Doing Grief… Together

Grief seeps into the cracks that already exist in a relationship and has equal capacity to break it wide open or to seal and strengthen it.

13976266899_748e50435e_oWe’ve all heard the hordes of experts tell us there is no “right” way to experience grief. It is not something at which you can “win” or “lose.” And when you are grieving on your own, as an individual, this truth might be a little easier to believe in. But, when you are grieving as a couple, this concept can feel more elusive. A couple who is grieving a shared loss or trauma, the death of a pet or a person close to them or even a shared child, will be very tempted to expect that their grief will look similar or march to the same timeline. But because grief tends to layer itself onto our old losses and onto our personal history, it will affect each of us differently and individual reactions can vary greatly. It can be quite challenging for a couple to seek out the commonalities and simply attempt to understand the other person’s journey, rather than focus on the differences, judge them or try to assign meaning to their behaviors.

If I could go back in time and say something to myself and my husband as we were launched on a grief journey together – something I wish we had heard from one of the therapists we met with – I think it would be this:

“As you navigate this loss together, seek UNDERSTANDING and seek CONNECTION. Do not waste precious energy comparing yourselves, looking for solutions or even relief.”

In the months following the death of our son, I very clearly remember thinking, “He never cries. He doesn’t seem sad enough. He just went right back to work. I can’t seem to get out of bed. What’s wrong with him? Or wrong with me?.” In the years since, sitting with the newly-bereaved in my office and in support groups, I’ve heard a thousand variations on this same circumstance. It is so tempting to make our own meaning of the behavior we see in others who are sharing in or witnessing our experience, but it is rarely helpful. Over and over again I see that when couples can maintain a position of curiosity about what grief looks like for the other person, they are more likely to maintain connection and avoid feeling isolated or wrong.  

18740589874_d93e10561d_oWhen I finally spoke up and asked my husband about his own ways of coping he explained to me, “Of course I am sad. I cry in my car, alone. When I’m with you, I feel like I should be pulled together so you don’t have to be. I’m tired of feeling helpless…what happened to us feels so far out of my control. Going to work makes me feel less helpless. It makes me feel like I am doing something productive, shielding you from having to go yourself… it lets me feel like I have some control over something again. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not also very, very sad.”

I was able to tell him that I was tired of feeling so lonely in our ocean of sadness and that while I greatly appreciated everything he was doing for us – things that seemed to demonstrate his obviously-miraculous abilities – I needed to see the falling-apart parts, too.  Maybe he could save a little bit of his grief to do with me at home instead of always protecting me from it?

We discovered that even though we were walking through our loss in very different ways, we could still find places to intersect and overlap and we could seek to understand each other’s journey as a way to stay connected and a little less lonely in the maelstrom.

30810876940_2d54a02360_oI listen to grieving hearts and give permission for these kinds of things all the time:

Go back to work. Or don’t get out of bed.

Talk to everyone all the time. Or refuse to answer your phone or door.

Cry and wail and rant like it will never stop. Or take deep breaths and seem stoically resigned.

Go ahead, be angry.

Yes, be peaceful.

Submerge yourself in your faith…it’s there for you.

Turn completely away from your faith…it won’t go anywhere.

Read every book and blog you can get your hands on.

Or read absolutely nothing because it is all too sad.

Find a support group.  Or find a therapist. Or talk to your dog.

Feel grateful for your family and friends.

Or feel smothered and misunderstood by your family and friends.

Believe that in six more weeks you’ll certainly be “better.”

Believe that forever is not long enough to ever be “better.”

When I sit with couples who are grieving, I try to help maintain a focus on how understood they each feel and on how to create opportunities for increased connection and communication. We try to steer away from the tempting distractions that sound like: “How long will this last?” “When will we be back to normal?” “How can I make him less sad?” “Why can’t she just do what I do?” (For the record, the very unpopular answers to those popular questions are: “As long as you need it to.” “That old normal probably doesn’t exist anymore. You’ll have to find a new one.” “You can’t.” and “She’s doing this the way she needs to and that’s OK.”)

It is true. There is no “right” or “wrong” way… there are as many paths through grief as people who must walk them. And when you are walking alongside someone else, chances are very good their path is going to look different.

9236863164_3ef11621f0_oHere are some of the ways I’ve encountered over the years that couples use to increase their understanding, connection and communication:

The Grief Check-In

When grief is acute and new, this is probably a daily occurrence. (John Gottman’s research, 2000, demonstrated that a regular check-in is a fundamental presence in the healthiest relationships. When a couple is grieving its importance is even greater.) Whatever the frequency of it, it is crucial for couples to make time to communicate about how they are feeling – not just in general, but today, right now. These check-ins often sound like:

“I had a pretty good morning, but then a song came on the radio that caught me off-guard – it was pretty rough after that.” or “I didn’t think I would be able to get up this morning, but I had an unexpected call from my sister and it really lifted my spirits. I even made it to the grocery store.”

And as grief becomes less acute:

“This week has been OK overall. I’m still having some trouble sleeping and I got angry over some really small things…but I think I’m mostly OK.” or “I’ve been feeling really sad again lately – her birthday is coming up and I’m anticipating how hard that is going to be.”

People often ask, “But won’t it feel weird or intrusive to ask “How are you?” when we already know they are obviously incredibly sad?” These check-ins are meant to go beyond the generic “how are you” and get to more sincere “how were you today, really?” or “what’s been good or hard about this particular week?” Couples often make the mistake of assuming that because we already know the other person is sad, we don’t need to keep asking and learning about it. Grief is incredibly dynamic and complex. People are usually shocked at how complicated and multi-layered it can be; there is probably always some new twist to notice or talk about. It has never been too long to check in and ask the question, “What does that loss feel like now?” even after it’s been years.

19175539158_0f4c81beef_oShared Action

It is very common for bereaved people to want TO DO something. Grief can propel people into action, service, and any number of memorial activities. When a couple can come up with their own way to join together in an activity that expresses their grief or helps create meaning for their experience, their connection can be immensely improved. This is sometimes a challenging endeavor, naturally, not every activity will be appealing or feel right for everyone. Not every grief-related activity we participate in must be shared, of course, but it is helpful when a couple can find at least one or two that can be. Couples who do this will nearly always report much less loneliness (which, second only to sadness, is the most commonly-reported emotion in my experience in grief support groups.)

Over the years I’ve heard so many ideas for shared grief activities: family gatherings on birthdays/deathdays, ritual visits to cemeteries, baking their loved one’s favorite dessert or meal, doing charity work/volunteer service in their loved one’s honor, a trip to Africa to dig a water well, a backyard memorial garden that is added to each year, creation of a scholarship, artwork and photo memorials, activism campaigns and legislation, annual trips or dove/butterfly/balloon/lantern releases… there are Pinterest boards full of ideas for how to connect with partners as part of a grief journey. And a side benefit for couples who create a repetitive or annual ritual is that the loss conversation doesn’t feel like it has to come to an end. This is one of the healthiest integrations of grief: the idea that we don’t have to “move on” or decide when it is “over,” but rather that it will be an on-going part of a couple’s life together.

In my own family’s experience, the differences were clear: I was much more open with our loss and would talk to nearly anyone who made the mistake of asking one too many questions. My husband, on the other hand, discussed it with virtually no one outside of family and never felt compelled to attend a group meeting. My mother cried readily and talked to friends and made a scrapbook while my father silently dug a giant hole, alone, by hand, so he could plant a tree. However, when it comes to our son’s birthday, my family is united in a whole day spent doing acts of kindness in his honor. And now, thirteen years in, I feel incredibly connected every year on that day – a day that once held so much potential for disengaged isolation.  

22251661352_04347dda96_oSelf-Care

And finally, another suggestion that helps couples stay connected while they grieve is attending to self-care and supporting that of your partner. Grief takes an astonishing physical toll on most. Commonly reported symptoms are headaches, fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, muscles aches and shortness of breath. Whatever self-care routines might have been in place before the loss will most certainly be put to the test and, generally, people have to expand their coping abilities and include new tools. It is recommended to take a break from the work of grief and tend to your body and your soul and help your partner tend to theirs. Everyone must find what works best for them, and ideally, some of the self-care routines can also be shared: take a walk together, exercise, get as much sleep as possible, nourish yourselves with good food, spend time with loved ones, meditate, pray, have sex, take a trip or a long drive, get lost in your favorite music, take a technology break, go dancing, have a spa day, go see a show, do yoga, sit in the sunshine in a park, help someone else, spend time with your pet…and it is important to remember that when you feel like you can laugh again, do it. It’s OK. It’s good for you.  

I still remember the first time we really came up for air and did something that looked like self-care together. It was May in Seattle – and the sun was making a glorious reappearance. On a whim, we accepted an invitation to go out with another couple we hardly knew. It was such a relief to be around people who didn’t automatically think of us as the saddest people they knew. We ate at a new restaurant in the open air where the drinks had disclaimers. We saw a rowdy live band who drank Texas beer in a smoky dive. And we laughed. Real laughter. We believed, maybe for the first time, that we were going to survive this – together.

So, if John Green is right and “grief does not change you, (but rather) it reveals you” then as a grieving couple we don’t have to fear the immense damage that loss can bring. We can, in fact, find ways to use the opportunity to deepen our relationship, create new layers in our intimacy and allow the experience to strengthen our bonds. And we can do it together.

DIY Marriage Retreat

Anyone who tells you marriage “shouldn’t be a lot of work” is wrong. Period.

I’m not saying that marriage isn’t also glorious and fun and breath-taking and deeply meaningful… but, it is also always requiring work of the people who are in it. Always.

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About 15 years ago my husband and I got a smidge more intentional about what some of that work looked like. This is what has (mostly) worked for us – it’s not for everyone, of course – but I’ve had multiple requests from friends and clients alike for an explanation of what exactly we do each year. So, here you go… a DIY marriage retreat!

(Oh, first, you should probably know, my husband and I are complete opposites. Totally. Like everything. Our personalities occupy the opposite ends of whatever spectrum you are talking about. Introvert/Extrovert. Scheduled/Spontaneous. Focus/Attention-Deficit Monster. Quiet intellectualizer/Out-loud, brainstorming collaborator. Prefers to sail, invisible, under the radar/Thrives on having center stage. I could go on and on… you get the idea. My point is that when it came time for us to come up with some kind of regular marriage summit, it felt like a tall order. If you and yours are more alike, this might be a little easier.)

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LOCATION:

In keeping with our personality differences, we have settled on a blend of structure and fluidity which usually looks like, first, finding some removed location for a weekend escape.

I’m not talking about requiring a long weekend in Maui here. (Though, that would be pretty great.) You don’t need to break the bank. We’ve stayed in a secluded, rustic cabin several times. A couple of occasions early on in our marriage, when we couldn’t seem to make the overnight part work out like we wanted, we took a drive and spent a whole day at a park or campground. We’ve talked through things in swanky hotel lobbies and at funky, fun patio bars and around expertly-built campfires. We’ve also holed up for weekends in luxurious suites and fabulous (borrowed) lake houses. Once we were in London. It doesn’t really matter as long as it feels different from your “regular life.” Away from chores and responsibilities. Away from all the things that might distract from just being present with each other.

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(And since we have had kids, it is definitely a kid-free weekend. Another thing that is critical to maintaining the couple relationship over the parent relationship is periodic kid-free time. It’s hard, I know. Family isn’t always an option. Nannies can be expensive. Maybe trade-off with another family? Strategically schedule sleep-overs? Get creative… but, figure it out. It is important.) 

Once you’ve settled on where and when, you want to spend a little time thinking about your agenda and important topics. This can obviously vary from year to year, but we do have some recurring topics that we try to revisit each time.

OUTLINE: 

This is the general outline (in bold) of annual elements we use and we add in relevant issues as they come up. For instance, in the years in which I was pregnant we had a “baby prep” topic and in the years we were moving, we had big discussions related to finances and planning, etc. But the following things generally get thought about and talked over each year:

 1. Big-Picture Vision (5 years, 10 years, 20 years)

Five years from now: 2022, Ages: 50 & 49; Kids 16, 13

        Ten years from now: 2027, Ages: 55 & 54; Kids 21, 18

        Twenty years from now: 2037, Ages: 65 & 64; Kids 31, 28

This is a chance to sit back and dream a little… what do we wish for? When we imagine our future and what it would be like to feel content and fulfilled, what does that look like? What might our kids be doing? How will we spend our time? What will our careers look like? Where will we live? What will our hobbies be? What legacy are we building?  Drs. John and Julie Gottman have extensive research on the most important principles present in successful, long-term relationships and “shared vision & meaning” and “making life dreams come true” are critical parts of the puzzle. This piece of the conversation gives a chance to document that… to track the accomplishments, the changes in direction… to laugh at previous naïveté and, best of all, celebrate successes.

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We have been doing this long enough now, I can look back and see what we predicted for 5 and 10 years into the future because we are there now. It is pretty cool to say, “Hey! We did that!” And also, “Oh my goodness, why on earth did we think that sounded like a good idea?!” This is where you make space to talk about things you might not have the space to talk about in the everyday grind of work, laundry, sports, kids, meetings, church, etc. If you don’t often sit back and dream about your family goals, career aspirations, bucket lists, or visions of the future, you might be surprised what you discover. Over the years, this portion of the retreat has contained silliness like: let’s sell everything and travel the world and homeschool… I really want to retire to a sailboat so our kids can never find us… maybe we should buy land and get off the grid before we retire… if Whitman travels the world instead of going to college, will we go with him? But it has also contained more surprising conversations like: I think I’m letting go of that dream because I feel like I’ve outgrown it… I feel really called to open our home to foster children, can we talk about that?… Please go back to school already… and also I’m going to shut down the non-profit and I feel awful about it…, etc.

As a therapist, I have heard way too many people say, “I just never thought about it, we never talked about it and now it’s too late.” This part of the conversation feels like my attempt at avoiding that, I think.

2. NOW Goals – what’s next?

Jobs

Kids/Family

House

Health/Exercise/Spirit

Section 2 is about immediate goals in the coming 12 months. What needs to happen or change in the next 12 months? It is a chance to share personal goals and ask for support and also to collaborate on shared goals. I happen to be married to someone who does not really talk a lot about his job. I mean, I generally know what he does. I know one or two of the people with whom he works but, mostly, his work life is very separate from his home life. That’s how he likes it. So, I like having this time to get “caught up” on his big-picture career and he likes limiting how often he talks about work. 🙂

We also talk about immediate parent adjustments here – what’s working? What’s not? What are we worried about? What needs to change? How can we have more fun? Some really great moments and relief and ideas have come from this part of our annual conversation. For me, as the parent who is at home with the kids slightly more than he is, parenting often gets relegated to feeling like just “the grind” part. I can easily get bogged down in the homework/bedtime/mealtime/laundry routines and lose sight of the bigger picture. This piece always feels like my chance to really pull back and take in the immensity of what we are doing – raising humans – and regain a little perspective on what is most important.

We live in a big ol’ fun fixer-upper (that I dream of Chip and Jojo coming to finish for us!) and so there is always a list of things that need to be taken care of and budgeted for. This year we mapped out the back patio remodel and decided to redo all the siding and paint the exterior.  Last year we were dealing with some repairs, a new roof and new garage doors. You get the idea.

And lastly in the NOW Goals is the part that feels the most like “resolutions,” I think. This is the part where we decide to go paleo again…or go back to signing up for races…or keep doing what we are doing, but with less sugar. 😉 We also decide to leave and join churches, decide on LifeGroups and mission trips and how to incorporate family meditation time. It is ultimately an opportunity to reflect on the overall health of our wellness and spirituality, brainstorm and tend to the parts that need it…and share those things so we can have support.

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Sometimes we let Sarge come with us! 🙂

     3. Money – Priorities and Plan

This might be the part of the retreat where you break out the cocktails, if you haven’t already. Early in our marriage we fought about finances a lot and subsequently got in a bad habit of not really talking about them very often in order to avoid the conflict. In our relationship, I’m the CFO and as long as everything is humming along, we usually opt not to talk about money. So, this is our chance to make adjustments, alter the budget, change investment choices, make saving goals for vacations or projects, etc. and get as much of it out of the way in one swoop as possible. We have some brief financial check-ins through the year, but the bulk of our discussions, the tedium of budget adjustments, tax decisions, and big picture changes happen here. (If you are one of the 27% of couples who do NOT argue about finances – maybe you get to skip this one altogether!)

     4. Relationship Stuff

That’s a very technical term there – “relationship stuff.” Again, my therapist experience informs this section as well. I continue to be surprised when people sit in my office and say, “I never knew she felt that way” or “I am totally blindsided by this.” Part of me gets it – with jobs and kids and crazy schedules it is easy to get disconnected and be so busy and distracted that you never make the time to talk about it… so: THIS is that time. A chance to ask “do we like each other these days?” “What’s really working? What’s not?” “How can it be better? More fun?” (The “more fun” questions are always his.)

Ideally, this section of the retreat is a chance to really connect and feel reaffirmed in the relationship…a way to take advantage of a slower pace and remember some of the things that brought you together in the first place. I know that most couples don’t always say all the things on their minds in the day-to-day interactions of everyday life…this is that opportunity. In past years we have used some of Gottman’s relationship tools for this (like this Love Map 20-Question game) and also had conversations about our Strengthsfinder results and Myers-Briggs. I know, dorky therapist fun…but, you have to keep learning about each other!

For the “Keepin’ It Real” file: This section has also shut down our retreat on more than one occasion. One of those bumpy years we literally spent this whole agenda item figuring out how to get a divorce. (We didn’t.) But I say that to simply warn: Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be years that are just harder than others and that’s OK. If this section feels overwhelming or devastating… use that as your indication it might be time to get some help. We’ve been in therapy twice in our 26 years together… so, get support if you need it.  

     5. Action Items

This section is totally just for me.  I like to make lists. Lots of lists. I just needed a place in the agenda to make a list. So here’s where I gather up all the great things we just decided to do… and put them in a big, beautiful list. (And I might print it out once we get home and tape it to the bathroom mirror. Maybe.)

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 6. Bucket Fillers

Any heavy lifting should be done by this time, so refresh your drinks and make way for more light and fun. There may have been some tough conversations on this day. Or not. You might really need this good note to finish on. Or not. Regardless, what we know from research is that it is important to maintain a healthy positivity ratio in our primary relationships. One way to work on that ratio is to use “bucket-fillers” made famous in several books in the 2000s. What might you take for granted and not compliment often enough? Now’s your chance to speak up and fix that. What thing do you appreciate or always notice about your partner but never say anything about? From the silly to the serious, the importance of this part of the retreat can’t be understated. I still remember, word for word, some of the things we’ve said due to this prompt. Even now, as I think about them, I know there was a time early in our relationship when I couldn’t have dreamed we’d ever get so busy or disconnected that we wouldn’t say those things to one another anymore – but it happens. We’ve detailed for one another what makes the other the absolute best parent for our kids…talked through the things we are most proud of about each other… recalled favorite gifts or special occasions… shared gratitude for extended family and in-laws… complimented cooking and handyman abilities, among other kinds of skills 😉 … and praised some of the day-in-day-out-grind endurance that often gets overlooked. And a million other little things that somehow feel much bigger when it’s just the two of you, sitting around a fire, basking in an intentional positivity celebration.

And then toast yourselves for making your relationship a priority and giving it the attention it deserves! I promise, you won’t regret it.   (And don’t forget to save your notes so you can look back and celebrate success, feel proud of growth and laugh at yourselves, too.) 

Here’s some additional resources for those of you who are going to try it for yourselves:

 

*final disclaimer…. if your relationship is in serious distress – maybe there is already talk of separating or worse, or there is no talk at all – I do NOT recommend trying a structured DIY retreat as a solution. These retreats are meant to be preventative and growth-focused, rather than a crisis-response. If your relationship really needs support – get it. Find a facilitated retreat or a therapist or a support group… no need to DIY. Ask for help.