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How do you support someone’s loss when you’ve never experienced it?


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Hello, I’m new here. My boyfriend's mother died somewhat suddenly on may 26, 2021. She was 72 so fairly young. She’d been sick a few weeks and had a heart attack after she finally went to the hospital. She survived that and had a stint put in, but 8 days later collapsed due to fluid around her heart, and they weren’t able to save her. 

My boyfriend was pretty close with his mother but we live in Maine and she lived in NY state, 6 hours away, so he didn’t see her incredibly often. He’s 43 and has one younger brother, no children. This loss has devastated him. He has completely withdrawn from me, is drinking and smoking so so much, he’s having to take care of all of her belongings (with his brother but he seems to be the main person) and he’s constantly overwhelmed and as he puts it “in crisis mode”.  I’ve been telling him I’m here for him in whatever way he needs and trying to give him space, but I’m honestly worried. He’s cancelled plans we had made months ago and hardly communicates.
 

I want to be there in the way he needs, but I’m also trying to muddle through this loss from my perspective. I’m 37 and I’ve never had anyone close to me die, so I’m flying blind here. Both for my own grief and how to support him. I never got the chance to meet his mother due to the distance and covid and I have so much sadness over that. I want to be able to talk to him about her, to learn about her and know her through him and through stories, but he can’t right now. So I’m left to my pain by myself and I feel like I’m drowning in it. Both for the loss of what could’ve been with his mother, but also for what feels like the loss of my relationship. It’s like everything just stopped one day and I want to get it back, but I have no idea how to. 
 

I hope this makes sense and I hope I’m not being selfish or stupid with this. Thank you for taking the time to read it. 

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Many are unable to do a relationship when they're grieving.  It's not personal, it's not that we said or did anything wrong, it's not about us.  We cannot control the outcome because it's up to him, how he deals with it.  The worst thing you can do is complain to him or put pressure on him, but even if you're a saint, it could still end all the same.  It may not be possible to have the pre-loss person back, time will tell.  It is not selfish of you, but there is a disconnect as you are both focused on different things, naturally.  

Grief Process
Helping Another in Grief
Help Partner Through Grief
What to Say (Or Not) to A Person in Grief
What to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving
Words of Comfort
Words to Avoid

 

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I’m so sorry to hear of this loss, for you and your boyfriend. I lost my dad, 73, suddenly and unexpectedly on May 13th and I will tell you it flips your life upside down and for me the grief process has been confusing, scary, unpredictable, and truly all consuming. To kayc’s point, being in a relationship during this tornado of emotions is challenging, or at least is has been for me, because I’m trying to grieve and make sense of this new world and its hard to participate in my marriage at the same time. My husband has been supportive, has shown up, listened to my grief outbursts and comforted me, but I have to tell you that I’d rather be alone right now, or with my immediate family only. It’s not personal, and he’s doing all the right things, but that’s just how I feel. He just didn’t know my dad like I did and isn’t going through this process. It feels very lonely. All regular life stuff seems like a chore and a burden, and I get easily irritated or annoyed with my husband when he is just trying to plan the day or engage me in conversation. (Again, my experience, not everyone’s, but I think there’s some universality to these feelings.) We have been through rough patches before and I know we’ll get through this, but I can very easily see how a loss like this could end a relationship or marriage, or greatly alter it. I agree with kayc that you can’t bring this up with him because it would just add more stress and that’s just not fair or kind. He is probably not thinking of the future, or your grief experience—that’s not his responsibility right now. Likely he is just trying to get through each day, each hour, each minute without absolutely losing it. My advice? Keep the space but be there if and when he needs you, and get back to him right away if he calls/texts when you’re not home. If he wants to talk about her, listen attentively, but don’t bring her up yourself. Don’t post about her or any of this on social media (not that you would even think to do this, just general advice). Listen to it all and if you don’t know the right thing to say, that’s okay. It’s okay to not know how to handle these feelings, but you can tell him it’s normal to feel these things, okay to feel these things. It should get less intense. Be there with a hug or to hold his hand if it seems appropriate but don’t expect/initiate intimacy. Make meals and keep the pantry full, without asking. If he’s truly drinking an unsafe amount, or driving drunk that’s one thing, but substance use during grief is common as a way to dull the pain of loss. Not saying it’s great or healthy, but it’s not unexpected. Try to let what’s happening happen, you will both get through it. I don’t think you’re being selfish to stupid by the way, you are also trying to sense out of it all. I think at some point it will become clear that your relationship is or isn’t going to make it, and you will have to cross that bridge when you come to it. Good luck to you both. My heart goes out to him and I hope he finds a moment or two of peace or happiness today. 

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Thank you both for your replies, I do find them very helpful as a window into this process. We do not live together so I don’t know how he is doing, really. He has shut me out of his life. I can understand why after reading your response, but it makes it very difficult to wonder and worry about him from afar. I don’t know if I should call or text or just leave him alone to reach out to me. I don’t know if I should ever go check on him if I don’t hear from him… after 1 day… after 5? 
He was driving after drinking a small amount when I was in NY for the funeral but I don’t know about at home. I don’t know if he’s even working. It’s difficult but I’m trying my best to balance care/support and distance. 
 

 Thank you both again, I’m so sorry for your losses. 

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You might also read some of the other threads in this section.  Not everyone shuts their partner out in grief but enough do to call it one of the classic responses one can have.  That he has shut you out already doesn't look promising though.  If he asks for space, it's important to respect that.  If you're looking for a formula to save this relationship, that may not be in your control though.  It's kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation.  :(  You may have to go no contact if he issues a complete break.  Remember to focus on yourself and keep yourself healthy, spend time with family/friends, work on yourself, keep busy.  

I'm so sorry.  I know it hurts, it stinks.  It's not personal, but it FEELS it and can be so hard to go through.  Been there.  My fiance of a year broke off with me when his mom was dying...one week he was going to spend his life with me, loved me, the next he was gone.  11 years later he has his XW living with him the last three years and they're a chummy family, doing everything together.  

 

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