A partner who is in mourning or grieving a significant loss may need your support now more than ever. Helping them sort through their grief may be challenging and overwhelming to you, especially when you don't know what you can do to help precisely.
You may feel as if you're walking on eggshells when around your partner. Fearing that anything you say might be the wrong thing and further set off their grief.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What to Avoid Saying to a Grieving Partner or Spouse
- Other Things to Consider When Talking to a Grieving Partner or Spouse
Grief affects everyone differently. Although, you can expect specific grief reactions as your partner goes through the process of healing following a loss. Some people will shut themselves off from everyone, while others will need extra attention, love, and support.
A person's grief reaction is highly dependent on the relationship to the person who died, their ability to handle stress and grief, and their past experiences with death and trauma. When deciding on how to help a grieving partner, the following suggestions may help you.
What to Avoid Saying to a Grieving Partner or Spouse
The most important thing you can do to help a partner or spouse who's grieving is to be there for them supporting them through their loss. Grief can have a devastating effect on the survival of the marriage. As a result, it is common to see grief cause a marriage breakdown following a significant loss.
Staying connected as a couple, whether you're married or in a domestic partnership, can be challenging, especially after one person in the relationship experiences a significant loss or tragedy. Here are some examples of what not to say to someone who's grieving. You'll also find examples of what to say when someone dies instead.
1. “How are you doing?”
When you ask your partner or spouse who’s just lost someone they love how they’re doing, it may come off as condescending and insensitive. You might expect to be met by a terse response of, “How do you expect me to be doing?” The words you choose to say or not say to your spouse or partner can leave a lasting imprint on your relationship.
What you can say instead: “I wish I could take your pain away. It saddens me to see you hurting so much.”
The above is a better way of letting your partner or spouse know that you feel their pain and wish that things could be different. You not only acknowledge their feelings but show them that you’re paying attention and validating how they’re grief and what they’re going through.
2. “Don’t be sad. They lived a long life.”
No amount of time that a person lived, whether short or long, will take away the sadness of losing them. Try and avoid telling your spouse or partner how to feel or react to their loss. Dictating how they should respond to their loss may cause feelings of resentment later on that may be challenging to come back from.
What you can say instead: “I can’t imagine how you feel. Our lives will never be the same.”
Saying this to your spouse or partner is a better way of expressing sympathy and condolences. You are stating upfront that there’s no comparison to the pain and grief that they’re feeling. You’re also validating the significance of their loss and the impact on both your lives.
3. “There’s no reason to cry. We’ve been expecting this moment for a long time.”
Telling your spouse or partner that they have no reason to cry over the death of their loved one can be cruel and insensitive. Whether or not they anticipated their loved one's death is irrelevant to how their loss has impacted them.
What you can say instead: “I know suffering through this loss pains you. I love you, and I’m here for you.”
Sharing in your spouse or partner’s pain and affirming your love and support will make them feel loved and cared for by you. These words will assure them that you will be there for them as things get harder to cope with in the weeks and months ahead.
4. “Everything happens for a reason.”
This platitude so oft-repeated by many can be exceedingly hurtful to someone who’s recently lost a loved one. Words such as these express to your partner that the death of their loved one or other significant loss they’ve experienced had to have happened, and it was meant to be.
What you can say instead: “Some things in life can’t be fixed, and they can hurt us deeply. You have to carry them with you.”
Saying this to your loved one acknowledges that there’s no grand plan or predestined misfortune slated in their lives and that things happen which cannot be fixed or explained. The best that you can do is move forward and carry your loss with you as you work toward healing.
5. “They’re in a better place.”
Saying to someone, especially one who isn't religious or spiritual, that their loved one is in a better place can sound empty and meaningless. They may even disagree with you if they have the energy to argue their point. If their loved one is buried in a box or whose ashes are in the closet, that may not signal to be in a better place. Be especially mindful of what you say to your spouse or partner who may be grieving while pregnant or who has recently suffered the loss of their unborn child.
What you can say instead: “I’m so sorry your dad/mom/loved one has died. Their loss must be very hard on you.”
Sometimes keeping things simple is a better alternative to saying something unintentionally hurtful or damaging to your relationship even without you meaning it to be.
6. “At least they’re no longer suffering here like the rest of us.”
Your loved one may not agree with you on this one. Your spouse or partner might much rather have the person who died here despite their suffering while alive. The latter part of this statement may also imply that you’re suffering in your marriage or relationship.
What you can say instead: “They suffered through so much. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Acknowledging their loved one's suffering while they were alive is a way of supporting your spouse or partner's feelings of regret. Instead of intimating that their loved one's death was a welcome reprieve, you're only stating the obvious without insulting as you express condolences.
7. “It was just a dog. We can always get another one.”
When it comes to pet loss, choose your words as carefully as you would with any other type of loss. Some people see their pets as part of the family. A pet's death can be as hurtful as the death of any of their other loved ones.
What you can say instead: “I’m really sorry that Fluffy died. Let me help you put together a special place for him out in the garden where you can visit with him every day.”
Let your spouse or partner know that you know how special their pet was to them. Creating a memorial garden to stay connected to their pet is a loving and caring way of supporting your loved one as they grieve their loss.
8. “I know how you feel.”
Telling someone that you know how they feel after experiencing a significant loss can lead to resentment. When you say this, you’re undermining your partner’s feelings regarding their loss and invalidating their grief experience.
What you can say instead: “Can I get you some tissues?”
Saying nothing at all is always better than saying something you’ll later regret. Try instead to console your partner by being present, helping out wherever you can, and hugging them.
9. “That’s how I felt when I was going through the same thing.”
You may want to steer clear from making their pain and suffering all about you. Even if you’ve recently suffered the death of a loved one or other significant tragedy, don’t compare your loss to theirs. There’s no possible way for you to know what they’re going through despite suffering a similar loss.
What you can say instead: “Do you want to talk about it?”
Offer your loved one an opportunity to tell you how they’re feeling on their terms. Let them know that you’re there for them whenever they’re ready to talk about what they’re going through. Don’t pressure them into opening up before they’re ready. And when they do, be present as you listen to them tell you about their loss and experiences.
10. “You’ll be okay. Give it some time.”
It’s never a good thing to assume that your loved one will come out of their grief journey intact. Your spouse or partner may suffer through underlying issues that exacerbate their grief into more complicated grief or chronic depression. You may want to ask them if they need to speak to a grief counselor or therapist to help them cope with their grief.
What you can say instead: “Let me know if you need to talk to someone.”
Offer your loved one an alternative to healing by getting them in contact with trained grief professionals. Your spouse may not be ready to seek help just yet. However, they may feel more at ease knowing that added support is there when needed.
Other Things to Consider When Talking to a Grieving Partner or Spouse
Remember that there’s life after grief and loss. Protecting your marriage during times of crisis is as important as shielding it from the impact of grief. The following suggestions to consider may help keep your marriage from falling apart after a loss.
- Grief comes in waves
- No two people ever grieve the same
- You can never know what your partner is feeling
- Don’t make assumptions regarding your partner’s pain and suffering
- Allow them the needed time to process their loss
Learning What Not to Say to A Grieving Partner
Surviving as a couple may seem impossible after suffering a significant setback. Grief affects the individual and the marriage in sometimes irretrievable ways, but it’s possible to keep the relationship healthy with added love and support.