There comes a time in nearly all relationships where one partner may need to lean on the other — for example, after losing a job or a longtime friend. Without a doubt, a death in the family is one of those times. Whether it’s a parent, sibling, or second cousin, losing a loved one comes with a wave of complex emotions that can affect their well-being, behavior, and additionally, your relationship. Figuring out how to support your partner when a family member dies definitely isn't a simple task. And while you certainly can’t eliminate the pain that comes with this kind of trauma, you can help to support them every step of the way through the intricate process of healing.
But how are you supposed to know what to do, or how to act? After all, every individual has unique needs, preferences, and coping mechanisms.
“The grief process can look different to different people,” explains licensed clinical social worker Melanie Shapiro. “It’s natural to want to help someone you love when they are in pain, and not knowing how can leave you feeling helpless.”
Not only that, but they may be mourning the loss of someone you've never even met, or their relationship with that person may have been complex.
"If they had a strained relationship, it makes it more complicated to know exactly how they are feeling and how you can help them," explains Amanda Ruiz, licensed professional counselor and founder of The Counseling Collective.
Fortunately, Shapiro says there are certain tactics that may prove effective. The first step? Simply letting them know that you’re there for them — whenever. Shapiro recommends outright asking your SO: “What do you need from me right now?” But prepare for yourself for the possibility that they could say, “I don’t know.” Understandably, they may feel too overwhelmed to figure out what, specifically, to ask of you. At that point, Shapiro advises providing some suggestions to see if they respond to anything that sounds like it might be comforting or helpful.
“You might ask them: would you prefer I stay home with you tonight or do you want time by yourself?” she says.
Keep in mind that even if your partner knows what they need, they may find it difficult to ask for it during this extremely vulnerable time, which is why offering up some different options can be helpful.
Shapiro also notes that the simplest gestures can show that you care, and further, that you respect their grieving process. For example, she suggests that making them dinner could be an effective way to demonstrate that you care about their well-being.
“Offering something you know they like — without any pressure or expectations — is a gentle way to show your partner support during this kind of trauma,” she tells Elite Daily. “You might say, ‘I thought I would make your favorite meal — I know you haven’t had much of an appetite lately, but it is here if you want it.’”
Ruiz says not to underestimate the power of listening, either. It's best not to press them to talk, but if your significant other seems eager to open up about memories with their loved one that passed or how they're feeling, you can be a sounding board for them.
"Usually someone who is grieving might just want to talk about the loved one, and so an effective method to support them is to just listen," she adds. "You don't need to worry about finding the perfect thing to say — just focus on listening."
Other caring moves could include giving your SO a back-rub to help them fall asleep, drawing them a bath, or packing them a lunch for work when you know they can't be bothered. Sometimes, self-care can fall by the wayside when you're dealing with intense grief, but it's more important than ever after experiencing trauma. All of these gestures are a great way to ensure that your partner is taking care of themselves.
"If your loved one is really struggling, you can gently remind them to shower, or eat, or that it's time to go to bed," adds Ruiz. "Supporting them through these basic life skills is helpful if they are so bereaved that they aren't considering these things."
Another way to be there for your SO is to do some research on grief. The better you understand what they're going through, the more likely you can be an empathetic, compassionate partner throughout their healing process. Read up on the various stages of grief, and you may gain a stronger grasp on what to expect from your partner's moods, emotions, and behavior.
If your significant other has expressed interest in going to grief counseling, you can offer to go with them. However, be sure to avoid putting any pressure on the situation. They may feel more comfortable seeking counseling on their own, and it’s crucial to make sure they know that’s totally OK. That said, you should also make it known that you are willing to accompany them if they feel that might be reassuring or helpful in any way.
By far, Shapiro says the most important thing to do while your SO is coping with the death of a family member is to maintain strong communication. There may be days or weeks when they seem a tad more closed off, and there may be others when they are eager to talk about what they’re feeling. Keep checking in with them. This accomplishes several things: It lets them know that their well-being is important to you, it allows them an opportunity to share any thoughts or emotions they’re wrestling with, and it also offers up a chance for them to give you guidance on what they need from you. Simply asking, “how are you feeling today?” can be enough to show them that you’re there for them.
The one thing not to do? According to Shapiro, setting any expectations for how or when your partner should heal can be harmful.
“As long as your partner isn’t jeopardizing their own safety, allowing them to go through their own process is the most respectful way to go. I would recommend avoiding pressuring someone to ‘move on’ when they are not ready.”
Remember — every person has a different way of handling grief. Some may be able to regain a sense of normalcy mere months after a death in the family, while for others, it may take years. Much of it depends on the nature of the relationship with that family member, but some of it depends on the level of support your significant other has. And that’s where you come in. As long as you maintain open communication with your partner, respect their individual grieving process, and make an effort to figure out what they need from you, you’re sure to help them cope with their loss in the healthiest way possible.