Stronger Marriage

Coping with Grief as a Couple

by Thomas R. Lee, Ph.D.
Department of Family and Human Development
Utah State University

In recent years, we've heard about the stages of loss and grieving as they apply to an individual. When a loss affect a couple, they go through the same situation, however, the grieving process is more complicated. Some types of losses that could affect both husband and wife are forced unemployment, loss or illness of a child or parent, financial loss, or loss of the family farm.

As one person experiences loss and change, that person makes adjustments at a rate that's personally comfortable. When changes affects a couple, each person is apt to change at a different rate and go through different feelings. This can be hard on the couple's relationship.

Most husbands and wives recognize they each have different ways of acknowledging the loss. Usually, if these are talked over and understood, they are not viewed as a threat to the marriage. When a couple is dealing with loss or threat of loss, however, differences in husband-wife responses to the situation can create additional complications and pain.

The stages of loss people move through are often shock and denial, anger, then depression, and detachment. These phases are followed by dialogue, acceptance, and a return to meaningful life. They are most often experienced in this order, but not always. Sometimes people may skip a stage. In addition, individuals often go on to the next stage, then return to previous ones again.

Some families can be better off when spouses are at different stages in the grief process if one spouse has energy to act when the other is too depressed to do anything, or spouse's anger or depression may help the other one to stop denying that there's a problem. But in general, differences in adjustment are difficult when spouses interpret the adjustment difference as lack of caring or a sign of danger in the marriage. Usually, being in the same stage can offer comfort and a sense of understanding between spouses. It also may be helpful for both to be ready for dialogue or be at the acceptance stage at about the same time.

If one spouse is staying at the depressed stage for a long period of time, with feelings of shame or guilt for whatever has happened, this is particularly hard on the marriage. The other spouse probably cannot help alone. Professional help through appropriate anti-depressant medication (not sedatives or "tranquilizers") and counseling can usually bring help to the depressed person fairly soon.

Understanding that they will probably go through the loss and grieving process in different ways, and that what they are experiencing is normal, can help keep communication open for a couple, even during painful times.

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