When Your Grieving Spouse Withdraws – 5 Ways to Stay Close
Your spouse’s grief process is different from yours – he may withdraw emotionally and physically. These tips for staying close to your grieving spouse will help you reconnect when he is ready.
If you don’t know much about the grieving process, read books like On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. The more you learn about mourning, the more you’ll understand what your spouse is going through.
These tips are inspired by a man whose girlfriend is grieving the loss of her child: “My girlfriend lost her spouse 4 years ago, and just lost her son 2 weeks ago,” says Scott on How Do You Help a Grieving Friend? “She is staying with her family…she does not want to talk to me at this time and I want to help her. I am giving her space and only sending her a text message every 4 days. It bothers me that she will not talk to me. I know it’s early and she still is in the disbelief stage. Should I just keep to the side and give her more time? I have never been through this with someone I care about. What should I do to understand more and be ready when or if she reaches out to me?”
One of the most important things to remember is that losing a child is “worse” than losing a spouse. It’s more traumatic, because we’re supposed to outlive our children, protect our children, and even lay down our lives for our children. Parents who have survived the worst tragedies are totally unprepared to deal with the death of their child.
5 Ways to Stay Close to Your Grieving Spouse
“After the death of our child, we find ourselves thrust into a period where, while there is no foretelling the future, we suddenly have no plans, and our dreams have been shattered,” writes Charlotte Mathes in And a Sword Shall Pierce Your Heart Moving from Despair to Meaning After the Death of a Child. “The death of our child attacks our understanding of life’s rhythm and purpose, leaving us wandering in unmapped territory.”
Whether your spouse is grieving the loss of a parent, child, or other loved one, the bottom line is the same: her sense of security, innocence, and faith is challenged. You can’t erase your spouse’s grief, but you can stay connected during and learn how to survive the grieving process.
Accept that you don’t have the answers when she asks “why?”
Many people ask “why did this have to happen to me?” after someone they love has died. There aren’t any answers, whether or not you believe in God or destiny. Life isn’t fair, and we are all equally vulnerable to painful tragedies.
Why do some people experience more tragedy than others? I don’t know. But I do know that when your spouse asks why this death had to happen, all you can do is hug her and tell her the truth: you don’t know.
This may not be the time to tell your spouse that death is a normal part of life. In North America, we tend to avoid talking about death or grieving overtly. We’re scared of death because we feel powerless – it’s the ultimate unknown. I think that if we were more accepting of death when we’re not grieving, we’d have an easier time with the grief process. For example, my parents refuse to talk about death – it’s almost like talking about it will “jinx” them and someone will die! They refuse to face death when they’re healthy, which will make the mourning process more painful when someone actually dies.
One way to stay close to your grieving spouse is to talk about dying and death before it actually happens. I know it’s probably too late for you to apply this tip right now, as your spouse has already lost a loved one.
Let your spouse grieve death differently than you
Some spouses withdraw emotionally and physically when someone they love dies. Other people want to talk about their lost loved one and find comfort in sharing stories and experiences. When my grandma died, I withdrew emotionally and physically from my friends and family. I thought I was going to die, or at least never feel happy or normal again. But I eventually made my way back to my family and friends. I knew they were there, waiting to reconnect with me when I was ready.
One way to stay close to your spouse – and help her cope with grief – is to let her grieve her own way. Give her books on the mourning process, such as those I listed above, and let her grieve the way she feels most comfortable. This may mean letting her withdraw for the time being – but send her cards, emails, or notes regularly. Stay on your spouse’s radar, but give her the space she needs to grieve.
Learn a little about the stages of grief
“There are five stages of grief according to Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: Shock/Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; and Acceptance,” says family counselor Beth Morrison. “Grief is a very personal thing, and we do not all grieve in the same way. He may be angry one day, and crying the next. Experts say there is no time limit on grief, but generally two years is the time it takes to mourn a devastating loss. He has to work through the pain of grief, and find meaning in his life again.”
Don’t worry about which stage of grief your spouse is in, because it’s normal to travel back and forth between stages. Many people are in shock when a loved one dies – especially if they lose their child – and that shock may always underlie the anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance stages of grief.
If your spouse has withdrawn emotionally because of grief, you can stay close by understanding the grieving process. If this doesn’t feel “active” or helpful enough, read 5 Tips for Helping a Grieving Friend – there are a few practical tips for helping someone through the grieving process.
Be aware of “complicated grief” – and know the symptoms
Here’s what a Psychology Today writer (Carlin Flora) says about complicated grief:
“The notion of a particularly sharp and prolonged kind of grief has been floating around for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that a group of bereavement researchers studied it systematically and pinned down its symptoms. They found that ‘complicated grief’ occurs in about 10-20 percent of those who have lost a loved one. The symptoms include an extreme yearning for the deceased, loneliness, even searching for the deceased in a crowd, and intrusive thoughts about the deceased. If your spouse is dealing with complicated grief, she may feel that life has lost its meaning (which is why she may have withdrawn from you emotionally and physically).” ~ from A Complicated Grief.
How do you know if your spouse is grieving normally, or dealing with complicated grief? Normal grief fades after a few months have passed. Complicated grief gets worse over time, and negatively affects your ability to stay close to your spouse.
Signs of complicated grief can include:
- Extreme focus on the loss and reminders of the loved one
- Intense longing or pining for the deceased
- Problems accepting the death
- Numbness or detachment
- Preoccupation with your sorrow
- Bitterness about the loss
- Inability to enjoy life
- Depression or deep sadness
- Trouble carrying out normal routines
- Withdrawing from social activities
- Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose
- Irritability or agitation
- Lack of trust in others
Joining a grief support group or engaging in talk therapy can help your spouse process complicated grief.
Let your spouse reconnect when she’s ready
Don’t be afraid to let your spouse withdraw from you when she is grieving. It’s scary, I know, but sometimes we need to give our loved ones time and space to breathe, process their emotions, and heal. Your relationship will be stronger and closer if you remember that her grieving process isn’t about you. It’s about her, not about your marriage or your love for each other.
Give her time and space to breathe, to mourn, to reflect on her life and the death of her child. Keep sending those emails, text messages, or cards in the mail – stay connected without pressuring her to talk or be with you.
If your partner or spouse has lost a child, read books like The Grieving Garden: Living with the Death of a Child. They’ll help you understand a parent’s grieving process, which will help you stay close and reconnect when she’s ready.
When your spouse is mourning the death of someone she loves, you may need to accept that there really is nothing you can do to help her grieve, other than be there for her.
You may find How to Help Someone With Depression helpful, if you think your spouse is depressed.
If you have any thoughts on staying close to your spouse through the grieving process, please comment below. I can’t offer advice, but it may help you to share your experience.
Accept what is, let go of what was, and have faith in what could be.