The way two people in a relationship deal with grief can sometimes differ and this can put additional strain on a relationship when a couple face bereavement together. By understanding these differences, you can begin to achieve balance both with your partner and within yourself.

Grief is solitary. Even when you are grieving for the same person, each person is managing their grief independently. If you are in a couple, you may find it difficult to communicate with your partner, to express your feelings and to understand each other’s responses.

Each person will be impacted by grief in a different way, depending on the relationship that you had with the person who died, your personality, culture, and upbringing.

How can couples differ in the way they grieve? 

When we are grieving, we can sometimes be ‘loss-oriented’, feeling the pain of our grief and focusing on how much we are missing the person who has died. At other times, we may be ‘restoration-oriented’, distracting ourselves from our grief and giving our attention to practical tasks. This is normal, and most people will move between these two types of grieving.  

In a relationship, you may find that one of you is in the loss-oriented phase while the other is in the restoration-oriented phase. One partner may be very much concerned with their feelings and want to focus on their loss by remembering; for instance wanting to look at photographs and to talk about their child. They may have a need to express and share their emotions, to cry and to be sad.

My partner cannot talk about our child or look at photos. I want to and need to.

In contrast, the other partner may wish to try to return to a sense of normality as soon as possible. They may want to look to the future, plan and move forward, or distract themselves with work or other activities. This response may be misinterpreted by the other as uncaring towards both their partner and the person who has died.

Visit our resource for more on how we grieve. 

We reacted so differently that I thought I had lost her too.

How can a couple understand the differences in the way they grieve?

Given how different these responses can be, there is potential for misunderstanding, hurt and resentment, and each partner often needs help in understanding things from the other’s perspective and the fact that you are both grieving but expressing it in different ways.

Those who are loss-oriented may need support to start looking to the future and away from the intensity of their pain, and those who are restoration-oriented may need support in facing and exploring their painful feelings.

These different responses mirror how we grieve as individuals. We move between focusing on the person who has died, our need to express our emotions and grieve, and our desire to find respite from grieving. Children naturally shift between the two, generally moving in and out of their feelings with much more fluidity than adults.

How can a bereaved couple communicate effectively?

There is little doubt that the key to a relationship successfully surviving the enormity of the death of their baby or child is to keep talking. This holds true whether only one of you is grieving, or both of you. It helps to try not to evaluate or judge what the other person is saying or doing, but instead to try to acknowledge that no two people grieve in the same way, and that it does not mean one of you loves the other or your child any less. In time, by understanding and being understood, you can increase the depth of your relationship. Set aside time to talk to each other when you will not be disturbed. You do not need a huge amount of time, but it can be helpful to create regular slots when you can talk and listen to each other.

How can a couple support one another? 

There are no rules about who does what most effectively. Sometimes one partner handles the practical arrangements after the death, or it may help to share roles so that neither of you feels overburdened. If you are happy defining distinct roles it can be helpful to spend time letting each other know what you are doing, and how you are feeling about it. When you are both grieving, it can be particularly difficult to find the emotional resources to help each other because you are tied up with just getting yourself through the day. Recognise this and try to be realistic in your expectations of yourself and your partner. Over time, couples can work together to support each other.

I cannot imagine these years without my husband's support. He has held me and the children up... and when he just couldn't do it any longer, I found I was able to take over for a while.

How can a bereaved couple manage intimacy?

Some couples seek comfort in getting close physically, either through making love or just holding each other. Others may find it hard to bear any physical contact at all. Difficulties can arise when needs are different. One partner may try to show their love for their partner through sex. The other may find this insensitive. This can lead to feelings of rejection, and the further withholding of physical contact. If this isn’t talked about, it can lead to the couple growing further apart as they become more isolated from, and resentful towards each other.

Getting support

The couples’ counselling with Mark saved our marriage. I never ever thought that Mark would go to counselling. How very wrong was I. Don’t judge, give it a try and you never know, it could save your life just like it saved mine, and saved our marriage.

Dawn, who was supported with her husband after the death of their four-year-old son Henry from cancer.

Bereavement support can offer you time as a couple, with someone whose job it is to listen and who has the training and experience to begin to help you share with, and understand each other.

We offer face-to-face and telephone support for bereaved parents, couples and families. For more on how we can support you or for information and guidance, call our Helpline on 0800 02 888 40.

Hear from other families about their experience of grieving differently when their baby or child died

Visit our page: How we can support you for more on our services.

You can also call our Helpline 0800 02 888 40, email [email protected], or use Live Chat on our website.