Coronavirus: Helping your spouse grieve lossWritten by Dr. Greg Smalley
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This article is part of our series providing help for families during COVID-19. Find more related articles and resources here.
As we face the coronavirus pandemic, one hidden consequence is loss.
We all experience loss and need to grieve loss. There are obvious losses, like the death of a loved one, a miscarriage, the loss of a job, divorce or the loss of a treasured object. But loss can also be inconspicuous: the loss of innocence, identity, joy, independence, social interaction, routine, hobbies and financial resources. The list doesn’t end there. Being denied the ability to travel, to eat out and to feel in control (even when that’s an illusion) are also losses.
One major area of loss that many people are facing is the loss of income: Some people have lost their job or had their work hours reduced.
All of these situations result in a loss of something valuable in our lives. Even if we have been able to anticipate the loss, it can still have a powerful effect on us. The scarcity of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, ground beef and other necessities creates fear and panic. Again, this creates an intangible loss of safety and security.
Whenever we experience loss, we suffer a blow and are thrown off balance. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief is likely to be. We then become vulnerable to getting stuck in the grief process. Depression and anxiety can take over our lives. We need to grieve to restore the balance. And this is where a husband or wife can provide healing and balance for a grieving spouse.
Empathize with your spouse’s pain as they grieve
Make your goal to care – at the deepest emotional level – how the coronavirus is affecting your spouse. Sympathy is when you feel bad for your spouse: “I’m so sorry that you lost your job.” Empathy is feeling bad with your spouse, connecting with your spouse’s broken heart: “I can only imagine how devastated and overwhelmed you must feel right now to have lost your job. I have no idea what to say but I’m so glad you told me. We’ll walk this out together.”
President Teddy Roosevelt is most commonly credited with first saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Don’t allow your own fear and uncertainty to stand in the way of deeply connecting with your spouse’s pain. They need your “care” before they need your solutions. Avoid using phrases like “at least” as a way of placing a silver lining around the loss: “At least we have some savings.” or “At least you don’t have the coronavirus.” or “At least they gave you severance pay. You have plenty of time to find a new job.”
Resist the urge to problem-solve before you empathize with your spouse’s pain. Problem-solving or trying to fix the problem usually leads to relationship disconnect. Hearts, however, can be connected when you spend time caring and empathizing with your spouse’s feelings during a loss.
Caring also means that you allow your spouse’s heart to hurt in a way that’s unique to him or her. Give your spouse a safe place to share their story and emotions. Be patient and accepting of their perspective and experience. It seldom helps to use phrases like “God’s in control,” “Maybe it was for the best” or “You’ll get over it in time.” Clichés usually reveal your own fear and insecurity. Besides, these words sound judgmental or marginalizing, and your spouse will probably react negatively or shut down.
After experiencing a loss, some people become angry and need to verbalize their frustration. Avoid judging how your spouse might express his or her pain. Resist telling them how they should feel or what they should do. Don’t take your spouse’s feelings personally. However, it’s never OK for anyone to express their feelings at your expense. If that happens, gently say, “I love you and I really want to hear how you feel, but it can’t be at my expense. If you’re willing to do this differently, I’d love to listen and better understand how you’re feeling.”
At other times, people may shut down or go silent. If your spouse doesn’t want to talk about the loss, give him or her some space to internally process how they’re feeling. Let your spouse know that you care. You could say something like, “I would love to better understand what you’re going through and how you’re feeling. Let me know when you’re ready to talk.”
Help carry their burden
In addition to empathizing with your spouse, you can also look for practical ways to help carry their burden. Galatians 6:5 says, “each one should carry their own load.” The Greek word for load means “cargo.” This is a “light” problem – like a backpack – and the individual must carry it. We’re fully capable of carrying our own load, and these personal burdens cannot be transferred or shifted to someone else.
Contrast the personal responsibility of carrying our own load to the directive given in Galatians 6:2 where we are told to “Carry each other’s burden.” The Greek word for burden here means something that is “heavy” or is too much for one person to bear alone. Whereas a load is like a backpack, a burden is like trying to carry a huge steamer trunk on your shoulders.
The Apostle Paul is saying that we shouldn’t allow a person to be crushed under the excessive weight of their burdens. We should help our spouse when they’re going through something too big to bear. Practically, this may look like taking on his or her household chores or child care responsibilities, giving him or her plenty of grace and extra patience, running interference with well-meaning people who want to visit or hear about what happened, or encouraging him or her to spend extra time with a hobby or good friend. If you’re not sure how to assist your spouse during the grieving process, ask, “As you’re grieving the loss of your job, how can I best support you?”
Another part of carrying someone’s burden is to encourage professional help. A registered counsellor that specializes in grief, trauma or major life transitions can be incredibly helpful in the grieving process. If you would like to speak to one of our counsellors for a complimentary one-time phone counselling consultation, call us at 1.800.661.9800 Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books, including Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage.
© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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