How to Support a Partner Through the Death of a Parent

How to Support a Partner Through the Death of a Parent
Illustration: Vicky Leta

Losing a parent is as close to a universal experience as it gets, but that doesn’t mean any of us are truly prepared. When it happens to your significant other, you might be at a loss for how to help them grieve and cope, but that’s one of your responsibilities as a partner. Here’s how to be there for a partner whose parent has died.

Know that grieving looks different each day

There are “stages” of grief, as identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Self-help books often say some form of the phrase “grief is not linear,” too. Taken together, you can expect all of that to add up to a confusing period of time as your partner moves through those stages, sometimes multiple times per day.

Know that whatever they’re doing and however they’re reacting, it’s normal. There is no single pattern for grief, and their response to a parental death can depend on a number of factors, not all of which you are privy to. Their relationship to that parent as a child, their existing relationship, the manner of death, and their mental state can all play a role.

Even if their grief seems different from how you’d express yours, don’t discredit it. Wake up every day ready to meet them where they are, and support them unconditionally. Ann Sano, a 25-year-old New Yorker whose mother died when she was 13, said, “I still don’t know how to cope with it. I make jokes that are probably uncomfortable for people, but it’s my way of healing.”

If your partner is taking an approach that you find jarring or uncomfortable, maybe joking or seeming detached, remember that there is no wrong way to grieve, and it’s your job to roll with it and be there in case the seemingly unaffected behaviour stops.

Conversely, if your partner is in an “anger” phase, work especially hard not to begrudge them if they lash out at you. If they’re in a “depression” phase, be understanding and don’t try to force them to get back to normal. The normal that they’re used to is gone, and they need to learn to navigate life without that parent no matter what kind of relationship they had, and that takes serious time.

Expect that your partner could be distant for a while, too. Sano told Lifehacker that her mother’s death created a “void” that made her reject help from anyone, including potential boyfriends. She’s in a happy relationship now, she added, but that took time.

What this all boils down to is the fact that you need to be ready to evolve in time with them and you need to be understanding. Express to them that you are doing your best to understand and you know that they’re having a hard time. Make it clear, over and over again, that you’re there for them and you’re on this journey together.

Patience is most important

Sano said her biggest piece of advice for anyone helping a partner through the death of a parent is “be patient.”

“Patience is literally key to being there for someone grieving,” she added. “Sometimes, I just want to sit in a car for hours crying in silence. Sometimes my anxiety takes over. Sometimes I get jealous of seeing others with their mums. All I can say is, ‘Be patient with us.’ We have been through hell and back. We may need a second, minute, hour, or day, but we’ll bounce back, so please be patient with us and understand that we’re only human and we don’t mean to be rude, silent, sad, mad, or whatever we’re feeling.”

Listen to your partner

Your partner might be totally silent about their dead parent, or they might bring them up — a lot. It could seem like the death is all they talk about now. If it is, that’s fine. Try not to let yourself get tired of the topic; your partner is hurting and needs you to listen. Remember that one day, you’ll be in this position, too, and you’ll want someone to listen to you.

“It’s hard to say how a partner can be supportive because it’s not always easy to know what kind of support a person needs when they’re grieving,” cautioned Meaghan McGoldrick, a 30-year-old New Yorker who lost both parents and founded an annual benefit concert, Cancer Can’t Kill Love, in their honour. “Grief is not linear, which makes the support process just as rocky. But the best ways a partner can be there — or at least what works for my partner and I — is to start with listening and feeling. Listen to your partner when they’re having a hard day, or even when they want to just tell a 40-minute story about their loved one that has nothing to do with anything.”

If they express an interest in counseling or say something that triggers alarm bells in your head, don’t dismiss them. This is a very difficult time and they might not be thinking clearly. You have to take on an extra layer of rationality for a while.

Let them cry, too. It might feel natural to jump in and try to snap them out of it, but allowing them to feel and express even their saddest emotions is vital to their healing. Don’t look at every emotional outburst like something that needs to be stopped in its tracks. Sure, if they’re crying, get them some ice cream or give them a hug, but don’t pull out all the stops to make the expression end. They need to let it out.

There might be times when they don’t tell you how they feel. You need to ask. Ask how they’re doing and what they need, both in the immediate aftermath of the death and on days that might be especially difficult, like the first family holiday without the parent or the parent’s birthday. Some people have a hard time asking for what they need, so make that part just a little easier as you remind them that you’re there for them.

Put in work

Following the death of a parent, your partner likely won’t be their regular self. Dishes may pile up. Messages may go unanswered. Demonstrate that you’re by their side by stepping in and alleviating some of that work. Clean up, make and bring them food, and act as a barrier between them and well-meaning but invasive people.

They’re going to get a lot of messages and phone calls. Retelling the story to people at various levels of acquaintanceship or adopting a put-together facade is draining, so intervene when you can, if they seem open to that. You can be a tremendous advocate for them by making sure cliché platitudes and nosy questions don’t get through and the house stays intact while they devote the time they would normally spend to upkeep to grieving, funeral plans, and healing.

“Feel for those signs that maybe they don’t need advice, or a ‘things will get easier.’ Eventually it will get easier to know when they just need an ear and when they need you to stay in the other room while they go through the motions. Sometimes a drink doesn’t hurt,” advised McGoldrick.

The grief doesn’t stop after the funeral flowers and casseroles stop rolling in, either. This will be hard for a long time and the pain will never really go away. As the partner of a grieving person, you’ll always be on duty in some way, so prepare for the long haul.

“Having my boyfriend now during anniversaries, birthdays, or just hard days in general is a big help because we do activities to keep my mind busy,” said Sano. “We make sure we go visit my mum on those special days, too. It warms my heart when he says goodbye to my mum’s stone and kisses it. I guess it gives me a sense of relief and happiness knowing he loves her just as much as me. The days where it randomly gets hard, he and I take those days second by second because me having a void still triggers my anxiety attacks and now he just helps with trying to talk me out of whatever I’m going through in that moment.”

Acknowledge your own grief

Every family situation is different, but it’s not unreasonable to assume you might have been close to that parent, too, and are feeling your own grief. Don’t ignore that sadness, even though it can feel like your partner’s sadness is more valid and deserving of immediate attention. Your pain matters, too, and if you push it away, you’ll struggle to heal and you won’t be as good of a partner as you could be.

Talk about the dead parent with your partner if they seem open to it. Share your own fond memories, maybe of the first time you met or the moment you knew the parent approved of you as a partner for their child. Tell them stories about the parent they might not even know, moments that you and the parent shared without them in the room. You can work on this healing journey together. Don’t discredit your own feelings here.

If you need to cry, whether from the loss or from seeing someone you love so upset, then cry. Being open and honest about your feelings is a better way to honour the deceased than letting their death tear apart your life. You need to be strong to be there for their child, so do right by them by doing that as best as you can.

Log in to comment on this story!