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The bad news kept coming. First, Greta's nephew developed COVID-19 symptoms, although he tested negative; he recovered fully after a week and a half but learned soon afterward he was being furloughed from his job as a carpenter. Then she and her husband, Henry, learned that his high school buddy was in the hospital because of the virus. Now they'd learned that two of their neighbors were also sick. Greta and Henry felt physically safe in their house but emotionally discontented. Sadness and apprehension weighed on them. They couldn't bring themselves to talk about their emotions but, instead, avoided them by busying themselves with home projects and withdrawing from one another. In a kind of conspiracy of silence, they didn't want to upset each other by expressing out loud what each was feeling.
Couples manage many things together, including households, meals, finances, child-rearing and caring for aging parents. Between them, they also set a family's style of handling emotions. Some are perpetually gloomy; others determinedly upbeat. Some are tight-lipped stoics; others red-faced yellers. No one style is correct for every situation; all have their pros and cons.
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But in an unfolding pandemic when more of us are experiencing losses — of people, jobs, economic security, our sense of safety, and freedom of movement in the world — how spouses manage grief matters more than ever for the health of their partnerships and their individual well-being. Is it better to think about losses and express mourning or keep our heads down and push on? Should we share our feelings or keep them to ourselves?
According to most psychologists, sharing sadness doesn't harm us or our significant relationships. To the contrary, it can bolster the mutual support and sense of togetherness that bring out the best in each other during a crisis. How can couples cope with coronavirus grief in a way that will strengthen their relationships? Here are some ideas:
Feel your feelings
There is no shame in grieving when a major loss occurs. (No, men aren't letting down themselves or their families or wallowing in self-pity if they choke up or even cry.) Grief naturally brings sadness, decreased ability to concentrate and sometimes anger. Viewed from an evolutionary standpoint, the inborn capacity for grief has helped sustain us as a species because it reinforces the importance of relationships to our survival. If you let yourself feel bereavement's sadness, then you will more fully cherish what you had and savor the important people, pets, livelihoods and activities still part of your life.