Before my husband and I even got engaged, my mom was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 50. Over the next nine years, she would undergo multiple surgeries and strains of treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation.
It was an emotional rollercoaster, waiting for test results and wondering whether the latest attempts would be effective. Eventually, shortly before my mom’s 60th birthday, the Lord called her home.
Through it all, my husband and I lived over 8,000 miles away in Cape Town, South Africa. Without warning, he was thrust into the role of supporting me as his grieving spouse, both before and after my mom died.
I didn’t give him an easy time of it, either. My emotions were entirely unpredictable, my reactions and tears completely spontaneous. Yet my husband maintained a godly posture of servanthood and faithfulness in the midst of my instability.
Based on my personal experience, here are five ways you could support your grieving spouse:
1. BE ATTENTIVE.
Without being obnoxious or overly persistent, gently ask your spouse how they’re feeling in that moment. Be aware that grief can be triggered at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways, like by a scent or a song.
The best option is to keep the communication lines open. Maybe your spouse is feeling fine. If that’s the case, you can adjust accordingly. Maybe they are feeling sad but don’t want to talk about it. Respect their desire for quiet.
On other occasions, maybe they will feel like talking and reminiscing about the loved one they’ve lost. Your job is to find out what kind of moment it is, recognizing that the emotions can swing from one extreme to the next in a matter of seconds.
2. BE FLEXIBLE.
You might get home from work one day with plans to go out together and discover that your spouse does not feel up to it. Maybe you had expectations for a romantic evening together and, instead, your spouse can’t seem to stop crying.
Or, on the other side of the spectrum, you might think you’re being considerate by canceling your plans to be sensitive to your spouse’s fragile emotions, only to be scolded for doing so.
I remember one evening when my husband came home from work during the last stages of my mom’s terminal cancer. As soon as he saw me he could tell that I was not in a good state, so he canceled his evening work commitments to spend time with me.
Instead of being grateful for his thoughtfulness and concern, I became irked with him. I just wanted to steel myself to reality and keep pushing on with “normal” life.
But if he had kept his appointments the next day, I may have been upset with him for ignoring my feelings and prioritizing his work over his wife. He just couldn’t win; grief is a fickle character, and behaves unpredictably. Be prepared, and be flexible.
3. BE PATIENT.
Grief takes a long time. Sometimes it shows up late to the party, unexpected and uninvited. Sometimes it stays longer than it’s welcome, long after everyone else has gone home. Do your best to not rush your spouse’s grieving process. It may seem like it’s dragging on forever—and maybe it is—but try hard to exhibit patience to your husband or wife.
4. BE SACRIFICIAL.
As your spouse is mourning a loss, you will need to sacrifice in ways you might not have expected. You might have to sacrifice the usual lighthearted, joy-filled atmosphere of your home temporarily for a more somber, respectful tone.
You may have to sacrifice time to listen, embrace, lift up. You may have to sacrifice expectations, plans, or goals for the foreseeable future. In a way, you might need press pause on life as much as possible to give your spouse the space to reflect, process, and grieve.
5. BE FAITHFUL.
If you are a believer in Christ, keep taking your grieving spouse to church. Keep reading the Bible aloud together. Keep praying aloud together. Keep pointing your spouse to Christ.
Immerse them in prayer and the Word. They might not feel like praying or reading the Bible, and that’s okay. Your job is not to wait until they feel like it or to make them feel like it; your job is to bathe them in prayer and Scripture.
If they belong to the Lord, nothing can separate them from His love—not even grief or loss. Nothing can snatch them out of His hand. Be faithful in bringing them back to church, and eventually, the Spirit will both penetrate and heal their wounded hearts.
What has your experience been like? What else would you add to this list?
To read more about how Kate’s husband supported her in her grief, check out Kate’s memoir, A Place to Land: A Story of Longing and Belonging.