In this week’s Love Essentially, published yesterday in Chicago Tribune Pioneer Press, I offer marital advice for that devastating time when people suffer the loss of a parent.
How to Help Your Spouse Grieve The Loss of a Parent by Jackie Pilossoph
Romantic relationships are so much easier when everything in life is going great. But what happens when tragedy strikes your partner and his or her world is turned upside down?
I’m referring to the death of a spouse’s parent. The devastation and other intense emotions someone feels when losing their mom, their dad or a sibling can cause a lot of stress in a marriage, especially if the spouse doesn’t know how to help.
Dr. Nicole Gerber, Psy.D. is a Northbrook-based licensed clinical psychologist, who has counseled couples facing this issue. She also lost her mom 15 years ago.
“A person who loses a parent feels a wide range of emotions, such as relief (if their parent was suffering), shock (if their parent died suddenly), sadness, guilt, fear, despair, loneliness, anger, frustration, hopelessness, helplessness and devastation,” said Gerber, who has been in practice for 18 years. “It is important to just be with them during their grief and allow them to fully feel their emotions.”
Gerber said there is also a loss of identity that occurs when a person loses their parent, which can cause an overwhelming void.
Here are Gerber’s four tips for helping your spouse when his or her parent dies.
1. Follow your partner’s lead. If they want to talk, then listen. If they need space, then give them space. Asking your partner, “What do you need from me?” is a good starting point. Communication is crucial.
2. Do not try to fix their problem because you can’t bring their parent back. Acknowledge and validate how hard it must be for them to have lost their parent. Offer support without judgment. Let your partner know that you are there for them if they need you. This is especially important if your spouse is pulling away from you.
3. Do not have a timeline in mind for where you think your partner should be with their grief. Grief does not come in nice neat stages, but rather it comes in waves and feels more like a roller coaster of emotions. They may be grieving intensely one day and barely get out of bed and the next day they may be functioning perfectly fine. Be patient, attuned and attentive to where your partner is at and try to meet them there.
4. Helping your partner keep the memory of their parent alive is helpful to the grieving process. Telling stories, reminiscing and sharing fond memories of that parent is important. Looking at pictures and videos and sharing rituals such as lighting a candle on their parent’s death day can also be helpful. Paying tribute to that parent by doing something like a walk for breast cancer in their memory or finding other meaningful ways to honor their memory is also important.
I have been truly fortunate in that I have not yet experienced the death of my parents. However, I feel like I’m at that age where so many of my friends have experienced it.
It’s very difficult to know what to say, what to do or how to act around someone who just lost a parent, because if you think about it there isn’t anything you can say that will take away their pain. It’s a helpless feeling. And, whatever you end up saying, you’re always wondering if it was the right thing, if it sounded stupid or even if you made the person feel worse.
I think just showing up to see your friend, putting your hand on theirs or giving them a hug is often better than words. It’s telling them in silence that you care. People won’t remember what you said, but they do remember that you came to see them. I also believe most people who suffer the loss of a parent remember how their spouse acted during that shattering time.
“When I lost my mom, I remember my husband feeling helpless. He could not take my pain away or absorb my loss. However, he was there for me when I needed a shoulder to cry on, to listen to me, to hold me or just to sit with me in silence,” Gerber said. “All of these things were very comforting and aided tremendously in my grieving process.”
Gerber said going through the grieving process with your partner can offer a tiny silver lining…(Click here to read the rest of the article, published yesterday in Chicago Tribune Pioneer Press.)
Like this article? Check out my post, “10 Tips To a Happier Marriage
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