In the midst of COVID-19, death and its aftermath, grief, have become a mainstay in the news cycle. Every day the television news broadcasts tell us how many individuals have been infected by the coronavirus and the number of deaths as a result. While everyone has experienced major life changes because of the pandemic, many people have been touched by the COVID-19 epidemic in the ultimate, most tragic way. Many of us have lost friends or loved ones or our friends and family have lost someone and are grieving.
The pandemic has greatly changed and interrupted our culture and rituals around death. Because of shelter-in-place and social distancing regulations, people are sick and dying in facilities alone. Viewings and funerals are being conducted virtually and with limited numbers of mourners. Our rituals of sitting with a family and grieving with them or taking food to them have halted. This has left many people with the inability to process grief as they normally would. It also has created confusion for many of us that are trying to help others with their grief. (Check out this great blog on how to mindfully deal with difficult emotions.)
Beyond the direct impact of the pandemic, it is important to recognize that people can grieve a variety of things in addition to the death of a friend or loved one. This includes the loss of a job, the loss of a family pet, the loss of home and mementoes, or the loss of a relationship through divorce or separation. Many people are even grieving the loss of normalcy our “new normal” has created. We grieve not being able to attend weddings, graduations, and celebrate birthdays the way we normally would.
How do I help my loved ones as they grieve? How do I help my spouse as they grieve?
Remember That Grief Is A Normal, Healthy Emotion
Jonathan Trotter of the Gottman Institute wisely suggests, “The next time you come across someone who’s grieving a loss, remember that they probably don’t need a lecture or a pithy saying. They don’t need a cliché or a vapid truism. They certainly don’t need you to outlaw their grief.” By “outlaw their grief” he means, “Allow grief, in your own heart and in the hearts of others. Don’t send it underground.” Grief isn’t something that needs to be suppressed, hidden, or to feel ashamed about.
Often when we are close to someone who is grieving, we are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so we say nothing and avoid the subject of their loss. This can reinforce the idea that grief is a bad emotion and close avenues for people to express and process their grief.
Recognize That Grief Is A Multifaceted And Complex Emotion
Are you aware that there are actually 5 stages of grief?
These stages were originally developed by psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as a way for people to process their impending death. It is now often used as a way for family members to process the death of a loved one. Be careful with trying to use this as a “blueprint” for your spouse. Not everyone goes through all of these stages. It might seem logical to you that they go through each stage in a linear fashion. However, that is not the case. Grieving can be cyclical and has no specific time frame or stages. Your spouse might feel acceptance one minute and anger the next. Don’t try to use the “Five Stages of Grief” as a roadmap or a guide.
Relationship expert, Patty Howell shared this after the loss of her husband of 40 years, Ralph: ”Tonight, 11 months down the road… I just feel depressed. Depressed that my life will never feel happy again. The funzies I’m trying to cobble together just don’t add up to very much at all… it just doesn’t compare with the love that Ralph and I shared… Doesn’t compare at all!”
We All Grieve Differently
Grief impacts us differently. Some of us want to be around people while others withdraw. Others want to talk about what they are experiencing while some prefer to process internally. Some experience an increase in appetite while others have no appetite. Your spouse may sleep more or not be able to sleep at all. Remember, grief affects us physically and emotionally. It is important to remember that there is no timeline or guidebook for grief.
Misunderstandings about grief can be particularly damaging to marriages. It is easy to “judge” our spouse’s grieving or “judge” how supportive our spouse is to our own grieving. This can quickly lead to tension, anger, and deep-seated resentment. “Death in the family” regularly shows up as one of the top stressors in a marriage. Work so that grief drives you toward each other instead of driving you apart.
Feel What You Feel
As we support someone grieving, we have to give them time and be sensitive to the space they need, but we don’t need to be afraid of them or afraid of asking them what they need. Don’t be afraid to ask how they are feeling or questions like what their favorite memory of their loved one is. Your spouse will let you know if they aren’t in a place emotionally to talk. Respect that. We can’t hurry them through the process. We can’t tell them to “get over it” or “move on.” We can continually tell them that we are there for them to support them however they need it.
They’ll also experience a variety of emotions: sadness, anger, abandonment, overwhelmedness, even relief or joy—sometimes within minutes of each of other. There will be times when sounds and smells evoke smiles of remembrance or tears of sadness. “Firsts” might be especially difficult for your spouse—the first Christmas without their friend or loved one, the first birthday, Thanksgiving, and so on. Be on the lookout and be sensitive during these times while you also remember that grief can “spring on” your spouse without any apparent trigger.
It is painful when someone you love is in pain. All we can do is support them as they deal with the loss. Having unrealistic expectations that your spouse isn’t grieving “right” or that this will be a speedy process will only make matters worse. Don’t project how you are grieving or have grieved onto your spouse. Grief is something that everyone navigates differently.
As we walk this journey of grief for and with our loved ones, recognize that losing someone who is important to you is not just a single moment in time, but something that changes you at your core. It will become part of your spouse’s life story and part of your marriage. Our loved one may be gone from our physical presence, but the life they lived and the memories that they left will be with us forever.