Ask Allison: How can I support my husband through his loss?
Q My husband has been struggling since the death of his brother four months ago. He's become very withdrawn and it's hard to engage him in anything.
In the past, he had a difficult relationship with his brother, but they had reconciled in recent years. I know that he has to work through his grief and I want to help him, but I'm worried he is becoming very isolated. He doesn't have much interest in either work or home life, and I have told him I am here if he wants to talk about this, but he doesn't seem to want to do that. I'm wondering if bereavement counselling might help. How can I be there for him and support him?
Allison replies: I'm so sorry to hear about your husband's brother. Death affects every relationship. If you imagine the loss of one person as a pebble thrown into the water, the painful ripple is more often like an all-encompassing tsunami to every relationship it touches. There's nothing gentle about death and grief. The only way you can help is through supportive compassion and love, to aid in this immensely difficult process.
Starting with you, how are you doing? Your husband is grieving the loss of his brother - are you grieving the loss of your husband as you know him? It's a sad but unfortunate fallout from death that we often don't talk about, in terms of how hard grief is for a couple. The loss of others is so challenging within our closest relationships.
Grief changes everything. Nothing can ever be the same - and you know that when you experience grief.
Your husband may be grieving for the person he was, and when complicated grief is present, it is even more treacherous to navigate through. Regret for lost time can hit hard. That sense of never being their old self again is painful as they work through their new identity; one that they didn't choose. It can be easy to see where the anger comes in with grief.
The same can be said for you - as you sit on the supportive sidelines, you may feel powerless to help your husband who you can see in pain. This is not only upsetting, but it can feel very frustrating and isolating for you, because I'm sure you miss your husband.
Being emotionally present, providing space for your husband's grief and doing what you are doing by letting him know that you are there when he is ready to talk, does help.
In terms of grief therapy, four months is a short amount of time after his brother's death, but the best guide will be when and if your husband feels ready for it.
It may be useful to keep the grief model by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut in mind to help you be aware of two processes associated with bereavement:
Loss-oriented activities and stressors are those directly related to the death. These include:
⬤ Experiencing sadness, denial or anger
⬤ Dwelling on the circumstances of the death
⬤ Avoiding restoration activities.
Restoration-oriented activities and stressors are associated with secondary losses. They may involve lifestyle, routine and relationships. These include:
⬤ Adapting to a new role
⬤ Managing changes in routine
⬤ Developing new ways of connecting with family and friends
⬤ Cultivating a new way of life.
In recognising when your husband is engaging in 'loss-oriented activities' - such as sadness or not having any interest in work, you or home life - know that, in time, he will move towards more restorative processes. Recognising when he is in the first stage may help to depersonalise it and to not see it as a rejection of you or your family.
Grief is a cruel, tough, onerous and long process, on him and upon you. With this in mind, I recommend that you get support, talk with family and friends - even as he begins to start in 'restoration-oriented processes', as this may be a back-and-forth exercise for quite some time.
Keep the psychological basics in order with good food, routine, sleep, exercise, rest and recovery.
When you feel the time is right (it will never be perfect), you could reach out to your husband and say that you are worried that he seems isolated and offer your help in support. This may be in the form of the possibility of one-to-one or group bereavement counselling, or just reminding him that you are there.
Go gently, and be gentle on yourself. These are immensely tough times. Remind your husband with a gentle connection - through a warm hug, a touch of the hand or kind words - that you are there when he needs you, and that you are so sorry for his loss; that even though you can't understand fully, you are with him by his side.
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