Relationships: Can they survive bereavement?
The Hollywood version of life is simple. A family death is met with an outburst of emotion, but eventually everyone rallies around and all is resolved by a group hug. If only the resolution of grief was as easy as that. The reality is that grief can devastate a family and pull a couple apart. Relationships need not fail at this juncture, but a lot of work and understanding is required to help them survive this emotional turmoil.
No one grieves in the same way, or at the same pace. In the face of loss, it is important to remember that each person’s grief is unique to them and is constantly changing. Grief is an all-encompassing experience, turning us inward; we only see our own pain. As we progress through that grief and pain, we often feel that our partner should be on the same journey.
Other styles of grieving
We mistakenly assume the other person shares our style of grieving. She wants him to behave just like she does, and he thinks likewise. If she cries, then she thinks he should also cry. If he doesn’t want to speak about the death, then he thinks she shouldn’t either. Often there is a feeling of betrayal when one partner has seemingly moved on. ‘I am devastated and want my loved one back, how can they have already forgotten?’ is the cry of anguish when the realisation dawns that both are no longer sharing the same experience. This is intensified if one partner has come to terms with the grief and pressurises their partner to move on as they have.
Men and women tend to grieve differently, and being in a relationship with someone who has lost a loved one can be particularly challenging - be it from a male or female perspective. How you respond to grief depends upon other factors too, such as your personality, family, previous experiences, cultural background, and the relationship you have had with the person who died. Below are a few general observations that do not take away from the uniqueness of an individual’s pain.
Grief for men
Men are often socialised not to show their emotions and tend to find practical solutions to problems. He may want to take away the pain and make her feel better by doing something practical like offering a distraction or trying to cheer her up. Yet he may unwittingly be denying her a safe space to express her feelings and emotions. Women need to talk and articulate how they feel; it is natural to them. They are not looking for the man to solve their problems.
It can also be unbearable to be with your partner who is crying. A man’s natural response may be to try and deflect this, which may also serve to protect him from his own defencelessness in the face of such intense emotions. She is processing grief in her own way, as a woman.
Grief for women
Women may want men to talk about their feelings, and wonder why he does not seem to care, or even appears to be ignoring the situation, by becoming involved in less important projects. Yet men generally process and respond to their grief very privately and actively; they like to keep busy. She may not see the occasions where he does cry; a man feels the hurt just as much, but expresses it in different ways. Men tend to be angry when they are grieving and women can find that an uncomfortable emotion to witness. He is processing grief in his own way.
How a couple grieve depends upon their relationship with the person who has died. The loss of a parent may be devastating to the child; this was after all, their mother or father. The partner, however, knew the parent in other circumstances, forming a different relationship. They will feel the loss, but it will be not be the same type of experience. This imbalance of grief can cause a feeling of isolation and misunderstanding for the grieving son or daughter. The couple are on separate pages of the same book.
Death of a child
But perhaps the most haunting kind of grief is a parent’s over the death of their child. Most parents who have experienced the loss of their child have also experienced a crisis in their relationship. For some this loss has become an opportunity to bring them closer together, but for others it has been the beginning of the collapse of their relationship. Yet the belief that a couple who lose a child are doomed to divorce or break-up is exceedingly pessimistic. A more pragmatic view acknowledges the pain and distress that can pull the couple apart, but also recognises the opportunities for mutual growth.
The intensity of this shared grief is both physically and emotionally exhausting. Even though the grief is shared, the process of bereavement becomes internalised and some people just do not have the energy to allow their relationship to work. This does not mean the love is gone; it is simply that people are blinded to it by their pain and loss of energy. The couple not only can survive, but also thrive if both partners are willing to prioritise their relationship during this arduous time.
Your partner is there to support you, but it is unfair to expect them to be your sole source of emotional support. They are carrying their own grief and to have to carry yours as well can lead to emotional burnout. It is at times like this you need a supportive network of friends and relatives. Talking about your bereavement with others helps to relieve the build-up of stress within yourself and in your relationship. This allows your partner space from your grief and the time to deal with their own.
Sometimes you inflict your pain on to your partner. Every so often those in sorrow can be unkind, especially to those they love. Sadness demands to be shared and one partner may find themselves wanting to make sure the other is suffering as much as they are. Cruel accusations, sarcasm and emotional withdrawal become means of punishment.
Relationships always need to be worked on; they never stand still. Bereavement is a testing time for the strength of a couple’s bond, but like any relationship crisis, it can be worked through with time, effort and a little love.