In many ways, the sustained love and support of family and friends can be very helpful following the loss of a loved one. Grief, however, can also cause great strain on relationships. Relationships can include (but are not limited to):
- Family (parents, siblings, children)
- Extended family (e.g. in-laws)
- Work colleagues
There are many issues that we can encounter in our relationships following the loss of someone close, including hurt feelings, arguments, guilt, blaming and shaming, misunderstandings, lack of understanding, intimacy issues and conflicting grieving styles.
“Relationships can be hard work at the best of times,” says Anita Hoare, Regional Specialist Bereavement Counsellor at the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, “but when additional pressure such as the loss of a loved one comes in to play, it can cause extra strain on even the strongest of relationships.”
With time, grief can strengthen a relationship, however for others it can cause deterioration, particularly when there is lack of communication and understanding. “The good news, however,” says Anita, “is that many relationships, over time, can and will survive the impact of grief.”
Different Ways of Grieving
Grief is very individual. Indeed, there are a range of factors that can influence the way we grieve, such as culture, gender, age, relationship to the deceased, personal experience, religion and belief systems. It is quite common for two people in a relationship or for members of the same family to grieve very differently, and this can sometimes cause resentment or misunderstandings. Indeed, our ‘style’ of grieving can often clash with or be misinterpreted by others.
For example, some people are more ‘intuitive’ grievers, experiencing grief in a more outwardly emotional way e.g. by crying, becoming angry, or needing to talk about how they are feeling. Intuitive grievers tend to need emotional and physical support from those around them and are more likely to seek out help from books, counselling or support groups. Some people however, are more ‘instrumental’ grievers, i.e. they tend to be more private with their grief. They may express their grief by keeping busy and through ‘doing’ e.g. working on projects, creating memorials, performing rituals, writing in a journal, lobbying for change or fundraising for a cause. Instrumental grievers may compartmentalise their grief, only acknowledging it or releasing it at certain times — often when they are alone. Instrumental grievers are often misunderstood as ‘not grieving’, especially by people who are more intuitive grievers. Other people find that they are a combination of intuitive and instrumental, or that they grieve intuitively early on, but instrumentally over time. Regardless of the way you, or those around you grieve, it is important to remember that grief is a highly personal and individual experience. Everyone is different and as long as you are not causing harm to yourself or those around you, there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways to grieve. Try to respect each other’s way of grieving, even if you don’t necessarily relate to it or understand it.
Grief and Intimacy
Grief can affect the desire for sex and intimacy. For some, grief can cause a decrease in desire for sex and/or intimacy, whereas for others it can create an increased desire. “Sometimes with partners, our sexual needs and desires may not align, which, whilst normal, can cause misunderstandings, resentment and frustration in a relationship,” says Anita. “If your needs aren’t aligning, then it can be helpful to talk to your partner, a trusted friend, a medical practitioner or health professional.” Another factor that causes sex and intimacy issues when grieving is guilt. Ideally, having sex and being intimate with someone makes us feel good, but sometimes this can leave us feeling guilty, leading to thoughts like “how can I enjoy myself when my loved one has died?” It is perfectly normal to feel this way. Try to keep in mind however, that happiness and sadness can often co-exist and that as well as pleasure, sex and intimacy can also provide comfort and connection.
Seeking out new relationships, whether with a new partner, new friends or even in a new workplace, is common after a death. Significant life events can often lead us to question what is missing in our lives and sometimes we may feel the people in our current relationships don’t understand us or aren’t able to give us what we need. Often people find it difficult to connect with others who may not have shared a similar experience and may find greater solace connecting with or attending a support group for others who have experienced a similar loss, e.g. the death of a parent or the death of a child. This can be a useful way of increasing your network, but keep in mind, that you don’t have to choose between old and new. You can have the best of both — preserving and working on existing relationships whilst forming new ones.
The key to any healthy relationship, regardless of whether it’s with a partner, family member, friend or colleague, is healthy communication. We communicate not just by talking and listening, but also through our actions and body language, tone of voice, touch, and by being understanding. Try to keep in mind that some people find it difficult to talk about their grief and that this is okay. Not everyone is comfortable using words to express feelings, so you may need to try to find other ways that you can communicate with them. “Remember that we all have different ways of expressing grief and also of expressing support,” says Anita. “Writing a letter, doing something thoughtful or helpful, or even simply giving them a hug, are just some examples of how you can show someone that you are there for them and that you care.”
If your grief is affecting your relationships, know that this can be a very natural and normal part of the grieving process, due to the pain being experienced. If it is becoming problematic, however, talking to someone about it, whether it is the person involved, a supportive friend/ family member or a health professional is a good idea. Grief can be a particularly testing time for relationships, but with love, understanding and good communication, your relationships can survive and with time, may even become stronger.
Taken from: The Rosemary Branch