To be quite honest, I don’t know the answer to this question. If there were a clear-cut, one-size-fits-all solution, perhaps so many marriages wouldn’t fall apart after the loss of a child. But deep grief is messy and disorienting and affects every single part of us in ways we can’t prepare for, articulate, or even understand. How can we best support a spouse when he is lost in grief, no longer the person he once was, someone neither of us recognizes?
I did an exceptionally poor job supporting my husband through the premature loss of his dad. It wasn’t until my dad died a year later that I could piece together what had been happening to him and with us following this loss. The two years since have been incredible for our marriage. As we navigate one another’s and our own grief, our relationship is changing. It has both softened and solidified. We have been asked to bear with one another through unacceptable circumstances, and though hard as hell—exhausted and broken and hurt but held—we are striving to love one another through this version of “worse.” Here are a few tips for how we’ve done it.
Do not give up. The going will be tough; toughen up so you can keep going. This is a long process. Perhaps your spouse will naturally turn to you and find comfort in your arms. Thank God. Don’t tire of holding him and voicing your support. If not, and everything you say or don’t say is wrong, keep talking. Keep touching. Put your hand on his back, even if he stiffens up. Follow him when he leaves the room in tears. Sit with him. Don’t let him push you away. Grief is isolating. My own experience of it has been a combination of fear and entrapment. You can’t lessen that immediately or perfectly, but the mere presence of someone familiar and loving can be an anchor to keep him in touch with reality, and over time, diminish the intensity of the pain. Be present. Stay present.
Extend more grace than is humanly possible. Pray for the ability to do so. Pray for her as well. Your spouse may become a different person, one who does not notice or meet your needs or encourage and appreciate your support. She may even become mean and actively seek to push you out. Having your kindness and patience met time after time with indifference or cruelty can quickly become difficult to endure. Of course you do not need to, nor should you, take abuse, but correct kindly and give her every benefit of every doubt. She is hurting and lost. She will come out the other end in time. Bear with her. My active, ambitious, joyful husband became sullen and lost all motivation and follow-through. I did not even think to attribute this to grief, instead I nagged and cried and retreated into self-pity when he needed compassion and patient, gentle encouragement. In short, I made it about me and my suffering when I needed to focus on him and his suffering. Make it about your spouse for a while.
Ask him how he’s doing and what he’s feeling, not only for a month or two, but for a long, long time. Remember anniversaries, birthdays and other significant dates. I heard time and again that the first year is the hardest, and for my husband, it was. The first year I lived without my dad, however, I was numb. The second, I have felt his loss full force. I cry a lot. I think of him a lot. I grieve what he is missing, what my mom and siblings are missing, what I and my children are missing, and I want to talk about it. By now most of my outer circle has moved on. The spouse is the inner circle, the listening ear for years to come. Help him open up and share what is hard, what hurts, what helps, what makes him feel guilty, what makes him mad. Talk about the person he’s lost often and invite him to talk as well. Listen when he wants to share. Your spouse may want to talk unceasingly or only every now and then; if you shut him down, something is repressed that might have been laid to rest. Help him process his loss as naturally as possible. It will not fit into hour-long, weekly counseling sessions. Talk often. Talk openly.
Build a Support Network
Your spouse will not have the ability to truly be a spouse to you for some time. You will experience and grieve your own loss—the loss of your relationship as it was and your spouse as an equally yoked partner. You need support to get through this as well. It will not last forever, but while it does, significant sacrifice is required. Know what you need to stay present and engaged and protect these needs. As trivial as it sounds, rest and eat well. Get outside; exercise. Stay connected to friends, especially mutual friends with whom you can unload your honest thoughts and feelings without having them turn on your spouse in your defense. Keep yourself strong and available to support your spouse through these dark and foreign days.
Get your spouse the help she needs. If she is depressed and you need meals for your kids, reach out to friends, family, church communities, and neighbors. If you need to put resources towards her healing, do so. Pay babysitters, boxing gyms, cleaning ladies, counselors, whatever is needed. Easier said than done I know, but prioritize these needs and cut costs elsewhere. If it takes a village, employ that village. Oftentimes and for many reasons—pride, despondency, the honest loss of mental capacity—a grieving spouse will not seek the help she desperately needs. Ask her friends to visit, her employer to grant leave, her doctor to discuss medical help with her. You have the clearest picture of how she is coping; fill the gaps that you see.
Grieving is hard, hard stuff, but the grace of God is real and available to us. Whether it is you or your spouse learning how much pain a heart can endure, the role we play in one another’s grief requires a supernatural love that we can provide through Christ.