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7 Practical Ways to Support a Grieving Spouse

Help your grieving spouse with these simple, science-backed steps

When your spouse is grieving, they may not act like themselves.

Grief may affect your spouse's brain, including their emotional regulation, memory, attention, organization, and ability to multitask.

It may affect them physically by aggravating existing physical symptoms or causing them to feel fatigued, get sick more often, experience a tightness in their chest or shortness of breath, have headaches, have trouble sleeping, have aches and pains, or have digestive challenges.

Grief will likely impact your spouse emotionally by causing them to feel sad, depressed, irritable, or in despair.

If not tended to adequately, grief can become exaggerated or prolonged. If ignored, grief can cause a couple's emotional intimacy and stability to plummet. However, if you intentionally support your spouse while they are grieving, it can strengthen and grow your connection.

How can you help your grieving spouse? Here are some practical tools:

1. Write them a sympathy card

While you may be used to sending sympathy cards to friends or extended relatives, it may not occur to you to write a sympathy card to your spouse. However, a sympathy card that expresses your love and care, details favorite memories (if applicable), and/or outlines your support will likely mean a lot to your spouse. Exchanging cards is a great way to build intimacy and maintain or even transform relationships. Note that while the simple act of purchasing and giving a signed greeting card is a good start, true connection comes from a thoughtful, heartfelt note in your own words.

2. Give them blocks of time for self-care.

As much as possible, provide your spouse with a few hours to walk in nature, spend an afternoon at a spa, sleep in or nap, or just rest. Research suggests that when your brain has time to rest, be idle, and daydream, you can engage in internally focused psychosocial and mental processing, which benefits your social emotional health.

3. Do one of their chores for a while.

Acute grief often causes physical symptoms, including extreme fatigue.

One grief website (www.whatsyourgrief.com) describes it as,

“You feel exhausted all the time. You feel run down. You are always ready for a nap.”

Provide your spouse with a respite from at least one of their physical chores for a while. These tasks may feel especially hard and belabored while they are recovering.

4. Give them flowers.

Multiple studies suggest that flowers have a healing effect on those who receive them as a gift or who have them in their homes.

5. Ask your spouse, “how are you really?” every evening, and listen to understand

Research suggests that when people can “name the pain” or tell the stories behind their sadness, it can lead to healing and can “break the downward spiral of unresolved loss.”

6. Increase your affection/touch

Cuddle, hold hands, and give hugs more than usual. At times, affection can be even more comforting than words. Studies have shown that giving a person support through touch can reduce their stress. An added benefit is that touch increases oxytocin, which is considered the love hormone that helps couples relax.

7. Help them obtain a healthy balance between grieving and moving on

While excessive repression of grief can be harmful, obsessive grieving can also lead to "chronic grief" and depression. Help your spouse work toward an ideal balance between "avoidance and confrontation" to help them gradually come to terms with their loss.

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