Everyone grieves differently, but we’re all shocked when a loved one dies. Death is surreal, almost unbelievable. Everything is different…yet the world is the same. How do you help your boyfriend cope with the death of a loved one? Whether it’s a family member or friend, these ideas will help you support him through the loss.
One of the best things to do is learn about the grieving process from books such as On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler. Learn about the five stages of death – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Learn how to apply these stages to your boyfriend’s grieving process and support him throughout all the stages. This book weaves together theory, inspiration, and practical advice, including sections on sadness, hauntings, dreams, isolation, and healing.
The following tips on helping a boyfriend cope with the death of a loved one are inspired by a reader. “My boyfriend and I have been together for a few months now, but have been friends for a while,” says Penny on How Do You Help a Grieving Friend? “He recently lost his friend to suicide and he carried out CPR on him. He doesn’t want to talk about it or even talk to me at all really, he just wants some time alone. I feel helpless. I want to help him through this situation, but I don’t know how. How long should I give him time alone? What can I do?”
The hardest thing to do is just be there for your boyfriend. There really is nothing you can say or do. Your accepting, warm, calm presence will help him more than any words or gifts.
Try to find ways to become more comfortable with the idea of death. Your acceptance of grief and the grieving process will help your boyfriend cope with the death of a friend, family member, or loved one. Read the comments in blog posts such as Help Starting Over in Your 60s After Your Husband Dies. Your boyfriend isn’t a widow, but the expressions of grief in articles like that will help you understand how your boyfriend feels and what he’s going through.
Helping Your Boyfriend Cope With the Death of a Loved One
Become familiar with Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Shock/Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; and Acceptance. Remember that these aren’t exact stages that your boyfriend will go through one at a time. Rather, he may experience more than one feeling of grief at a time, such as anger and depression, or anger and denial. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Family counselor Beth Morrison says, “Grief is a very personal thing, and we do not all grieve in the same way. Your boyfriend may be angry one day, and crying the next. Grief experts say there is no time limit on the grieving process, but generally two years is the time it takes to mourn a devastating loss. Your boyfriend has to work through the pain of grief, and find meaning in his life again.”
1. Understand that you can’t take your boyfriend’s grief or pain away
Your boyfriend has to grieve his loss. It’s crucial for him to be given the space and time to grieve his own way, in his own time. Don’t worry about which stage of grief he’s in – it’s normal to travel back and forth between stages. That is, many people are in shock when a loved one dies, and that shock may still underlie the anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance stages of grief.
In North American culture, we tend to avoid talking about death or grieving overtly. We’re scared of death because we feel powerless – it’s the ultimate unknown. And grieving suicide or a young death is more complicated than grieving a more natural death of an elder. If your boyfriend is dealing with the death of a family member who took his or her own life, call a grief or loss helpline. Learn how different the grieving process is, and what your boyfriend might be feeling about this death.
2. Allow your boyfriend to grieve and cope with death differently than you
Helping your boyfriend cope with death involves letting him grieve his own way. He may not feel like talking or even being with you right now. He’s dealing with thoughts of the meaning of life, his own mortality, and his helplessness. If this is the first time your boyfriend has experienced the death of a family member, friend or loved one, he may be shocked at the power of his emotions. If this isn’t his first loss, your boyfriend will be affected by previous losses. If he didn’t process or mourn past deaths, he may experience “complicated grief.”
3. Give your boyfriend time to process his grief
This is one of the most difficult things a loving girlfriend can do: let your boyfriend take the time and space he needs to grieve. If he ignores his pain – or if you try to distract or “make him feel better” he will experience a heavier burden later in life. If your boyfriend is the quiet type, perhaps an introvert who likes to read, give him a book such as Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.
“When you’re this down [dealing with grief], you just look for comfort everywhere—as much as possible, as much wisdom and comfort as you can get,” says Sheryl Sandberg in Sheryl Sandberg’s Advice for Grieving in The Atlantic. “And I think, like everyone, I drew on everything I could find. And then there were moments where I couldn’t draw on anything at all, and I just had to lean into the suck and let it happen. But Judaism … Judaism helped me know when to bury my husband and where to bury him and what prayers to say, and there is something comforting in that, and it was the same prayer that people have said over people who have died for thousands of years.”
4. Remember that emotional and physical withdrawal is normal
How do you cope with grief? Maybe you haven’t lost a friend or family member the way your boyfriend did…or maybe you’ve lost more people than you can count. Maybe you’ve lost a beloved animal companion – pet loss is heavy grief that isn’t well recognized or accepted by most people!
When my grandmother died all I wanted to do was sleep and stare out the window. I didn’t want to talk, socialize, or be with anyone. I just wanted to be alone. I thought I was going to die, and I was devastated that I didn’t get the chance to say good-bye to her. That’s how I cope with loss, trauma, and sudden shock: I withdraw in silence. Is your boyfriend dealing with death by pulling away? Retreating, asking to be left alone, communicating less? This is a normal, healthy way to grieve the loss of a loved one. Let him withdraw.
5. Tell your boyfriend that you will listen to stories about his loved one
Send your boyfriend a sympathy card. Tell him you care about him, and will walk beside him through the grieving process. Offer to listen to his stories and memories about his friend or family member. Tell him you won’t talk…you’ll just listen. You’ll let him weep if he needs, rage if he wants, or just sit in silence if he dares. Write in the card that you’re there for him in whatever way he needs: to talk about his friend, to go to a movie, to take a trip out of town, or to go skydiving! Don’t pressure your boyfriend to cope with the death of his loved one in any particular way (eg, by creating a scrapbook of memories or writing on his friend’s Facebook wall). Instead, let him you you’d like to help him mourn and grieve any way he’d like.
Again, I encourage you to learn about your boyfriend’s grieving process from people who have loved and loss. If your boyfriend’s dad died, for example, read Comfort and Hope as You Grieve Your Husband’s Death. It’ll give you some insight into how his mom feels, which might help you support your boyfriend in deeper ways.
6. Let your boyfriend talk to you about his loss when he’s ready
Don’t be afraid to let your boyfriend go. I’m not talking about breaking up with him or not talking to him. I’m encouraging you to allow him to take the time and space he needs to grieve and heal. This may take effort on your part! It’s scary when your boyfriend stops texting you or doesn’t seem to want to spend time together. Keep reminding yourself that he is not himself these days…and he will never be the same. Your boyfriend is dealing with the death of someone he loves; that is an experience that will change him forever.
Your boyfriend’s grieving style isn’t about you. It’s about him. Your boyfriend is coping with a death in the family or his circle of friends, and it has nothing to do with your relationship or your love for each other. It’s not about you. Give your boyfriend time and space to breathe, to mourn, to reflect on his life, family and friendships. You might send your boyfriend an email, text message, or note every couple of days. Gently stay in touch without pressuring him to talk or be with you.
When your boyfriend is mourning the death of someone he loves, you have to put yourself aside and be there for him. What can you do to help your boyfriend deal with the death of someone he loves? Choose two things from the ideas and tips above – the ones that make the most sense to you. I encourage reading books or talking to grief counselors, to learn as much as you can about the way men grieve loss.
I recently read Megan Devine’s It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. I love this book, and highly recommend it. I wrote about it in It’s OK That You’re Not OK ~ Echoes of Imagination.
There really is nothing you can do to help your boyfriend grieve, other than be there for him. Your gentle, accepting, compassionate, kind presence is more than enough…especially if you can be silent and let him breathe while he grieves.
Your thoughts are welcome below. Feel free to share your story. You might find that writing helps you see your boyfriend and your relationship more clearly, and helps declutter your mind of all those thoughts and emotions that are racing around.