Supporting a grieving partner - what do you wish you'd known?
April 8, 2014 5:19 AM   Subscribe

I am struggling and I don't know how to handle this and not make myself completely miserable along the way

My partner of one year's mother was killed in a car crash a week and a half ago and I am really struggling with how to support him and his family.

I have taken the week off work and travelled to his home town with him and his siblings and am doing my best to help with any administration things that need to be done and anything else they ask of me but to be honest I feel incredibly lonely out here. I'm very much on the outer and am dealing with my partner snapping with me at times, sometimes quite badly, as well as his sister. I know it's just because they're grieving but I have no support system out here at all.

This evening his former partner of 7 years came to visit and I felt so awkward and didn't want to make make a fuss but I felt like crying because I was so left out since they've all known each other since childhood.

I don't know what else I can do to support everyone - I have been listening and offering help and making cups of tea.

I just want to know that I'm doing okay I guess and how to deal with my own emotions so I can be there for everyone else.

Thank you.
posted by lifethatihavenotlivedyet to Human Relations (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're in a tough spot and you're definitely doing a good job.

Can you call a friend or otherwise take a little break? Even to just go out and go food shopping or sit in a cafe and read for an hour? You need support and self care too!
posted by zem at 5:28 AM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're already doing the most important stuff -- being there in person, making tea, listening, helping with mundane tasks, etc.

You could improve in a couple of ways, though:

1. You don't have to "be there for everyone else" if that means your own mental well-being suffers. You don't need to be everyone else's rock; just do the best you can, even if that simply means being around in person, making tea, listening, and helping with mundane tasks. You don't have to support everyone, you just need to lend them a hand and an ear as you can.

2. This evening his former partner of 7 years came to visit and I felt so awkward and didn't want to make make a fuss but I felt like crying because I was so left out since they've all known each other since childhood. Do not make their grieving process all about you. Instead of feeling sad or awkward in circumstances like this, try to be happy that Former Partner is helping your partner grieve, etc.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:28 AM on April 8, 2014 [17 favorites]

I'm sorry this is happening. Participating in the grief of someone you live is excruciating. You don't need to have someone physically present to act as a support. Surely you have a friend or family member you trust who you could call once a day to talk to. Just make sure you get a little time to yourself each day in order to talk to someone and to decompress. Please don't bring up your feelings of frustration and insecurity with your partner right now. Keep it to yourself for the time being, possibly forever.
posted by teamnap at 5:33 AM on April 8, 2014

You're doing fine. I"m sure your emotions are as jumbled as anyone else's, and you have grief too, it's just different.

Do try to get away, and if your partner or his sister snaps at you, you don't have to take it. "Hey, I'm just trying to help, I know you're dealing with a lot of shit right now, but that doesn't give you a pass to be snippy with me."

Also, if it's time for you to go, go. Ask your partner, "it seems like I'm a bit de trop around here, how about I head home and you and your sister can take care of the rest.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:33 AM on April 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

I read somewhere, and it was probably here, because all the good stuff comes from here...

I hope I do it justice... But. there are rules of support and it's all about the circles/rings. The tiny inner circle/ring are the people, directly affected by the big stuff. The grieving people. Or the people with terminal illnesses.. whatever the massive stressor is.

And then there's the next slightly larger circle-the partners, siblings, children.

In the next bigger circle is the best friends, cousins, close colleagues.
In the next up circle is the friends, neighbours, colleagues etc.
You get the drift.

So the circle rule is that the support goes out, not in. You lean out, not in. The inner circle can lean on anyone in the larger, outer circles....but nobody in a bigger circle can lean on anyone in a smaller, inner circle. This shares the burden around and helps everyone keep their head above water. In your case, you need to find your own support person so you can be leaned upon by the smallest circle people of all.

I'm sure someone more succinct and with a better understanding of the theory will come along...but till then....that's the gist of it...and the only way you'll get through this. It's hard, but you're incredibly isolated right now. So find your person/people to lean on as soon as you can. And it's not your partner in this case, I'm sorry to say.

But I do want to acknowledge that you are going through an enormous stress yourself. It's not so much the grief for you, it's the stress. And that's what you need your support system for. Big ol' hugs for you all.
posted by taff at 5:43 AM on April 8, 2014 [20 favorites]

how to deal with my own emotions so I can be there for everyone else.

I think you're doing a good job and being very kind and supportive, which is all you can do. I think writing this AskMe was probably a good idea, but can you reach out to other friends and families, not affected by this, to just vent some and talk about how you feel?


This evening his former partner of 7 years came to visit and I felt so awkward and didn't want to make make a fuss but I felt like crying because I was so left out since they've all known each other since childhood.

Is a perfectly understandable way to feel, and it's rough knowing that while your feelings are valid, you can't really vent to your boyfriend. Call your mom or best friend or do some anonymous postings on internet forums -- just get yourself somewhere you can get your feelings validated and remember this will pass, it's a finite amount of time.

You can also tell your boyfriend, "I'm feeling like I might be in the way of everyone processing their grief here because I'm a bit of an outsider. I love you and I'm happy to stay here, but if you do feel like you'd like a little space I can go home early and make things great for you there so when you get home, you'll have a soft landing."

Something like that. But there's nothing wrong with you, sounds like you're doing everything you can to feel really supportive. You've just got some inside mixed up feelings and nowhere to go with them.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:58 AM on April 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

everything you can to feel really supportive.

everything you can to be really supportive, is what I meant.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:01 AM on April 8, 2014

I think it's time for you to go home. Somebody has to be at your place working, getting the mail, watering the plants, making your apartment look lived in, fetching groceries, preparing for return.

Tell your partner he can stay as long as he wants so he can be close to his family and childhood friends right now. If he's not home in a week travel back to go see him again. Get support for yourself in the meantime at home.

You are doing great. Put on your own oxygen mask and do what you need to do to stay sane. Grief is a long haul and this is the beginning.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:08 AM on April 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

I would second what zem says. Obviously you're doing a very sensible thing, being there, and you seem to be doing it well (listening and trying to help with the things you see need to be done is obviously the most important thing you can do). And clearly, right now, you're not getting much back for it from the other parties involved.
Try to take some moments off every day, connect to people from your own network instead, and talk things through with them.
posted by Namlit at 6:10 AM on April 8, 2014

I’ve been in a similar position and found it arduous and painful. You have my sympathy. I tried to just be calm, patient & constructive, to keep listening, and strove to keep my own feelings of isolation and helplessness out of sight as best I could. I was told afterwards this was a great help. There’s nothing more I can think of that I might wish I’d have known beforehand: I already knew it was going to be very difficult, and so it was. The advice already given to find solid support for yourself is sound. Consider too that your partner may continue to lean heavily on you for support in the months to come: it’s a long run, not a sprint, so try also to pace yourself and keep something in reserve.
posted by misteraitch at 6:12 AM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's the article referenced by taff above.
posted by mekily at 6:16 AM on April 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

My then-boyfriend-now-husband came home with me when my mother died suddenly. Seriously, just being there is huge. He was terrific in that he was somehow around when I needed him and out of the way when I didn't. He didn't join us on tasks where it would have been awkward (planning the funeral, picking a casket) but I think he usually asked if I wanted him to come.

One of the really great things he did was put together a playlist for the wake. He also scanned pictures of my mother and mounted them on poster board so we could display them during the wake. So I'd see if there's a job you can do. Is someone designated to answer the phone? We put my crazy aunt on answering the phone because she loves talking to people and needed something to do or else she would be bothering us. Has anyone started a list of people to whom to send thank you cards? Could you do that and maybe get addresses, stamps, cards, etc.?

My husband has also been great at helping me do things when my brain was unable to do them. Like last family emergency, I couldn't handle buying plane tickets because there were too many variables and my brain was just not having it so he just did it so I could worry about packing. Are there things that your partner needs to do that aren't getting done? Can you do them or else make it super easy for your partner to do it?

In the aftermath, my husband was good about helping me regain my footing in the rest of the world. There were some people I was mad at for not being there for me as much as I had wanted immediately after my mom died and he said, this isn't an excuse and I don't feel this way but I think some people see that your mom just died out of nowhere and it makes them realize that the same thing could happen to them and that makes them really uncomfortable. It was a very light way of telling me to cut people some slack. And then I think I argued with him but that meant I argued with him and not friends of mine who meant well but didn't know what to do with themselves.

Also, if you need to cry for any reason, feel free, just don't make a big deal. Other things that help are having a glass of water or stepping outside for a moment. That might sound silly but it's been true in my experience.

This is a hard thing to do. It sounds like you're doing well. Hang in there. Take care of yourself too.
posted by kat518 at 6:19 AM on April 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

Seconding some suggestions that it might be time to go home. This section copied below from Zen Psychiatry's writing on maintaining equanimity might be helpful if you decide that it's time for some distance.

Your partner is lucky to have your support. You're doing a great job. Remember to be kind to yourself.


When someone you care about is suffering and there’s nothing you can do to change their circumstances, repeat:

I care.
I care about your pain.
Through this caring may your pain be eased.

A while back, when I was in the middle of a silent meditation retreat, I saw an older woman fall and break both of her ankles. I immediately broke silence and rushed over to help her (a trait likely ingrained as a doctor). She was in tremendous pain, and became crushed as she realized she wouldn’t be able to continue the retreat.

At first I felt terrible, and guilty that I couldn’t do more to help her, but then I realized I could feel compassion for her without believing it was my responsibility to control the outcome of her injury.

The above phrase helps you cultivate compassion for other’s suffering, without feeling like it’s your responsibility to solve the world’s problems.
posted by kitkatcathy at 6:41 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

The above advice to be kind to yourself and not assume responsibility for all the varying emotional needs in this particular cauldron is all great. I do have a slightly different take on this part of your question: "I'm very much on the outer and am dealing with my partner snapping with me at times, sometimes quite badly, as well as his sister."

None of the following is intended as a criticism of him or his family - just a confirmation that it's totally okay for you to feel very upset by this.

While you're absolutely right to be patient and cut him/his family some slack while they process this sudden turn of events, you do not need to be the repository of everyone's misplaced anger here simply because you're the most recent addition to this group of people. It's unclear how often this is happening, or what the severity of it is, but assuming it's not just an isolated incident here or there it's completely OK for you to politely tell your partner that you feel as though you've helped as much as you can, as Ruthless Bunny suggests, and remove yourself from the situation. Your help was not tacit consent to become the family lashing post and if you do it gently you can stand up for yourself without adding to your partner's emotional burden.

And much, much later, when this isn't as fresh, consider having a conversation with your partner about what was going on, both with him and his family, and what you could both do during future times of hardship to see yourself as more of a team unit.
posted by superfluousm at 8:52 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Victoria Hospice has some wonderful brochures with information about grieving and supporting those who are grieving (scroll down to "Bereavement").

Things To Remember When Supporting a Grieving Person (pdf) is probably a good start.
posted by jaguar at 10:08 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

If I was your partner is the type who thinks that love means being there, don't go home.

Especially if he asked you for the time.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:16 AM on April 8, 2014

I was there after my friend's husband died, and so were her parents. Unfortunately, my friend was constantly aggravated by her mom's foibles (she finds them mildly irritating at the best of times). So eventually mom said to her something like this:
"You are my daughter, I love you and I came here (to another country) to support you in your grief. But it feels like you are constantly snapping at me. I understand that you are grieving. I understand. But I came here to support you, and if I am only making you angry, instead, then I would rather leave."

She had tears in her eyes, my friend had tears in her eyes and said, "I don't want you to leave, it's just that you keep doing X, Y and Z, when I need A and B!"
Then there was hugging and crying.

So this is what worked for them. I'm not universally recommending it, just something to think about.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:50 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe it will help you to know how common this is. To add to the anecdotes, my friend told me a story of snapping at her husband after her father's death. Her every nerve was just incredibly raw.
posted by salvia at 2:06 PM on April 8, 2014

It's only for a short time and you can handle anything for a short time.

Don't be needy for yourself. Even when you feel justifiably overlooked and ignored, you musn't expect those who are grieving to set aside thoughts for you. This is just part of "being there" for others when you're needed.

Accept the fact that you're in the background and be comfortable there. You can do all sorts of quiet, calming things without anyone even noticing if you pay attention to little things that need doing. If you maintain a very mature, in-control, helpful and strong attitude, years from now others will speak of how much help you were. The ex won't have any power with your partner if you're the rock he needs.

Bless you for helping and for putting yourself aside to do so.
posted by aryma at 7:35 PM on April 8, 2014

Thanks everyone. Being shouted at has been the hardest as that is a bit triggering for me for other reasons. I still don't feel ok about that but will address that more concretely in a few days time. We just got through the funeral. For anyone thinking of doing it, all staying in a motel together was a terrible idea. I'm driving us home tomorrow but thank you for being some virtual support. I did lean on my friends by text message last night also.
posted by lifethatihavenotlivedyet at 11:16 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just want to validate your feelings: You have been unfairly treated.
Everything about death is nothing so much as unfair. It feels like a punishment disproportionate to anything anyone could possibly deserve. Nothing makes sense anymore if your loved one can die and leave you just like that. Why should anything else matter, your own behaviour included?

So, you know, everyone is a bit crazy right now, and if you feel badly treated it is because they have treated you badly.

I wish you wisdom, backbone and compassion for talking with your partner about this. (Though maybe in a few days is still too soon?)
posted by Omnomnom at 1:01 AM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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