We all manage our grief differently. Some of us are open books, sharing every feeling and emotion we have with the world. Others hermit, hiding away and prefer quiet solitude and space to wallow. Others compartmentalize, placing their emotions in some deeply-hidden interior pocket and moving forward with whatever compartment they choose to open that day.
I’m a combination of the first two–a true testament to the way I waffle between introvert and extrovert at any given moment of any day. When I found out I was losing my first pregnancy, I went straight into combination mode. I hermited on my couch while texting everyone I love (which is a lot of people) to make sure they all knew what was going on, and then I proceeded to binge watch Gilmore Girls while eating cookie dough on my couch for a solid week.
I cried so hard I couldn’t catch my breath or see straight. Occasionally, I laughed. And I numbed so much with food and the escapism of television that, while I remained acutely aware of how utterly shattered I felt, I somehow continued breathing through that horrific first week.
I learned that his grief did not end with that 1 silent tear on his cheek at the doctor’s office, but that I would never bear witness to an emotional display from him as he did from me.
But my husband isn’t like me, and it quickly became apparent that we were going to have to learn how to navigate being present for one another despite grieving entirely differently.
My husband manages emotions in a way I have never been able to wrap my head around–he compartmentalizes. When we learned of that first loss, I saw a tear fall from his face. Then, he brought me home, tucked me under blankets on the couch, went to the store for me, and then returned to work.
The same day he learned our baby was no longer alive inside my body, he returned to work. While I could barely breathe.
He remained extremely empathetic over the following days, and he was my rock as I went through the emotional turmoil of a D&C–the surgery that officially ended that pregnancy. But that lone tear shed when we first heard the news was the only external symbol of grief I ever witnessed in him, despite him seeing my grief daily, for weeks and months, until we had our next loss.
As we navigated the losses of four pregnancies over the next year, we built foundational tools that helped us learn to care for each other in hard times despite grieving in nearly opposite ways.
He learned to sit in silence and hold me while I cried. He learned to stop trying to make things better, and to never ask what was wrong, even months later, because I felt the answer should always be obvious.
I learned to stop prodding him to display his emotions the same way I was. I learned that his grief did not end with that 1 silent tear on his cheek at the doctor’s office, but that I would never bear witness to an emotional display from him as he did from me. I learned that his emotions, and his processes for dealing with them, were not lesser than mine. They were simply different.
We both learned that we would survive it together and support each other.
Having come out the other side of those particularly dark times in our lives, I’ve found great healing in helping other families as they navigate the loss process, and the subject of partners who grieve differently is one that comes up repeatedly.
We find it very hard, it seems, to understand why our partners don’t feel exactly like we do, and why they don’t respond to the same circumstances in the same way.
But there are ways you can work through the process together, despite your differences in grief styles. Here are the top three tools I’ve developed for coping with a partner who grieves differently than you.
1. Talk openly, and non-judgmentally, about your differences, and ask for what you need
One of the most healing things that happened for me was learning that my husband’s lack of emotion did not mean he wasn’t grieving; it simply meant he didn’t display emotions as openly as I do.
I learned this through honest conversation. I told him one night that I was struggling with the fact that he didn’t show his emotions the way I did, and that I wanted to know how he was feeling.
I basically began the conversation this way: “It would really help me if you would talk about how you’re feeling more, but that doesn’t seem to be something that works for you. Is that something you could do? What could I do that might help you?”
By asking these questions, I learned that he was feeling a bit overwhelmed by my constant need to talk about our loss. It was happening. We both felt sad. Neither of us had forgotten. But he struggled with our whole lives centering around that grief.
It was what I learned during this conversation that gave rise to the next two suggestions, both of which have been effective for myself and my husband, as well as many of the women I’ve worked with during their losses and subsequent grief.
2. Set aside time to discuss how you’re feeling
It’s important to talk about our emotions, no matter how uncomfortable that makes some of us. Repressing emotions has never been a healthy long-term coping strategy.
There is a time and a place for it, but if you keep strong feelings buried for too long, they will ultimately find a different way to escape; be it by lashing out at others; projecting your feelings onto a different scenario; engaging in self-destructive behavior; or your own particular brand of “feelings implosion.” No matter what, the result is ultimately not healthy for you or your relationship.
But as I learned from my husband, having the possibility of discussing emotions constantly lingering as something that might happen can also be extremely stressful for those who compartmentalize.
Setting aside a specific time for both partners to discuss how they’re feeling can really relieve the partner who doesn’t want to talk about it all the time, while also providing a useful outlet for the partner who wants to be more vocal about their feelings.
We usually had this discussion at dinner one or two nights per week. We would set the days, usually days that would be less stressful in terms of work, and agreed that we would talk about our feelings at the dinner table…and then leave them there when possible.
Setting aside a specific time for both partners to discuss how they’re feeling can really relieve the partner who doesn’t want to talk about it all the time.
3. Have a date–with absolutely no grief talk
Build in time to enjoy each other where you can be assured that there will be no discussion of your emotions. Again, knowing that you get to spend time together without the possibility of serious conversation can help you both recenter what’s important in your relationship and life as you move forward.
And if you’re a wallower, like me, it will pull you out of your funk for a while, which can be extremely nice. Plus, you get to spend quality time with the partner you know and love.
Many people I work with love to have this time through exercise, especially taking walks or hikes. That doesn’t work for me, personally, as I find exercise a time to be very introspective, but to each their own, even nature.
We enjoyed grief-free time over activities like a dinner date outside the house, a movie night, an excursion to a favorite local hangout, and cooking together.
Spending time together where you both know you’re free from grief talk can give you both windows of reprieve from whatever stressors you’re feeling. It’s also healing for your relationship, which is essential during times when connection with your partner is so important, but also so precarious.
Because, while your grief is real, valid, and lasting, maintaining a relationship that is important to you is essential to heal and move forward. Try to use this time to become closer instead of further apart.
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author and advocate for women’s reproductive, physical, and mental health. She founded Undefining Motherhood, an educational and advocacy website for women in all stages of parenting. She also author of Mourning Retreat: A Journal for the Sisterhood of Pregnancy Loss, a guided journal built out of her own experience with recurrent miscarriage that comes with a private online community. You can find her on Instagram @undefiningmotherhood.
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