Grief

Grief and Relationships: A field guide

Ever since the death of my mother, I’ve been participating in a regular grief support group (and I recommend it highly– while it’s not *always* helpful, it is more often helpful than not, and it’s one of the few things that consistently does). Last week, we were set to discuss the impact that grief has on relationships but our group leader found that there were few good resources freely available online that address the subject. So, we set about making one– brainstorming the various ways in which grief has affected our relationships or could affect the relationships of others.

I took copious notes.

So, because there were few good resources on the subject available, here’s my take on it, distilled and developed from those notes. It’s a bit dry, it’s a bit technical, it’s not very personal. That’s because it’s not (just) about me– as much as anything, this is meant to be a fairly comprehensive peek at a difficult subject. It’s the collective work of a group of people with very different experiences, but with a few profound similarities.


 

The grieving process can have a massive effect on your relationships. This is true of all of the relationships in your life, whether they be relationships with a romantic partner, with your family, your friends, or even less-close (though not necessarily less-important) relationships with others like coworkers, community members, and acquaintances. Each of these can manifest in different ways, though you may see similar themes arise among and between your relationships with these various groups. And because the death that you experienced almost certainly was someone in one of these groups, the specific way that it impacts you will be yours alone.

Your Romantic Partner

After a significant death in your life, your relationship with your romantic partner will undoubtedly change—it may make your relationship stronger, or it may strain it. Frankly, it’s likely to do both—strain it sometimes, or in some areas, and strengthen it at other times and in other areas.

If, in the weeks or months prior, you were a caretaker for the person who died, or if you were with them when they did—and especially if your partner was present for the death—you may have developed a sort of “bunker” or “trench” mentality; you both have been traumatized by the same thing, and may have developed a special camaraderie about the event. This is complicated; they are dealing with their own grief and trauma from the event, and the effects of this shouldn’t be underestimated. But, if they are a good partner, they also likely recognize that your pain is more immediate and profound (as you were closer to the “center of the circle” as the metaphor goes). That being said, it is important that you give them the support or space that they need to grieve as well. It is important that they deal with their own grief and trauma healthily as you do yours.

Your needs in the days, weeks, months, and years after the death may mean that they sometimes need to take on a caretaker role with you. This is a good and profoundly empathetic response to a partner in crisis. But it can also lead to problems and resentment on both sides. While being taken care of is a profoundly intimate act, and caretaking a generous one, our culture does not encourage us to deal with this well at all. With good communication on both sides, this can strengthen a healthy relationship. But without it, sometimes the caretaker can grow to feel underappreciated, or the griever feel smothered or “babied.”

This is particularly true for men in our culture, who are told to “tough it out,” “grow a pair,” or “be a man” in the face of pain and trauma. All of these ideas are profoundly toxic, and can keep people who are grieving from accepting one of the key truths of the grieving process: that grief is about being profoundly vulnerable. It is about coming to accept both that someone you love has died, and also that you yourself will. This is no small thing, and very scary. This can have some knock-on effects for your relationship.

Confronting mortality, both in yourself and those you love, can strain relationships as you may be suddenly aware of the fact that you, your family, or your partner is also going to die. Obviously much of life is built on the hope that that day will not be tomorrow or the next. But it will eventually happen.

This existential realization can rock people to their very cores. In some ways, this can lead to profound positive changes in a relationship. It can cause a person to commit themselves more fully to their relationship (because life is too short to live without love), or it can cause them to end a relationship that is not working (because life is too short to live without true love). But it can also lead to negative reactions, where you push a partner away or grow cold with them (because it’s too big a risk to make yourself that vulnerable, or because what’s the point of committing yourself when it’s all going to end badly).

This can also occur if they were not present at the death and you were, or if they can’t (or won’t) fully understand what you are going through. Maybe they, for example, do not have a relationship with their father they may not understand why or how you are mourning yours. Maybe they have never lost someone close to them and so don’t appreciate the profound and lasting impact that it has had on you. As humans, a good sense of empathy can help us to bridge these experiential gaps with one another. But it can only go so far. Sometimes good communication—telling them about your pain and your needs, and their actively listening—can bridge the rest of the gap. But sometimes, it simply can’t. At that point, you may have to consider the long-term viability of your relationship.

There are deeper psychological effects of grieving that may also place strains on your relationship. You may be tempted to destroy or remove everything from your life that surrounded the event of the death—not entirely dissimilar to the plot of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where someone deletes their entire memory of a bad relationship. While tempting, this is obviously impossible, and an unhealthy urge. Because with grief comes feelings of anger (at the world, at death, or at the happiness of those who are not grieving, for example), you may also be tempted to lash out at your partner. This may be because they are a close “soft target,” or because you expect (rightly or wrongly) that they will forgive you. This can be extremely harmful, both to yourself, your partner, and your relationship. Alternatively, this may be because you are being self-destructive. Self-destructive behavior happens for many reasons; one of which can sometimes be a manifestation of a desire to have a reason to feel your pain. You may not feel that the pain your grief is causing you is justified—maybe that you should “already be over it” or that it was “not that big a deal”. So, you may find yourself unconsciously sabotaging yourself in order to have a reason to feel the way you do.

Family Members

A death in the family or of a family friend can have a serious impact upon a family’s relationships with one another. Inevitably, the person who died played some part—filled some role within the family structure. Now that they are gone, there is a vacuum. You may know the old saying, “nature hates a vacuum,” and so your family will inevitably change. Maybe others will take on the missing roles to fill the gap. Maybe people will adjust to a new family dynamic where those roles are unfulfilled within the family. Family traditions and expectations may change.

This can also become fraught as family members grieve each in their own way, in their own time, and at their own speed. It is normal for feelings of anger or resentment to crop up if you feel as though you are being told you are “grieving wrong,” (or maybe if you, intentionally or unintentionally, are telling others this!). It may be shocking how quickly a parent moves on after the death of their spouse. But remember, nature hates a vacuum—and they may be trying, rightly or wrongly, to fill the hole that has been left in their life. It is important for family members to be open about their own feelings while being respectful of one another’s, and set appropriate boundaries with one another.

Friends

Experiencing a death can be incredibly disruptive for your friend relationships. As with a romantic partner, this is not always destructive—sometimes it can strengthen friendships or bring new friends to the fore. But it can easily be harmful as well.

In the immediate aftermath of the death you experienced, you likely looked to your friends for support. Some probably stepped up; some probably did not. Some may have done exactly what you needed, some may have said all the wrong things. Each reason is individual, but it can cause serious hurt for you if you feel as though important people in your life abandoned you or hurt you in your hour of need. You may feel betrayed, which can compound the feelings of loss you’re experiencing.

There are many reasons why some of your friends may “flake” in this moment. Some people simply are not good in a crisis, or have their own issues around death. Some may have had other, unrelated issues that prevented them from being fully present and helping to meet your needs. And some people may simply prove themselves to be less reliable than you’d hoped. There are just as many reasons why a friend may do or say exactly the wrong thing. It’s up to you to decide what to do about that going forward.

It may be tempting simply to “cancel” a friendship out of anger, hurt, or a feeling of betrayal. This may be justified—friendships (like all relationships) are built on trust, and if you really feel as though your trust has been violated, maybe it’s best to simply move on. Doing this may even feel good in the moment, as it allows you to feel righteous in meting out a just punishment for a friendship betrayed. But losing friends during a time of grieving can compound your feeling of loss, and may whittle away at your support network when you need it the most.

On the other hand, you may find that some relationships with more-distant friends may come to the fore in this moment, as people unexpectedly step up. They may be part of “the club” of people who have experienced the death of a loved one. They may simply be exceptionally empathetic and supportive people. Or they may just be a really surprisingly good friend. Either way, in the aftermath of a serious death like this you will likely find yourself surrounded and supported by at least a few people who you didn’t necessarily expect to see there.

As your grieving process goes on, you also may find it difficult to maintain relationships with some of your friends. You are very much still in the grieving process, but life has had the audacity to go on for everyone else. Because of your grief you may find it difficult to relate to others—their obsession with the new season of The Bachelor might seem wildly inconsequential when compared with what you’re going through. Maybe they’ve stopped talking with you about your loss, or seem like they don’t care. Often this is a manifestation of them simply not knowing how to act or what to say—they don’t want to cause you undue pain or take you to a dark place. Or maybe worse, they accidentally (or out of ignorance) trigger you by bringing up painful subjects.

It is deeply unfair, but as the person mourning it’s your responsibility to educate your friends about where you are in the grieving process and what you need. This is especially true after the first month (when people know to send flowers or make donations or bring food). Good friends will be open and receptive—they will listen and help to provide what you need. If, after clearly communicating what you need, you find them unwilling or unable to help, that unfortunately may make it difficult to maintain that friendship.

Finally, it is difficult to make new friends as an adult. This is especially true when you are grieving. You have not built up the base of trust yet with new people and so may feel the need to hide what is really going on in your life. Or perhaps you don’t hide the truth, and find these new people unsure what to do with the information they’re given. There’s no easy answer to this, except perhaps to say that those people who are liable to become truly great friends are probably also those people who are willing to help you even when you’re in a very dark place.

Other Relationships

We have a host of other relationships in our lives—humans are fundamentally social creatures. This includes acquaintances, coworkers, activity group members, your religious community, your neighbors, or other people with whom you interact occasionally.

Relating to the people in your wider circles can be difficult. Some of them may be aware of what you are going through, some may not be. For some, you may have a basic established trust. For others, this may not be true.

One of the trickiest to navigate may be your coworkers. You end up spending so much of your time with them, and yet you may not trust them or even like them very much. They may be particularly prone to saying or doing the wrong thing in their responses to you—either being cold to you, being unsympathetic to what you are going through, or saying or doing just the wrong thing. One positive way to handle this is by clearly communicating with them what you need them to do or not to do. Again, it is unfair that you have to educate them, but that’s just the way of this.

Sometimes doing this in writing can be helpful, since it means you do not have to confront them about this face-to-face. It can also be very helpful to present this to a supervisor and even ask for their help in resolving any of these situations. It is their job, after all, to ensure that your needs are met in a way that allow you to do your best at work. If they are good at what they do, you should be able to get their help.

It may be tempting, at work, to simply hide the fact that you are in the grieving process. Each workplace culture is different, and you may have felt more or less comfortable sharing what is going on in your personal life. That’s okay. But it is a useful thing, at the very least, to share either with a supervisor or with HR (or ideally both) what is going on so that you can get the support that you deserve if you need it.

As for your other peripheral relationships, the lessons learned from your interactions with your friends and family come into play here. It all depends on how comfortable you feel sharing with them what you are going through, and how they react. But remember, in all of these relationships, you can only control what you do and how you perceive and react to what they do. You can’t control others, no matter how much you may want to. In your grieving process, your relationships with other people will inevitably change. But hopefully, you will emerge from this difficult process with relationships that are stronger for it.

Paul Sturtevant

The author Paul Sturtevant

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