You and Your Partner

As individuals, you may find that your thoughts and reactions during bereavement are often different from those of your partner. It can be hard to maintain effective communication in your relationship while you are experiencing such intense feelings of grief and sadness. This is particularly so when one of you seem to be “getting on with life” and the other is continuing to be overwhelmed by the grief. It can seem that one has forgotten and doesn’t care about the loss, or that the other is not coping.

“G returned to work. He was resilient. After I while I saw him as not grieving as I didn’t understand that he was grieving differently. I thought he lacked compassion and didn’t love our son. How could he keep going? How could he function and ignore ‘the elephant in the room?’”

Everyone grieves differently, even couples who have known each other for years. For some couples, the death of a child brings with it an increased intimacy, as you cling to each other for survival. For others, this can be a period of instability and distress in your relationship, with needs being mismatched.

“After Jessie died we went into survival mode in our relationship. My husband became very needy, but I had nothing to give. The more needy he became the more I moved away… I needed space, but he wanted to be loved more.”

“At first we were in sync, close together. He was so supportive of what I needed to do…ten months after the death P received a promotion and said it was the first ‘alright’ day since Samuel died, but I had had a particularly bad day that day. He resented me because I could not be happy for him. I needed him to be miserable like me.”

Virtually all couples find that they grieve differently. What is important is to learn to respect each other’s different ways and timetables of grieving, and to allow each other space and time to grieve in the way he or she needs.

“I needed to talk to people other than my partner and hear about their experiences. Normalising my experiences was important to me. He didn’t have the same need.”

“We still share the grief one hundred per cent, but we are a hundred miles apart in how we see things.”

Having sex may bring back memories and renewed grief. It is quite common for one or both bereaved parents to feel guilty about feeling any pleasure, or to think that they are somehow letting their baby down by starting to have sex again.

“I felt that having sex would be like a step towards forgetting our son – that we would be moving on and trying to replace him – even though we weren’t trying for a baby.”

But feeling pleasure doesn’t mean you have forgotten about your child or that you no longer care about him or her. Try to remember that it is perfectly alright to enjoy sex and other things in life even when you are grieving.

When you do have sex, one or both of you may find that it releases strong feelings you had not expected. This is quite common and nothing to worry about. If it happens, try holding each other until the feeling subsides.

“When we did eventually have sex it was so emotional. Overwhelming even. It continued to be very emotional for a number of weeks.”

Talking openly and honestly about your own feelings with your partner and listening to each other’s needs and expectations can be helpful. Just as sadness does not mean you are ‘not coping’, ‘getting on with life’ does not mean that a person does not care. You may just be experiencing grief differently. Your partner cannot be expected to meet all of your needs and it may be helpful to have others to talk to.

“Leanne expresses her grief more openly than me. She does more self-help stuff too. I am not your typical male however. It wouldn’t have been right for me to shut up and get on with it. I would have ended up in the ‘funny farm’ otherwise.”

“It has been heart-wrenching to observe the pain and suffering endured by my darling Rob. Sometimes I have nothing left to offer him by way of comfort and I have to let others support him or just watch as he struggles on by himself. Mostly, though, we have been able to cling to each other and ride the waves of grief together.”

If you do not have a partner, it can be harder to have your emotional and physical needs met. It is important to have someone with whom you can share your thoughts and feelings at this time. Reaching out to family members, or just taking the time to see friends, can often be surprisingly helpful.

This article was prepared using extracts from Your Child has Died: Some Answers To Your Questions1 and When Relationships Hurt, Too.2 The full texts are available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.

Last reviewed: 5/4/20