There’s no one typical reaction after the death of a parent. One person might hole up alone and cry for days, whereas others might feel numb. Grief might hit months or even years later: Someone out for a run might stop, suddenly gutted, because the way the sun is setting over the trees reminds them of the view from their parent’s kitchen. Or one day, out of the blue, someone might be taken aback by the way their kid presses her fingers to her lips when she laughs, just like grandma. If your spouse’s parent dies, and you want to be helpful, what’s the best way to be there for them?
Grief is individual. It looks different for different people, and there’s no roadmap or timeline for how people will respond. How someone grieves depends on a lot of things, including their personality, their relationship with the person that passed away, whether they have a strong support network, and whether the death was sudden or a long time coming. People’s approach to grief also might be shaped by their religious or cultural views about death.
What you can count on is that if your partner loses a parent, they will need your support, no matter what their relationship with the parent was like.
“Being in a relationship with a partner following a loss may feel lonely and confusing,” says Helen Rogers Pridgen, LMSW, vice president of programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in South Carolina. “You want to be there for them, make them feel better and for them to be themselves again. However, you may not know what he or she wants or needs.”
Here’s how you can help someone who is grieving.
Take Charge (If It’s Needed and Wanted)
Early on, it can be difficult for some grieving people to carry out daily tasks such as bathing, eating, taking care of children or even getting out of bed, says clinical psychologist Erin Miers, Psy.D., a professor at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine in New Hampshire.
“A husband can check in and make gentle suggestions to support partners, like offering to make food,” she says. Ask if you can help make calls informing people about the death, deal with scheduling the death notice in the paper or make funeral or memorial arrangements.
“Picking up extra household tasks to reduce your partner’s stress and allowing them to process their grief can be invaluable,” Miers says.
Some people will withdraw into themselves, while others might throw themselves into completing tasks when a parent dies, Miers says. Asking how you can help work on some of those tasks can be a balm (as long as you’re not bombarding them with minutia).
Asking questions beyond the practical can also help, especially if you haven’t had much experience with death. Not knowing what to say to someone who’s grieving is common.
“We live in a grief-illiterate society,” says grief expert David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. “Instead of trying to imagine how they must feel, what if you said, ‘What does your grief look like? What does it feel like for you?’”
Grief can be uncomfortable and complicated. You might wonder why the death of an abusive parent, for example, is hitting your partner so hard.
“We grieve for those we love, those we like, even for those we hate, and for those who abused us,” Kessler says. “We don’t grieve for people we’re indifferent to. You will grieve for the father who abused you but also for the ideal father or mother you should have had but didn’t.”
The questions you ask your partner don’t have to elicit deep, meaningful soliloquies about the death. You can simply ask, “How are you doing?” or “What is this like for you right now?” says psychologist Daniel Singley, Ph.D., director of the Center for Men’s Excellence in San Diego.
“Don’t try to cheer them up, and don’t expect grief to happen on a timeline or follow the phases of grief,” Singley says. “It may or may not.”
Just Be There
“Sometimes when we say, ‘I’m here for you,’ we mean, ‘I’m here to do what I feel like I need to do for your grief,’” Kessler says. Let your partner know you’re here to support them with whatever they need, whether it’s to talk about their loved one or go for a walk or go out and have fun and not talk about it.
Asking what your partner needs can inform what you shouldn’t say in addition to what you should say, Kessler says. If your partner says they’re grateful their parent had a long happy life, for example, it’s perfectly fine to agree and validate that. But it minimizes the loss by volunteering something like, “Well, your mom was 87, you knew you were going to lose her someday” or “Well, at least you didn’t lose a child. That would be much worse.”
“We don’t realize the many ways people tend to diminish grief over a parent,” Kessler says. “Sentences that start with ‘You must be…’ or At least…’ aren’t helpful because you’re telling them what their feelings should be. People want to be heard and validated.”
A more supportive phrase might be, “I’m sorry you’re hurting, and I want you to know you’re not alone,” Pridgen says: “Though you may be inclined to give your partner space during their grieving process, it’s important not to isolate them during a highly vulnerable time in their life.”
Losing a parent can be particularly challenging when you have children. Kids still have to be taken care of, of course, and additionally, someone has to explain what happened and comfort them about the loss of their grandparent. Do your best to be understanding and gracious about taking charge for a while.
It’s also helpful to remember anger is “pain’s bodyguard,” Kessler says. If your partner yells at you, try to remember they’re in pain rather than get defensive or yell back.
“When someone you care about pushes you away, they’re likely doing it because they don’t believe you’ll accept them if they tell you what’s going on,” says psychologist and keynote speaker Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. “Perhaps they’re concerned about how you’ll react and don’t want to upset you. Or maybe they simply aren’t ready to reveal whatever it is yet.”
You and your partner might experience some intimacy problems as well. They might not be interested in snuggling or sex for a while, Miers says. Being patient and respectful is another way of supporting them through this process.
“The worst thing you can do is to expect the home to run the same as it was before. Things may not get back to normal for a while, especially if their parent lived with you,” says licensed clinical social worker Rashad Skinner.
Your spouse might seem aloof, depressed, more tired or even have trouble concentrating or holding a conversation as a result of their grief, says licensed marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind. Try not to take it personally — that means also controlling your frustration if your partner is still struggling with the death many months later.
“There is no guaranteed means of shortening the process,” Skinner says. “No matter what happens throughout the process, death can show you what unconditional love means. It’s one of the hardest conditions that can test a relationship.”
Reassure Them They’re Grieving “Correctly”
Kessler says some people are “feeling grievers” and others are “practical grievers.” Feeling types traffic in feelings and work through them, whereas practical grievers don’t talk about or have much awareness of feelings. Type-A personalities, who thrive on to-do lists and fixing problems, are more likely to be practical grievers.
“It can be helpful to know about the two types, but here’s where it goes wrong: Feeling grievers look at practicals, and say, ‘I need to get you to feel and open up,’ and practicals look at feelers and say, ‘Oh my gosh, do we have to have a feeling about everything?’ The key is that there’s no one right way to grieve; they’re just different styles.”
Because people have individual perceptions, it can be difficult not to make assumptions about your partner’s grieving process or feelings about their parent if it’s different from yours. If you and your parents are very close and you would be devastated if one of them died, it can be difficult to not judge your partner for not reacting like you think you would.
Or you might be more broken up about the loss of an in-law than your partner is and might resent any perceived indifference they appear to feel about the death. This is a common situation, says Singley, and it’s important to resist the urge to criticize your partner for it, and get support from a friend, therapist, or clergy member. Don’t lean on your partner to support you.
Denial is one of the early stages of grief, so keep in mind that sometimes, someone trying to come to terms with the death might say something that sounds odd, out of character or insensitive. Asking questions comes in handy here, too.
“You can say, ‘What do you mean by that?’, rather than, ‘Wow, that’s fucked up!’ Asking about the comment usually gets you further in terms of understanding and empathy,” Singley says.
It’s your job to listen and validate that your grieving partner is doing it right even if you think they’re doing it wrong, he says, not to help them uncover feelings so you can feel satisfied that they’re grieving properly.
Don’t Try to Fix It
It’s a stereotype, but men are likely to be fixers and problem solvers.
“I remind people, this is grief — no one’s broken, so there’s nothing to fix,” says Kessler
In an effort to minimize or solve the problem, fixers sometimes “brightside” or use toxic positivity to try and help a grieving person. If a grieving person says, “I’m glad my parent is no longer suffering,” you can agree and validate that feeling. But now isn’t the time to look for good news.
Problem-solving, unless your partner specifically asks for it, comparing losses or patronizing someone isn’t useful, Miers adds.
“If you’ve never experienced profound loss before and feel awkward about what to say, most people say things like, ‘I can’t even imagine the pain you are experiencing’ or ‘I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’m here for you,’” she says. “These statements don’t diminish the feelings of grief your partner might be experiencing.”
Seek Professional Help If It Gets Worse
Typically, most people start to return to a previous level of functioning about three to six months after the loss, Miers says. If someone still is struggling after a year, they might benefit from therapy. It’s important to give your partner space and time to grieve, but it is possible for complex grief to shift into depression or even suicidal thoughts, so it’s something to keep in mind.
Try to Embrace the Opportunity Death Brings
“People often look at the stages of grief and misunderstand that when a person gets to the big ‘acceptance stage’ that grief is over,” Kessler says. “That’s not the case — there are a million little acceptances you go through.”
A newer idea is to not think of grieving as a finite process. It can be helpful, when someone is ready, to find meaning in the death, whether it’s realizing how short life is, being grateful for the time you have or using it as a springboard for change, Kessler says.
“Meaning can be so many things,” he says. “Maybe how the person died changed you and inspired you to create something of meaning for others because of it. But it doesn’t have to be something big like starting a foundation. Maybe every year on her birthday, suggest to your partner, ‘Let’s make your mom’s favorite recipe’ or go have dinner in her honor.’”