Ashley Davis Bush, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who specializes in helping couples overcome loss and manifest their potential. She is the author of Transcending Loss, Claim Your Inner Grown-up, and her latest book, Shortcuts to Inner Peace: 70 Simple Paths to Everyday Serenity. She also manages several loss support communities on Facebook. In this guest post for PO2 Ashley shares insight into staying connected as a couple through the grieving process.
In the brilliant 2010 movie, “Rabbit Hole,” Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play a bereaved couple who are driven apart by their grief after they lose their young son in a tragic accident. While the mother draws inward and wishes to hide from her memories, the father wants to attend grief groups, talk endlessly, and memorialize his son.
The grieving process — with its mixture of pain, sadness, hopelessness, longing, anger, guilt, confusion, and disorientation – is one of our most universal experiences. Thankfully, we won’t all know the searing pain of losing a child, yet we will all know the grief of losing grandparents, parents, pets, friends, and even siblings.
While individuals have different styles of grieving, it is generally considered healthy to be able to tolerate, honor, and express emotions. When you’re grieving with a partner (who may or may not be feeling the same degree of grief), coping with your feelings can be quite a challenge.
How a couple handles their array of grief feelings has the potential to either drive them apart or draw them closer together. The following guidelines offer help for managing the intense, lifelong impact of grief. These are important to remember not only for an individual’s mental health, but also for the sake of the relationship.
1. Speak honestly
Be truthful about your experience and what you’re feeling during your grieving process. It may be that you want time alone to process or write in a journal. Or perhaps you need time to talk with your partner about what’s going on inside. Speak from your heart and be honest about what you need.
2. Listen to your partner’s feelings
Listen with an open heart to whatever it is that your partner is experiencing. Don’t take anything personally and be willing to offer them space when they need it and/or a listening ear when necessary.
3. Support your partner in his/her process
Although you and your partner may have different styles of how you grieve, try to support your partner’s preferences (even if they are quite different from your own). If you like to display photographs of your dearly departed but your partner finds them upsetting, keep pictures visible to you but private (such as on your desk, in your car, or on your bureau).
4. Honor the loss
Talk about the loss and don’t be afraid to reminisce. You may want to light a candle, for example, at special dinners/holidays to commemorate a person who is no longer present.
5. Stay intentionally connected as a couple
Even if you find that you want to experience your grief privately, find ways to stay connected with your loved one. Let them know that you still love them, care about them, and appreciate their presence. Stay connected through the grieving process with hugs, touch, texts, words of encouragement, and tokens of love.
At the end of the film “Rabbit Hole”, the two main characters find their way back to each other in spite of their different grieving styles. This was an intentional choice on their part aided by their desire to embrace life. One of the urgent lessons that loss has to teach is that life is fragile and must be savored. If you can take that lesson to heart and honor each other in the process, you may find that the grieving process – whenever it occurs – has the potential to knit a fabric of intimacy and intensity that you’ve never before experienced.