Spouses grieving differently

Dr. Neimeyer

My daughter passed away four years ago. My husband and I grieve so differently. I find it difficult to feel supported by him because I have always needed to talk about my grief while he rarely talks about his. When I cry, he doesn’t know what to say and doesn’t really offer the support I need and want. I attend support groups, bereavement camps, etc. alone because he won’t even consider joining me. He misses her so much, but I worry that he isn’t getting the support he needs. I also worry about us because we are handling this so differently. How can we move forward together while handling this so differently? Should I be concerned about the way he is grieving?


Dear Lorinda-

The tragic death of a child often reminds us of a basic truth: that just because we’ve had the same loss, we don’t necessarily have the same grief. Our grief is a function of who we lose, how and when we lose them… but also of our unique relationship to them, and our own particular ways of coping with adversity. Nowhere is this clearer than with many mothers and fathers mourning the loss of their child.

Although there are of course very great differences in grieving styles within genders, there are often subtle differences between them as well. Like you, many women (and plenty of us men) display our emotions readily and prefer to talk with others who we hope can hear what others cannot, with no press to offer simple solutions to complex problems. But many men (and women) tend to me more stoic and self-controlled, and orient to finding solutions as quickly as possible, especially when someone they care about is clearly distressed. When these two styles come together in the same couple, the result can be misunderstanding, and a kind of pursuer-distancer dynamic can worsen the pain of the shared loss.

So, what to do about this? One strategy is to put your husband’s coping in context. How has he dealt with other significant setbacks, stresses and losses in life? Is his response similar, but simply more intense, in the wake of your child’s death? How did the two of you coordinate or tolerate your coping at these other times, and how did it ultimately work out for you both? Sometimes complementary rather than similar styles serve a family well, letting one person attend to the emotional agenda of others (such as their other children or parents following the loss) while the other takes care of the practical necessities to keep life going.

But sometimes the distance between partners can be anguishing. In such cases, my colleague, Laura Hinds, suggests that they find a “grief spot” in their home–perhaps a basket or box with two parts in the child’s bedroom or other private place–in which each person can, every day or two, leave a brief note or small gift for the other, in some way related to the loss. The offering need not be large to be big in its impact. For example, you might leave a short love note or description of how you are feeling for your husband, or the sort of small present that only you could give. He would then reciprocate with a note or offering to you. At least for the first few weeks, both partners would commit to check the “grief spot” at least every other day, and not to talk about what is left there. This code of silence is important, making the small exchanges “safe” (especially for your husband) and special–they are not merely more demands for conversation. This sort of exchange, practiced with love across the early months of grief, can gradually meld into greater closeness and perhaps more feeling-oriented conversation when the grief becomes more manageable.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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