Psychotherapist Megan Devine on the impossibility of taking pain away from your partner, the difficulty of two people grieving one person, and how loss can impact sex.
By Sophia Benoi
Like so many people, I’m fascinated, consumed, and appalled by death. I read books about it, I occasionally write hypothetical eulogies for loved ones in my head, and I even have a tattoo that says memento mori—Latin for “remember to die.” And as part of my preoccupation with death, I’ve found myself wondering how my boyfriend and I will handle it when one of us inevitably loses someone.
How partners show up—or don’t—after a loss can profoundly impact the relationship, either strengthening it or exposing the cracks. Ideally, a partner knows what to do and say, but many people struggle with exactly how to respond.
I asked friends who’ve lost someone about what their partner did that helped and, on the flip side, what really didn’t. When my friend Sam’s grandpa died, her ex was pretty reluctant to engage with her about it at all. “Anytime I would bring up my grandpa, he would seem visibly uncomfortable, like he was not excited about the emotions he was going to have to respond to. We unsurprisingly broke up,” she said, citing these stilted conversations as a big part of that decision.
Another friend of mine, Glenn, gushed about how wonderful his partner, Rob, was when his mother passed: “On the night she died, when I called, he didn’t say anything. He came over and just held me as I cried, laid in bed with me so I wasn’t alone. He never offered any platitudes, or really condolences in any typical way. He gave me the space to reckon with a loss that each person can only figure how to handle in their own way.”
In long-term relationships, chances are that one or both partners will experience the death of a loved one; knowing how to support one another as best as possible is invaluable. So I spoke to Megan Devine, psychotherapist and author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand, about how to support your partner through grief.
GQ: Both my partner and I have older parents—and very different relationships with our parents—so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we’ll do when the time comes and how we’ll help one another.
Devine: That’s good that you’re already thinking about that! Most likely, your parents will die before you. The time to have conversations like this is before anybody dies. We practice fire drills, so that in the event of an emergency, these things aren’t new to us. It’s really hard in fresh grief to have a high-level, highly skilled conversation about your emotional needs. That’s asking a lot of a person when they’re in pain.
You can make some good guesses, but until you’re in the situation, you won’t know. But by opening those conversations beforehand, you’ll be able to say things like, “I know we talked about this and I thought I was going to need this, but this is different than anything I expected. Can we try this instead?”
So, what can a partner’s role in a time of grief be? Can they actually do anything?
Well, yes and no. We look at the people we love, and we see them in pain and we want to take that pain away from them. That’s a normal human response. But, you can’t. It’s not actually possible.
All the things that we normally think of to say to do that, like “Your dad wouldn’t want you to be sad,” or “Your mom lived a nice, long life” don’t work. Look at the second half of that sentence, or what I call the ghost words. There’s an implied “…so, stop feeling so bad.”
If I see you and say, “What’s up?” and you say, “My dog’s really sick, and we don’t know if he’s gonna make it,” and I say, “Well, at least it’s sunny out!” I just completely dismissed what you just told me, even if I did what I think I’m supposed to do, which is cheer you up and tell you to look on the bright side. The biggest thing for people to remember is it’s not your job to take away somebody’s pain. It is your job to accompany them inside it. And what that looks like is going to be different for everybody.
So, are there concrete, universal things that someone can do to help their partner?
When someone’s person dies, life around them still goes on. There might be kids that need to be taken care of, laundry that needs to be done, a dog that needs to be walked—whatever you can do to take over the daily life activities for that person to give them the space to fall apart, or be quiet, or slow down.
A lot of people feel like, “If I’m not cheering them up, what am I supposed to do? Let them be sad?” Well, one, yes. But two, it’s not that you do nothing—it’s that everything you do is in service of making things gentler for that person. Taking the trash out. Ordering a meal-delivery service. Offering to take care of pets. Picking up dry cleaning.
What is something that’s difficult about grief, particularly in romantic relationships? I imagine that loss is either a binding agent of sorts or a massive stumbling block, and it can really go either way.
When you’re talking about romantic partners, sometimes they’re grieving the same person. A really big thing to remember is that everyone grieves differently, and even when one person dies, you’re each grieving a different person. You lost two different people.
This is very gendered, but often the male or male-identified person feels like they need to be strong or brave for the family or keep their shit together. The female-identified person can feel like, “Why don’t you have any emotions around this? I can’t even get out of bed because I’m crying so much, and you seem to be stoic and fine.” One person cries, one person doesn’t cry. Any expression of grief is normal. Everybody has the right to grieve differently.
So what do you do when you’re both grieving the same person?
Ideally, if you’re the one grieving, you’re able to say, “My dad died and I want to acknowledge the fact that your father-in-law died, and this is going to be impacting you too. I don’t know how available I’m going to be to talk with you about that, but I want to let you know that I see it. And to the best of my capacity or ability, I’m willing to listen to what this is like for you.”
What would you tell couples, then, about what might help them both go through the grieving process?
The time to prepare for these things is in daily life before grief. This means having challenging conversations about what you need, don’t need, and how to manage that together. Those are not easy conversations. This is why I really stress getting accustomed to what therapists call “process conversations,” outside of an emergency, like the loss of a loved one. Many people have an aversion to these types of conversations because it’s not normal for us.
To ask you to suddenly learn how to use really grown-up, ninja-level communication skills amid an already challenging time is asking a lot of people. But if you’ve started, it’s easier to lean on that in times of need.
Exactly. Grief brings up all these feelings that we have limited experience talking about. Especially for couples, it dramatically alters daily life, and little things we take for granted can become really fraught. For example, when is it okay for me to start trying to initiate sex again? In a month? The next night? Should I actively try to engage my partner about what they’re feeling? Wait for them to bring it up? We don’t know what we’re doing.
Yes! “When is it okay to invite my partner to have sex again after their dad dies?” Well, we don’t know. But you know what you can do? ASK! These are questions that we should be talking about more. You can say something like, “I’m not really sure what your clues are that you feel ready for me to initiate. Can we talk about that?” Being willing to have a conversation about it is the key. Have the conversation!
In my experience, people are really afraid to sound foolish or weird. I’m a strong proponent for prefacing conversations like this with “I know this might sound weird, but…”
Precisely. You might be scared that it’s going to be weird or awkward, but sweetie, it’s all awkward. You can either ignore the issue, potentially allowing things to get worse, or you can address it and feel weird and have a much better chance of things smoothing out and resolving. Both paths are awkward and uncomfortable. Only one sets you up for potential success.
Okay, I’m sure there are 5,600 things, but what is something that our culture misunderstands about grief?
Because we don’t tend to talk about grief at all in our culture, we have really skewed ideas of what’s normal. The first thing is that grief lasts as long as love lasts. When your dad dies, there’s not going to be any time in the future when you’re going to stop missing him. He’ll always be your dad. As long as you love your dad, there will be grief present. Grief will shift and change—it’s not that you’re gonna be rocking in a corner wearing all black for the rest of your existence.
There’s nothing wrong with grief, and I think that’s surprising for people. We [preach] these transformative narratives of the cranky old widower who is only cranky because he hasn’t found a new love, and once he does, everything is okay again and grief goes away. That’s just not the way it works. That’s not reality. Because we don’t talk about grief as a normal part of relationships, we don’t know what’s normal and healthy, and everybody grieves in a different way. Somebody might find comfort or solace in humor, while someone else might not. Just because grief can look messy and emotional, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it.
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