When Your Partner is Grieving
Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow Together
If you’re together for any length of time, walking through a season of grief with your partner is inevitable. Depending on the nature of your partner’s relationship with the deceased, the season could involve weeks, months, or years of working through the loss. In some ways, we are forever altered when someone we love dies, and time simply changes the way we grieve instead of eliminating it altogether.
Comfort vs. Correction
Every person expresses grief uniquely, and, unless you’re a psychologist or professional counselor, it’s difficult to gauge just what to do or say when your spouse is grieving. Thankfully, it’s more important for the person who is grieving to be able to express themselves verbally than it is for you to offer advice.
A helpful theory when considering what to say to your grieving spouse is the Ring Theory. It positions the person who is experiencing the loss at the center of concentric circles and demonstrates the idea that the grieving person gets to express themselves freely (or “dump out”) to everyone they are in a relationship with.
The circles grow larger as they move out from the person who experienced the loss, and represent how close a person is to the griever. The theory suggests that people recognize which circle they belong in and encourages them to direct their attention to comforting those in the circle just inside theirs.
For example, the circle just outside the griever is their immediate family, and the outermost circle is the general public.
As the person closest to your grieving spouse, you have a wonderful yet difficult opportunity to be a safe place for their broken heart. They should be able to express themselves freely with you, unloading all of their pain, fear, and shattered dreams. This difficult season can deepen your relationship, strengthen your faith, and expand your ability to be intimate and vulnerable with one another.
However, according to the Ring Theory, things could go in a different direction if you begin to offer advice, correction, or criticism to your partner for the way they grieve or process their feelings.
If you begin “dumping” on them instead of listening, you force them into a caretaking role.
It’s also unfair and even cruel to criticize someone for the way they grieve, the feelings they are expressing, and their level of despair. Even if you don’t understand why your partner is (or is not) so sad; cries so much (or too little), or isn’t handling grief the way you do, they are not the person to share those concerns with. Finding your own outlet with a trusted friend or counselor will free you up to stick to comforting your spouse which is really what they need most from you.
Peace vs. Perfection
When my husband and I had been married for 10 years, I experienced the loss of my father to suicide. The moments and days that immediately followed my father’s death are a blur to me. We had five children aged 5 – 15 years-old, and our family’s grief was crushing.
It’s been 15 years since my dad died, and I have reflected many times on the ways my husband has cared for and comforted me in my ever-changing grieving process.
I’m not sure either of us could recount how many times he has held me while I cried, listened to me process my feelings, or seen a shadow fall over me when something triggers a memory.
My grief has been messy, imperfect, and confusing.
It has caused angry outbursts, crippling anxiety, and disconnected numbness. It has made me cling to my husband at times and coldly push him away at others.
Thankfully, he is a devoted partner who has been willing to walk alongside me in my search for peace. He’s given me the freedom and space to explore my grief at the graveside, the counseling office, and in solitude while also being steadfast in his commitment to being with me when I need him.
It was only in the last few years that my husband finally communicated to me how my dad’s death affected him, how he lost someone he loved and respected too. I was stunned that I never considered that my husband lost a father-in-law, his children’s grandpa, a buddy…a friend.
My grief had consumed my ability to see his pain, and he never demanded that I stop being so selfish and comfort him.
Sacrifice vs. Satisfaction
The example my husband demonstrates in the way he has cared for me in my grief prioritized my needs over his. I don’t know that he made an active choice to follow the example of Christ, but he did every time he sacrificed himself to care for me. He sacrificed his need to be validated, his need to be comforted, his need to express his opinions and feelings so that he could comfort me.
Instead of demanding that I satisfy his needs when I was so broken, he chose to take them to God in prayer and left them largely unsatisfied in the human realm until he was able to find healthy places to work them out.
As I reflect on the sacrifices my husband has made for me, I feel incredibly loved and protected. As I mentioned, grief is messy and imperfect, but as we have moved through it, our marriage has been strengthened and refined by our commitment to each other despite our pain.
That messy imperfection created something beautiful in our relationship, something that has nourished and sustained us through many other marital challenges.
Hope vs. Certainty
In the last 25 years of our marriage, we have been to many funerals, and we will likely experience many more. It never gets easier to grieve or to love someone who is grieving. Grief is scary and unpredictable. When you love someone, it’s terrifying to consider all you have to lose and how life can change courses in the blink of an eye.
However, it helps to understand that comforting someone in their grief is an act of sacrificial love, most clearly demonstrated by the love of Jesus Christ. We can trust that if we prioritize the needs of our grieving spouse, God will be faithful in meeting our needs. He promises that in the most popular scripture read at funerals:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.
We walk through the valley whenever we confront death in this life, and it is a tremendous blessing to have a spouse that will walk alongside you when you’re grieving. We should all aim to be a partner who understands the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, one who can earnestly pray the words of St. Francis who said, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console.”
Growing in our understanding of this kind of love can draw us closer to God and our grieving partners. It will never be easy to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but there is beautiful comfort in walking it with someone we love.