My husband and I had the opportunity this past week to speak at the Share Parents support meeting in Cache Valley about grieving as a couple. Share is a national support group with local chapters who consist of mothers and fathers who have experienced infant and pregnancy loss. Together, my husband and I have lost two babies. Part of how we find meaning in our experiences is helping others heal and speaking with this group was a great experience. I’d like to share with you some of the topics we discussed at the meeting.
One of the difficulties couples go through when they have experienced a loss is that they are likely to cope with and express their grief differently. This can cause misunderstandings, conflict and a feeling of distance or loneliness in the relationship. That is why it is so important for couples to educate themselves on the process of grief, especially in the context of their relationship. Here are a few topics that will be important to discuss together.
Gender differences. Often society has an expectation that women will be more affected by the loss. Men’s grief, as a result, is often neglected and more of a silent experience. Men are also expected to fix things and a death or loss is not something a man can fix. He also can’t “fix” his wife’s grief so sometimes he retreats into work, hobbies, anger or even addiction to bury the emotions he might be feeling. Women lose the role of mother they were expecting to take on and often have difficulty adjusting to that loss as well. Women have a tendency to want to talk and express their feelings where men tend to turn more toward acting on their feelings or avoiding them.
Communication. With our first loss, my husband and I really didn’t know how to communicate with each other about our grief. My husband didn’t outwardly show his grief. He tried to avoid it and I misinterpreted that as him not feeling as sad as I did. This made me feel lonely and caused him to feel depressed. With our second loss, we learned to talk about what we were feeling. We also had gone through marriage counseling, which had taught us some much-needed communication skills. Communication about emotions is important because it will help you stay connected to each other and to show more empathy, which is the next topic I want to cover.
Empathy. I’m a big advocate of learning the skill of empathy. The trick is to understand what empathy means. It means being willing to be emotionally available and be willing to sit with someone in their sadness or grief without minimizing or trying to fix it. As Brene Brown, researcher on empathy and vulnerability, suggests, statements like “I don’t know what to say, but I’m so glad you told me,” can be very empathetic and comforting. We often want to fix another’s grief because it is difficult to see someone we love struggling. However, sadness, pain and grief are all part of the process and have to be felt. If someone is willing to be empathetic, it will help the grieving person heal.
Crying. Some people show their grief with tears more than others. Recent research shows that tears actually have a physical benefit. Tears may release stress toxins from the body. So, don’t hold back your tears. Men are told not to cry but the research also shows that not crying can have negative physical and emotional side effects. Crying together can be a bonding time and a step toward healing.
To wrap up, there are a couple of statements that I have learned in my own journey with grief and as a marriage counselor that are invaluable:
- A person’s expression of grief DOES NOT equal their depth of grief. We all express grief differently and those expressions are not a fair measure of how deeply we are grieving.
- DO NOT use your partner’s expression of grief as a measure of their love for your or your child. Again, our expression of grief may differ, but that has no correlation to the level of love our partner feels.
Talk with your partner about what these statements mean to you and keep them at the forefront of your grieving process. The extraordinarily difficult experiencing of losing a child, infant, or pregnancy can be a heavy strain on a marriage. The statistics on divorce in these couples are not good. However, your relationship doesn’t have to end that way if you make an effort to communicate, stay connected with each other, and empathize with differences in expressing and coping with grief. If your marriage is already struggling as a result of grief, don’t worry. It’s not too late. Seeking help from a marriage counselor, especially one who also specializes in grief, can be a great benefit to you. I’ll close with another quote from Brene Brown. She says,
“Love is not something we give or get; it is something we nurture and grow.”
Your love may need some extra nurturing but you will see that you can grow closer together as you persevere through such a difficult experience together.