, and clarifies that a Grief Partner is not about sadness so much as support — they come from a place of empathy, understanding, and love. For instance, a Grief Partner can help you celebrate your deceased parent’s birthday or important occasions.
Identify Support Networks And Resources For *Yourself*
Lee says that one of her first pieces of advice to someone who is trying to support their partner through grief is for that person to identify their own support network and resources. This can mean reaching out to close friends and/or a bereavement group, religious leader, therapist, you name it. Or it can be something like practicing mindfulness or using a wellness app. “Because when people are grieving, the impact that grief has on our bodies and minds makes it really hard to be the person who people have come to expect us to be,” she says. “Your partner’s brain is literally reconfiguring itself to accommodate for the absence of someone they’re so accustomed to being in the presence of.”
Be Intentional About Setting Boundaries
When you are trying to figure out how to navigate grief with someone else, Lee thinks it’s also important to be intentional about setting boundaries. “It's tough being in a relationship with someone who's going through something that's really hard,” she says. “You want to be there for them — and you should be there for them — but you also need to set some boundaries around your own care and needs; otherwise, you won't actually be able to continue to show up for them effectively.”
Show Empathy & Grace
Lee thinks empathy and grace are also key. “I think that goes for the person who's providing support and the person who's grieving — because at some point they're going to mess up in terms of supporting you,” she says. “We're all human. They're going to forget to do something that you ask them to do, they're going to forget to check in on you the way that you want them to, they're going to make a mistake. So making sure that some combination of empathy and grace are a part of that relationship — and those conversations — is really important.”
Verbalize Your Support
Hafeez adds that you can also verbalize your support with statements such as, “I am supporting you today and every day,” “It’s okay to feel the way you do,” “Always remember that they are proud of who you are,” “They loved you very much,” and “Take as long as you need to mourn.” Of course, make sure your actions match your words though. If they’d like your support and for you to spend time with them, don’t suddenly bail. Hafeez adds that you should allow yourself to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. “You may find yourself sitting in silence, holding one another when you’re crying and listening to each other talk through what they’re feeling,” she says. “Be there for one another during difficult times, as a shoulder to cry on, or someone to answer condolences for you. The smallest things can help more than you may think, and offering help with distracting your partner with a movie night, puzzle, walk in the park, or just sitting next to them in silence can be all they need.”
Some Things To *Not* Say Or Do
Hafeez notes that it’s important to not invalidate your partner’s feelings. “Let them be sad, mad, hurt, and so forth,” she says. “If they don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves, they may just shut down and bottle up their emotions instead. Similarly, don’t pressure them into going out with friends or stepping outside of their comfort zone too quickly.” She says the key is to let them heal in their own time frame and show that you’re by their side. There are also some phrases to avoid saying, she explains, such as, “At least they lived a long life,” “They’re now in a better place,” “You got this, be strong,” and “I totally know how you feel.”
However, Payne says not to overthink it: If a partner is fearful that they might say or do the wrong thing — they’re worried about “what not to say,” they often say nothing or stay away. “Instead, it's best to acknowledge that it can be very hard to know what to say or do for a grieving partner,” she says. “We haven't been taught what to do, and it can be scary. We want to thank the courageous partners who want to help — but may not be sure how to — and give them the tools and language for what they can do vs. worrying about what they should not do.” That said, Payne suggests that supporters stay away from phrases that begin with the words “At least…,” like, “At least they lived a long life,” or “At least they’re not in pain anymore.” “These phrases may make your partner feel that you’re minimizing the deep pain they’re experiencing,” she explains.
Lee adds that actions can often speak louder than words. “When we say something that is intended to make the person feel better, 99.9% of the time, it doesn't work,” she says. “It’s either based on misguided, outdated notions of grief, like ‘Just get over it.’” Or, if what you say is the kindest, most compassionate, most thoughtful thing, nothing feels quite right when you have lost someone you love. So even the person with the best of intentions may try to find the right words, but they still won't ever really be the ‘right’ words because the griever is in so much pain.”
How Long Grief Lasts
Unfortunately, there is no particular grief timeline. “Everyone heals their own way and at their own pace,” says Hafeez. “You can reassure your partner that they will stop crying, and eventually, their routines will return to normal. Soon, they’ll laugh again without guilt, and going about their day will be easier.” However, some days will be more challenging than others, especially once holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays come up. In this case, you can let them know that, together, these occasions will be easier, says Hafeez. “Just continue to reassure them that, no matter how long it takes for them to move forward, you will be there for them.”
Payne, too, says there is no timeline for grief. “For as long as you’ll continue to love the person who's died, you’ll grieve for them, and that's okay,” she says. “This ‘ball in the jar’ analogy is one of the most common ones for illustrating how grief changes with time. While grief doesn't go away, it does change over time and we grow around our grief, too.” While you may think the ball (grief) in the jar gets smaller, in reality, the jar around the ball gets bigger (and represents our growth regarding grief).
How A Couple Can Face Grief In A Supportive & Nurturing Manner
As difficult as grieving is, it also presents a profound opportunity to learn about your partner in a new way, and to deepen your relationship with them, says Payne. “Death, much like birth, is a life transition that can bring all kinds of new feelings to the surface,” she explains. “If you listen — without judgment — and provide support and companionship on your partner's grief journey, you will deepen your understanding of each other. And you’ll learn tools to use again in the future as other difficult times come your way.”
Lee adds that the work of grief is never totally done, unfortunately. “There's always more healing because there are always going to be these new and different triggers for the griever as you continue to move through life together,” she says. She adds that people can get really hung up on what to say/what not to say. “I think the most important thing that you can do if someone has lost someone they love is to do something,” she says. “This can mean sitting with the person in church, bringing them a meal, or offering to walk their dog or watch their children. Just do something — take an action.”
And she says if you are unsure of what to do — everyone’s sending flowers or dropping off food — do something that is authentic to that person and your relationship with them. “When my husband and I lost our pregnancy back in 2019, tons of people sent flowers, so many that we ran out of vases to put them in,” says Lee. “But one of my best friends sent me a gift box from one of my favorite stores in the world: Murray's Cheese in New York City. She and I are big wine and cheese people, and have shared that a million times over the years. It was perfect. When we take these kinds of loving actions, that is when people feel less alone with their loss.”