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Grief for Two: How Spouses Can Mourn COVID-19 Losses Together

Sharing sadness and worry can help build a stronger relationship

spinner image Woman with her hand on her husband's shoulder, comforting him as he grieves
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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.

Look toward your spouse

Commiserating about deeply felt sadness doesn't usually repel spouses from one another. The comfort they provide each other by listening and accurately empathizing generally pulls them closer. By grieving together, they shore each other up and make the days, weeks and potentially months of mourning more bearable — perhaps even shortening them. They also assure one another that they are and will be there for each other through trying times at any crisis point in the family's life.

Use and create rituals

Religions and cultures have grieving rituals — including wakes, masses, special foods, “sitting shiva,” graveside rites and memorial services — for a reason: They are community-sanctioned ways to bring like-minded people together to feel supported in expressing their feelings about a mutual loss while also committing themselves to going forward. Couples should strongly consider engaging in the rituals of their own faiths and backgrounds (modified for current restrictions) but also think about private rituals, such as cooking well-loved meals, listening to favorite inspiring songs or sharing stories of past triumphs and celebrations. Whether traditional or newly made, rituals will bring spouses and other family members into emotionally supportive union.

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Make positive meanings of loss

Talking about loss and sharing grief lay the groundwork for the development of mutual understanding and caring. The next step is finding agreement about positive meanings derived from the crisis. Believing that a loved one's death from COVID-19 is the fault of the doctors, the grocery deliveryman or the government isn't as beneficial for ultimate healing as believing the loved one fought a good fight against a vicious foe. Regarding a job loss as the end of employment and the beginning of destitution isn't as uplifting an outlook as seeing it as a difficult challenge to which the couple and family members will rise. Finding ways to support one another in sadness but also hope paves a better future for all.

Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and health care consultant, and Julia L. Mayer, a clinical psychologist, are married and the coauthors of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers.

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