7 Ways To Support Your Partner After A MAJOR Loss

-Tom Burns

It can be hard to know what to say…

It can be heartbreaking watching someone you love suffer through a tragic loss.

The loss can take many forms — a death in the family, the passing of a beloved pet, a career setback, a miscarriage — but the aftermath is fairly universal. Your loved one grieves. Sometimes they grieve HARD.

And, as their partner, it’s not always intuitive to know what you should be doing in that situation, particularly if the person you love seems to be spiraling down deeper into their despair.

You can offer condolences, but what’s your role supposed to be in the grieving process?

Are you supposed to be their cheerleader? Are you supposed to be their drill sergeant?

Should you actually be trying to do ANYTHING during their grieving or do you need to just sit back and let it happen?

But sitting back isn’t always an option, especially if your loved one is having problems with coping with the grief on their own. And, OF COURSE, you want to be doing something constructive. This is someone you love. You want to help.

If your partner is struggling to cope with a major loss, here are 7 ways you can support them as they cycle through the stages of grief (and remind them that they’re loved in the process).

1. Commiserate


This can be a surprisingly difficult thing to do. When your partner starts talking about all of the negative emotions they’re feeling, your instinct will be to jump in and say “Hey, everything is actually GREAT!” But that doesn’t solve anything and it can make your partner feel like you’re not validating what they’re going through.

But there’s a simple solution. Two easy words that make everything better — “That sucks.”

When your partner is grieving, sometimes, they just need you to acknowledge their pain and loss. So you just nod and say “That sucks,” and, at the least, they’ll know that you’re hearing them.

2. Recognize that you can’t fix everything.


This goes hand-in-hand with #1. Commiserating is important, but it’s also important that you don’t try to project plan your partner to death.

If they’re overcome by pain, it’s not always constructive to say “We can fix this. We can make this better. This is what we can do.”

They just have to live through the bad parts — there’s not normally an easy solution to grief.

While your intentions are admirable, just remember that not everything can be fixed. Occasionally, you just have to endure the bad stuff until the hurt goes away.

3. Hold their hand.


It’s a simple act, but it can mean so much. Just sit with your partner. Touch them. Hold them. Put their hand in yours.

Let them know that you’re there for them without ever saying a word. Because sometimes they don’t need to hear words.

They just need to feel the warm body of someone who loves them sitting by their side.

4. Run interference for them.


Does your girlfriend’s mom stress her out? When her mom calls, tell her that her daughter is already asleep and you chat with her on the phone for an hour.

Does your husband freak out when the front yard is covered with leaves? Rake the leaves before he gets home.

Basically, if your partner is struggling with loss, make it your job to reduce the stress in their lives anyway you can.

You know the things that stress them out. Throw yourself in front of those stress bullets and take a few for the person you love.

5. Ask if they want to talk about it.


And, if they say “No,” listen to them.

Check in from time-to-time to see if they feel like talking, but, if they don’t, you should NOT press the issue.

Offer yourself as a sounding board if they need it and, if they don’t need or want it, don’t get offended. It’s about them, not you.

6. Pick up the slack.


Your partner needs space to grieve and, when they’re suffering, every minor little everyday detail can feel like an intrusion, like something massively unimportant that’s trying to draw focus away from the pain (and, which, in turn, just makes the pain more painful).

If possible, do whatever you can to reduce the number of things they have to worry about in a day.

Do the laundry, make dinners more often than you normally would, troubleshoot minor household inconveniences without them.

Don’t make a show of it. You’re not looking for a pat on the back for being the best boyfriend/girlfriend ever. You’re trying to make them hurt less. So keep your extra effort on the downlow and give your partner more bandwidth to deal with their pain.

7. Love them.


Duh, right? But it means a lot. It means everything.

Just find quiet moments to reaffirm to your partner that you really, truly love them.

It can make a huge difference.

Show them that you love them (and tell them too) and maybe they’ll remember that the world isn’t all pain and misery, which is pretty much the best thing you can do for them in that situation.

Out of Sight-Out of Mind: The Reality of Disenfranchised Grief

-Suzanne Phillips, Psy. D., ABPP

One of the most powerful and frightening articles I read this summer was Leslie Jamison’s Opinion piece, “Rape, Race and the Jogger”. She starts by reminding us that this summer three female joggers, all around 30, all white, were murdered. The information about one of these joggers caught my attention when it was first reported, because the murder occurred close to my childhood home and closer still to my childhood fears. The warning, “ Never go into the weeds alone!” that had carried too much weight as a child was unlocked and now seemed proven to be true…

After years of working with trauma victims, and years of pushing aside fear for the joy of running, I know about the urge to blame the victim for not heeding “the warnings.” I know about the urge to distance ourselves from the horrific events of life that can’t be controlled. I know too that in such dismissal we disqualify the impact of violence, murder and traumatic grief suffered by others.

Reflective of this and even more frightening is Jamison’s report that during the same-two-week period this summer, three other women were murdered whose deaths received much less attention- Skye Mockabee in Cleveland, Erykah Tijerina in El Paso and Rae Lynn Thomas in Columbus, Ohio. They were all young, transgender, minority women. Why did we not hear about their murders?

When I interviewed Jane Baker on Psych Up live for the podcast on her book, Trading Places- When Our Son Became a Daughter, one of her greatest fears was possible violence toward her transgender daughter. Three other mothers faced that reality with their daughters this summer. Few people knew about their loss.

In his chapter, “A Mosaic of Transmissions After Trauma in the book Lost in Translation,” Howard Stein raises the question of unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable grief. He asks, Who counts? Who is treated as though they do not matter? Who is remembered? Who is forgotten?

Stein describes “Disenfranchised Grief” (Doka, 1989) as the loss and grief that individuals, families, organizations and whole societies refuse to recognize as legitimate. It is loss and grief that is given “ no space and no time”. The unknown murders of the three young transgender, minority women exemplify this.

Sadly, the other poignant example from Jamison’s article that can be considered as “disenfranchised grief” is the unrecognized trauma and loss of the five young men now exonerated for the rape of the Central Park Jogger. These young men, The Central Park Five, came of age behind bars. Most know of  them as perpetrators of violence. How many now recognize them as victims of violence?

When the experience of violence and grief suffered by some becomes “ cut out” of the social discourse, we all suffer. Unrecognized trauma and loss returns as resentment, anger, despair and fear – the most dangerous consequence of all.

Even the personal awareness by each of us, regarding the disenfranchising of  another’s trauma and grief, is a major step in a world where we are all connected.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”Mother Teresa

Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over

-Mary C Lamia, PhD

The notion that one gets over it is a myth.

Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over

The emotion of grief may be triggered by the loss of a loved one or the result of a life circumstance. Many people believe that if you have effectively mourned a loss you will then achieve closure. The notion that one mourns a loss and then gets over it, to the extent that emotions about the loss are not triggered in the future, is a myth.

Similarly, children have such expectations about getting over loss. They seem to believe that one needs to do something in particular in order to achieve that goal. Several years ago, as host of a radio talk show for kids, I asked listeners about the issue of loss. An 8-year old boy told me that his grandfather had died two weeks before and he wanted to know how to get over it-he thinks about him all the time and can’t concentrate on anything else. A 12-year old boy explained that his dog had died and he wanted to know what to do since he couldn’t say good-bye to her and didn’t think that he could ever “fill [his] heart with anything else.” I didn’t ask what he meant by his choice of words, however, I felt its meaning. A 13-year old girl said that she asks her brother about what clothes look good on her because she doesn’t have a mom. Ever since her mother died several years before, her dad, she claimed, tries to be both a mom and dad. But it always feels like something is missing. She asked, “How do I get over my mom dying?”

The misguided notion that grief is a process that allows a final working through of a loss is likely the fault of my own profession–mental health professionals who have promoted this notion in their work with grieving individuals. Clinical data makes it clear that any significant loss, later and repeatedly, brings up longing and sadness. Is it because these people have not achieved closure by traversing prescribed stages of mourning or because they have not “worked through the loss” as some therapists boldly claim? No. It’s because you never get over loss. As time passes, the intensity of feelings about the loss will lessen, you might also find ways to sooth or distract yourself, or you can partially bury grief-related feelings by creating new memories. But you’re not going to get over it because that’s impossible: you cannot erase emotional memory. Besides, it’s not about achieving closure. Instead you have to figure out what you are going to do when your emotional memories are later triggered.

Emotions that have to do with loss are triggered throughout our lives and you will live with them. Usually they are in the form of anniversary reactions, such as the birthday or death day of the lost loved one or any significant holiday in which you might want to be with the person who is gone. Reminders, such as visiting a place you’ve been with the person you lost, will trigger a similar response. In episodes of depression and high anxiety in patients, I always look for anniversary reactions and situation-matching reactions, such as when emotions are triggered and people just can’t understand why they would be anxious or depressed.

Grief can also be triggered by an age-matching anniversary reaction, which is when a person’s age matches the age of a parent when they died. The remarkable power of age-matching anniversary reactions arising from the loss of a parent in childhood was demonstrated to me when I began training as a psychologist over 30 years ago. I had been treating a severely depressed man who, for many months, was not responsive to intensive psychotherapy or medication. Upon discovering with the patient that his depression began at a time in which his age matched his father’s age of death, the depression miraculously lifted. Beneath his depression lay a myriad of fears that he would be like his father, which included dying at the same age of his father as well as guilt that he was not like his father and could live a full life. Although he had been unaware of the age factor, his painful feelings seemed to recreate the trauma of his father’s death, which was too overwhelming for him to feel when he was ten years old.

One of the reasons that grief happens to be triggered by external reminders, such as in anniversary reactions, is because grief is an emotion that sends a vague alert to help you to remember, rather than to forget. Even so, what most people do with grief is attempt to forget–to get over it-which is quite contrary to the purpose of the emotion. Rather than try to forget, one must attempt to remember and cooperate with what your emotion is trying to convey. There are many ways to remember. You can remember what you learned from the person you lost, remember what you enjoyed, and you can cry if you feel like crying. Even if your grief is about a relationship gone bad, there is always something that you can learn by remembering it.

There are related themes of loss that people express, and later grief responses related to those losses, such as the many women and men who have given up a child for adoption. The child’s birth date does not pass by without an emotional reaction, whether or not they recognize it at the time. Similarly, the date a child would have been born for a childless woman who has had a miscarriage can trigger grief. The experience of loss when a relationship ends can be triggered on the former partner’s birthday, on the anniversary of when you met, or on any holiday.

Whenever I am bothered by the thought of just how misguided the notion of stages of grieving can be, I remember one patient in particular who wanted help with the depression she had every summer, which at the time she told me was when her 12-year old child had died 25 years before. She sought therapy because she was convinced that something was wrong with her. Every June, for 25 years, she had experienced a grief response. Simply knowing that she wasn’t crazy because of the intense affect that came up for her made it a bit easier the next time June arrived. And, rather than try to get rid of her painful feelings at the time, instead she learned to think about exactly what she would do to remember her son.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sums up the lifelong experience of grief in the first 3 lines of his poem, Secret Anniversaries Of The Heart:
The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart.

When Grief Bleeds

Don’t rush.

Don’t be startled.

Don’t try to trick yourself into feeling happy and well again.

In fact, the best thing to do is nothing at all.

Breathe into it.

Exhale, out loud, if you are up for it.

Breathe in freedom.

Exhale the captivity grief seems to put your heart into.

Accept grief as a tool to make you a deeper soul, a more compassionate being, a wanderer and seeker of truths.

If you are in the thick of new grief, accepting feels like a violation to your right as a human being capable of love. Don’t go there. Be gentle on yourself, and breathe. One day at a time.

But if you are a little further out from your loss, these moments of grief “bleeding” out into your everyday life, that at one time seemed so impossible, still – remember to breathe. These moments make you human.

They make you real.

They make you vulnerable.

They also make you capable of anything.

They remind you how intimately you brushed shoulders with death.

They remind you how you have survived, and not only that but you have thrived.

Give your soul these moments to bleed out.

The vortex of grief demands your heart and soul from time to time. Grief is the cost of love, and one we pay so willingly.

Be okay with wherever these moments take you.

You will resurface again.

Stronger, better, braver.

-Franchesca Cox

Myths and Facts about Grief

MYTH: The pain will go away faster if you ignore it.

Fact: Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.

MYTH: It’s important to be “be strong” in the face of loss.

Fact: Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss. Crying doesn’t mean you are weak. You don’t need to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your true feelings can help them and you.

MYTH: If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss.

Fact: Crying is a normal response to sadness, but it’s not the only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.

MYTH: Grief should last about a year.

Fact: There is no right or wrong time frame for grieving. How long it takes can differ from person to person.


How Therapy Can Help in the Golden Years

Marvin Tolkin was 83 when he decided that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living. Until then, it had never occurred to him that there might be emotional “issues” he wanted to explore with a counselor.

“I don’t think I ever needed therapy,” said Mr. Tolkin, a retired manufacturer of women’s undergarments who lives in Manhattan and Hewlett Harbor, N.Y.

Though he wasn’t clinically depressed, Mr. Tolkin did suffer from migraines and “struggled through a lot of things in my life” — the demise of a long-term business partnership, the sudden death of his first wife 18 years ago. He worried about his children and grandchildren, and his relationship with his current wife, Carole.

“When I hit my 80s I thought, ‘The hell with this.’ I don’t know how long I’m going to live, I want to make it easier,” said Mr. Tolkin, now 86. “Everybody needs help, and everybody makes mistakes. I needed to reach outside my own capabilities.”

So Mr. Tolkin began seeing Dr. Robert C. Abrams, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan. They meet once a month for 45 minutes, exploring the problems that were weighing on Mr. Tolkin. “Dr. Abrams is giving me a perspective that I didn’t think about,” he said. “It’s been making the transition of living at this age in relation to my family very doable and very livable.”

Mr. Tolkin is one of many seniors who are seeking psychological help late in life. Most never set foot near an analyst’s couch in their younger years. But now, as people are living longer, and the stigma of psychological counseling has diminished, they are recognizing that their golden years might be easier if they alleviate the problems they have been carrying around for decades. It also helps that Medicare pays for psychiatric assessments and therapy.

“We’ve been seeing more people in their 80s and older over the past five years, many who have never done therapy before,” said Dolores Gallagher-Thompson, a professor of research in the department of psychiatry at Stanford. “Usually, they’ve tried other resources like their church, or talked to family. They’re realizing that they’re living longer, and if you’ve got another 10 or 15 years, why be miserable if there’s something that can help you?”

Some of these older patients are clinically depressed. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that more than 6.5 million Americans over age 65 suffer from depression. But many are grappling with mental health issues unaddressed for decades, as well as contemporary concerns about new living arrangements, finances, chronic health problems, the loss of loved ones and their own mortality.

“It’s never too late, if someone has never dealt with issues,” said Judith Repetur, a clinical social worker in New York who works almost exclusively with older patients, many of whom are seeking help for the first time. “A combination of stresses late in life can bring up problems that weren’t resolved.”

That members of the Greatest Generation would feel comfortable talking to a therapist, or acknowledging psychological distress, is a significant change. Many grew up in an era when only “crazy” people sought psychiatric help. They would never admit to themselves — and certainly not others — that anything might be wrong.

“For people in their 80s and 90s now, depression was considered almost a moral weakness,” said Dr. Gallagher-Thompson. “Fifty years ago, when they were in their 20s and 30s, people were locked up and someone threw away the key. They had a terrible fear that if they said they were depressed, they were going to end up in an institution. So they learned to look good and cover their problems as best they could.”

But those attitudes have shifted over time, along with the medical community’s understanding of mental illness among seniors. In the past, the assumption was that if older people were acting strangely or having problems, it was probably dementia. But now, “the awareness of depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse as possible problems has grown,” said Bob G. Knight, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California, and the author of “Psychotherapy With Older Adults.”

A report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that about half of all Americans ages 50 to 70 will be at high risk for alcohol and marijuana abuse by 2020, compared with less than 9 percent in 1999.

In years past, too, there was a sense among medical professionals that a patient often could not be helped after a certain age unless he had received treatment earlier in life. Freud noted that around age 50, “the elasticity of the mental process on which treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking,” adding, “Old people are no longer educable.” (Never mind that he continued working until he died at 83.)

“That’s been totally turned around by what we’ve learned about cognitive psychology and cognitive approach — changing the way you think about things, redirecting your emotions in more positive ways,” said Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and professor of human development at Cornell, and author of “30 Lessons for Living.”

Treatment regimens can be difficult in this population. Antidepressants, for instance, can have unpleasant side effects and only add to the pile of pills many elderly patients take daily. Older patients may feel that they don’t have the time necessary to explore psychotherapy, or that it’s too late to change.

But many eagerly embrace talk therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral techniques that focus on altering thought patterns and behaviors affecting their quality of life now. Experts say that seniors generally have a higher satisfaction rate in therapy than younger people because they are usually more serious about it. Time is critical, and their goals usually are well defined.

“Older patients realize that time is limited and precious and not to be wasted,” said Dr. Abrams. “They tend to be serious about the discussion and less tolerant of wasted time. They make great patients.”

After her husband died two years ago, Miriam Zatinsky, a retired social worker who is now 87, moved into an independent living facility at Miami Jewish Health Systems. It was a difficult transition to make late in life.

“It was really strange to me, and I couldn’t seem to make any friends here,” Ms. Zatinsky said. “I really couldn’t find my way. I was having a terrible time.”

The medical director for mental health at the facility, Dr. Marc E. Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist and the author of “How We Age,” told her that her problems were not unusual for someone in her situation, and encouraged her to make some friends. He prescribed Xanax to help with anxiety, which she said she rarely takes, and he put her in touch with a social worker, Shyla Ford, whom Ms. Zatinsky saw once a week until Ms. Ford moved (Ms. Zatinsky now has a new social worker she talks to). They strategized on how she could reach out. And slowly, she did.

“Sitting at the table for dinner, you talk to people,” said Ms. Zatinsky, who has become president of her building.

Typically, 15 to 20 sessions of talk therapy are enough to help an older patient, unless he or she is struggling with a lifetime’s worth of significant problems. Still, even long-term issues can be overcome.

After a debilitating depression in which she spent three months unable to get out of bed, Judita Grosz, 69, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., decided to see Dr. Agronin, who prescribed medication. (She also tried group therapy but didn’t like it.) He also practiced some cognitive behavioral techniques with her — for instance, requiring her to get dressed every day for a minimum of 15 minutes.

Eventually, she began to feel better. “I learned to adjust my thinking, and I don’t get as anxious as I used to,” said Ms. Grosz, who has since begun making and selling jewelry. “I found out at this age that I am artistic and creative and innovative and smart. I just woke up to the fact that I have a mind of my own. Talk about a late bloomer.”

Dr. Agronin, who still meets with Ms. Grosz monthly, said, “You might not be able to gain a magical insight and wrap up their entire life in therapy, but you might be able to accomplish one or two small but meaningful goals.”

Sometimes, what older patients really need is help putting a lifetime in perspective.

“Things can be seen differently from the perspective of old age that relieve some guilt and challenge assumptions that you’ve had for decades,” Dr. Abrams said. “ ‘Maybe it wasn’t too terrible after all; maybe I shouldn’t blame myself.’ Maybe some of your worst mistakes weren’t so egregious, and maybe there were unavoidable circumstances you couldn’t control.”

Mr. Tolkin still stops by Dr. Abrams’s office for a monthly checkup.

“Everybody has a certain amount of heartache in life — it’s how you handle the heartache that is the essential core of your life,” Mr. Tolkin said. “I found that my attitude was important, and I had to reinforce positive things all the time.”

He said he wishes he had tried therapy years ago. But he adds: “I can’t go back. I can only go forward.”

-Abby Ellin

Tips for Grieving a Breakup


  • Don’t fight your feelings – It’s normal to have lots of ups and downs, and feel many conflicting emotions, including anger, resentment, sadness, relief, fear, and confusion. It’s important to identify and acknowledge these feelings. While these emotions will often be painful, trying to suppress or ignore them will only prolong the grieving process.
  • Talk about how you’re feeling – Even if it is difficult for you to talk about your feelings with other people, it is very important to find a way to do so when you are grieving. Knowing that others are aware of your feelings will make you feel less alone with your pain and will help you heal. Journaling can also be a helpful outlet for your feelings.
  • Remember that moving on is the end goal – Expressing your feelings will liberate you in a way, but it is important not to dwell on the negative feelings or to over-analyze the situation. Getting stuck in hurtful feelings like blame, anger, and resentment will rob you of valuable energy and prevent you from healing and moving forward.
  • Remind yourself that you still have a future – When you commit to another person, you create many hopes and dreams. It’s hard to let these dreams go. As you grieve the loss of the future you once envisioned, be encouraged by the fact that new hopes and dreams will eventually replace your old ones.
  • Know the difference between a normal reaction to a breakup and depression – Grief can be paralyzing after a breakup, but after a while, the sadness begins to lift. Day by day, and little by little, you start moving on. However, if you don’t feel any forward momentum, you may be suffering from depression.

-From Helpguide