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Dear Riese (and team),
I started dating my (transmasculine) boyfriend over the summer. In 1999 (when he was 14), his father died suddenly on December 29th. He has hated this time of year ever since, from his birthday (in November) until January. He struggles to talk about any of this. He retreats inward/stops talking altogether when he’s having a particularly hard time. Which is completely okay. I don’t want to push him at all, but I also have no way of reading his mind. I want to be helpful and soothing, or at least not exacerbate his pain. I know that everyone’s grief is different and distinct, but I thought maybe you would have more insight into the best ways for me to be supportive. I’ve read Before You Know It Something Something’s Over so many times, trying to maybe understand what parts of him might feel like.
Today — November 14th, 2014 — marks the 19th anniversary of the day my father died suddenly when I was 14. You already know this, because you read my essay about it! So it seemed like a fitting day to answer this question. I’ve answered a similar question in the past, in which I gave advice about how to handle a grieving loved one to a girl who’s best friend’s mother was dying of cancer, and you should definitely read that, it’s full of advice really relevant to your situation.
That being said, unlike my mother and your boyfriend, I don’t really feel more sadness this time of year than I normally do. He’s just as dead today as he will be tomorrow and as he was yesterday. I wish I had a better understanding of what that seasonal grief did to people, but I also think a lot of what you’re asking about here isn’t so much about how to handle a grieving partner as it is about how to handle a person who deals with tough times by retreating inward. I admit that I’m not necessarily the expert on that, either! — I had boyfriends who did this, but I was so socialized to think that men were from a terrible part of Mars that I simply assumed my role as the Cool Girl who Lets Her Man Brood and kept my distance. Since coming out to myself, I’ve not had a girlfriend who dealt with feelings the way you describe, so I crowd-sourced some feedback from more emotionally reclusive friends, and here’s what I got:
- Make sure your partner knows that you’re not going to disappear or get mad/sad yourself just ’cause they need to be alone in a room somewhere, metaphorically or literally. He might not want empathy — he’ll get even sadder knowing he’s making you sad — but probably still wants understanding and kindness. Make sure he knows when he emerges from this conceptual room that everybody else is still living their lives and watching their favorite tv show on Hulu and that if he wants to say something about his feelings he can, but if he doesn’t want to, then that’s okay too.
- If you’re a helper-type of person, being barred from helping can do a real number on you, so some of what you must do is for you — sometimes the best thing you can do is just making peace within yourself that this time of year is going to be hard, no way around it, and you can help by being there if needed and checking in periodically.
- Find ways to celebrate the birthday and other holidays together that are easy and comfortable rather than stressful and awkward.
- Don’t be mad at him for wanting to deal with something alone, even if you don’t understand it. Don’t make it about you when your partner is struggling — but also, don’t lower your standards of behavior for the wintertime. You still deserve respect and kindness, too.
- If you think it’s possible that the shutting out of loved ones might come from a fear of losing loved ones, too, then him going to therapy could really help. It could be a place to verbalize the process of being afraid of losing other people because he won’t see the therapist as a person he is afraid to lose.
- Keep living your own life! If you don’t, he’ll feel a huge bright spotlight is on him and his grief and you’ll also risk building resentment towards him.
Personally, aside from everything I recommended in that other post you should read, I’d recommend:
- Don’t walk on eggshells. Then everybody feels awkward. Just be yourself. He loves you for who you are, not who you’re pretending to be ’cause you think that’s what he wants.
- Figure out a secret code together. Just a few words you can use as shorthand for him to be able to communicate what he needs / doesn’t need without having to actually get to the marrow of things. Or just establish a few phrases with agreed-upon definitions to avoid you taking something personally or potentially interpreting passive-aggressiveness or resentment — or you wondering what “I want to be alone” really means. Like, decide that “this is that thing where I need to be alone” means he needs to be alone in his room, no offense. “Just be here,” means he doesn’t wanna talk, but does wanna cuddle. Stuff like that.
- See if y’all can have just one sit-down conversation where you address the issue directly, just once and only once — where he can tell you what you can do to help, and what doesn’t help, and what he’d like to do on his birthday, so that you know the ground rules. If it’d be easier for him to do that in writing, make that an option.
- Show him you care in a way that doesn’t demand interaction or addressing the sad topics: for example, I came home from the gym today to find that my girlfriend left post-it notes all over our apartment that say cute things, and none of these things have anything to do with my Dad or November but are (I assume) just her way of reminding me that she’s here and she loves me and she’s not going anywhere! Which is great, because my Dad did go somewhere (death) and that was the worst. One year my best friend booked me a spa day on November 14th, and that was nice ’cause it’s rare that you can indulge like that and not feel guilty, and the anniversary of the worst day of your life is a great time to do that.
- I think doing small nice things can be really helpful and proactive, rather than reactive. Add a little cheer to his life every other day or so without packaging it as a grief salve. Just make the vegan banana bread that he likes, you know?
It’s also possible that your partner has never had somebody in his life he felt safe enough with to be emotionally vulnerable, and doesn’t yet know that you are that safe thing. You can show him that you are by being patient, by listening with your whole face and heart, by paying attention and by not being judgmental or taking things personally that shouldn’t be. You can say things like “you don’t have to tell me what’s on your mind, but I will be here whenever you want to or can.”
For me, the way my partner reacts to me talking about my Dad — not about my grief, or my sadness, but about the man himself — is hugely important. I need somebody who’ll listen to me tell stories about him, even repetitive, long-winded and self-indulgent stories, with rapt attention. I don’t want to feel like they’re waiting for me to cry, either. I don’t want my hair stroked or my hand squeezed. One of the hardest parts of grief is how awkward people get when the dead person comes up. All I want is to be able to tell the same childhood stories about my Dad as they can tell about their Dads even though mine is dead now and their’s isn’t. I want to be able to honor him without requiring a moment of silence or a kleenex.
When people ask me what I need on November 14th I tell them “just be nice to me, that’s all.” I’ve had rotten luck with November 14ths always being the day a best friend announces she’s pissed at me or for a blowout fight erupts with a roommate or I get soul-crushing news. So eventually, whenever anybody asked, that’s what I’d say — “just be nice to me.”
I think that’s ultimately what it comes down to: just be nice to him. But take care of yourself, too. Grief isn’t an excuse for him to be rude or dismissive to you, either, so maybe make yourself that non-vegan banana bread that you like, too.
I personally feel like he is in very good hands.
Readers: if you too have advice, please share!
Wonderful advice and thoughts, Riese. This particularly resonated:
“One of the hardest parts of grief is how awkward people get when the dead person comes up. All I want is to be able to tell the same childhood stories about my Dad as they can tell about their Dads even though mine is dead now and their’s isn’t. I want to be able to honor him without requiring a moment of silence or a kleenex.”
That whole paragraph really hit home for me.
This. This. This. I kind of feel like people are scared that someone can feel happy thoughts about someone who is no longer here. I prefer to remember the joyous, happy, and alive days with my mom rather than the fact that she’s no longer here.
Let us remember and be happy just like you can remember and be happy. Our memories are the same, the only difference is that you can continue to make more.
Really great advice, Riese! I feel like the question-asker is an amazing human being just for asking for some insight. If you’re out there, question-asker-person, I’m sending you and your partner lots of virtual vegan (or non-vegan) banana bread love.
I luckily have very little experience with grief. But I did find myself thinking about coping with partners who become depressed/withdrawn/what have you during the holidays… Both of my serious relationships (a 3 year long one, and my current which has lasted over a year) have been with people who simply loath the holidays, as well as their birthday and most other holidays throughout the year. After nearly 5 years straight of this, I still do not know how to handle it. I don’t come from a family where holidays are Everything, but they were always nice for me and now as an adult generally I like them. It seemed that this stems from the fact that neither of my partners had/have good relationships with their families. I have a good one. I feel like I can’t enjoy myself and my family during these times because my partner is miserable.
Sorry that was long, but does anyone else have similar experiences? Maybe advice?
Definitely a lot of similar experiences to that! Being with someone who gets withdrawn a fair bit, especially around the holidays/around issues of grief is tricky.
What’s worked for us is to take pretty autonomous approaches to the holidays overall. I put up a tree, get into pumkin-flavored things and put some Christmas-without-Christ carols on my playlists, but I don’t expect him to join in. He’s a good sport when we visit my family (not every year) but he also can go sequester himself and read when things feel overwhelming.
The things I like about the holidays are connecting with my family, and with warm memories of my family from the past. Creating a forcible ‘Now You Will Feel Joyous Dammit’ atmosphere really goes against that ethos. And on top of not wanting to look back on his family memories, he really loathes the idea of emotional expectations being tied to a calendar – it’s the biggest reason he’s not into holidays, so it’s the thing we work most to avoid. We’ve also talked about this stuff for a few years in February – once the social expectations are over, but when it’s still recent enough for both of us to remember how we felt.
FWIW, this works reasonably well for us, but it wasn’t a good fit for my ex and I. We didn’t have issues with the holidays, per se, but she wasn’t a fan of us just doing our own thing when we disagreed about stuff like this. I think it’s a reason why we ended up being exes, but her approach hasn’t changed all that much, and she and her wife are super-happy now. So I’m definitely not putting this out there as The Solution, just as the thing that we’ve chosen.
And my partner’s not actively grieving about this stuff – he’s not close to his family, which means that his dislike of the holidays is more dispassionate than someone who’s still processing through feelings of loss.
One of the things I feel on the Bad Anniversaries is a complete inability to verbalize what I need. Equally difficult is anticipating what I will need beforehand, making it hard to let my girlfriend know ahead of time what I will want her to do (if anything).
I think part of it may be being receptive to the theme that runs through some of the regular anecdotes. One of the things that I guess comes up a lot with me when I talk about my dad dying is frustration and anger. So, my lady asked me one anniversary if I wanted to go smash some stuff. We went into an adjacent alley and smashed some of our cracked dishes, and it made that night into a bit of an adventure I have good memories about. It didn’t change the date (obviously), but it was a fantastic outlet and I’m glad it was one of the things she suggested.
This is a great response, but I’m wondering if some of his withdrawal could also be seasonal depression/SAD?
Super insightful advice, Riese. For whatever it’s worth, I once had a girlfriend who had been through a lot of pain in her family life and had a lot of walls, and kept that stuff really inward. I often played the Cool Girlfriend Who Lets Her Girl Brood, and while I think that was what was needed at first to help her relax and trust me, I probably continued to do it after a point where more direct communication was needed, and ultimately it became an issue in our relationship because it became too hard to bring things up.
I don’t know if that’s relevant to your relationship, but I agree with Riese that at some point, in as comfortable and safe a situation as possible, it’d probably be good to have a proper sit-down direct conversation with your guy about his feelings and about your desire to support him without overwhelming him, and how to best go about that. As long as that’s done in a gentle and respectful way, I think that kind of conversation is often a relief for most people, even if it can be hard to start it.
The only other thing of course is that often when we see people we love in pain, we subconsciously want to try to help take that pain away somehow, or make them feel “better.” And of course, our role is never to make them better, but just to be there and listen and let them know they’re safe and supported, as Riese has said. So maybe check in with yourself and see if you’ve subconsciously had any of those thoughts, and just let that go.
And, Riese has already said this too but one can never overemphasize the importance of self-care!
Considering their mood is seasonal only, sounds like they mostly just have Seasonal Affect Disorder, but their are blaming it on grief because lots of people dont know that SAD is a real mental disorder. Humans are great for creating connections where they are either not there or not as important as they think they are. Give them some vitamin D. It probably wont fix everything, but it should help a lot. Also Vitamin B is great for improving mood too.
That’s assuming you are in the Northern Hemisphere or are someone who gets SAD in summer, of course!
I say this because I always associated SAD with Christmas but that’s not so much the case when you live somewhere where Christmas is associated with the beach. Took me ages to notice I always got worse in July!
I lost a very important “father figure” on December 17th 2012, I think my best advice is to be comfortable with awkwardness. I met a friend for coffee, a friend who had never met the person I lost and started with “this is going to be awkward” because big feelings about death and grief and loss often are. You don’t have to be perfect, but it means the world that you are there.
i could really use some practical advice. i just found out my grandfather died, and i’m worried about my grandmother. i’m close to her, but i didn’t know him very well. she’s 91 and the closest family is hours away. i’m estranged from everyone in my family except her, so asking my family members for advice is out.
i am sending a care package with food and movies and other things that are hopefully comforting. do people think it’s a good or bad idea to send stuff specifically related to grieving? I was thinking of Joan Didion’s book “Year of Magical Thinking”. Any other advice would be appreciated. I want to be there for her as best i can but I’ve never had a death in the family so i’m not sure what to do for her.
thank you straddlers so much, and sending care to everyone in the thread dealing with loss.
First off, I think you’re doing a lovely thing for your grandma!
In my experience, people can react very differently to loss. I’ve seen people not want to talk about it at all, and I’ve seen people want to talk about it a lot. So go with your gut. Maybe pick up the phone and have a chat (if you haven’t already).
If you do send grief-related stuff, I wouldn’t make that the whole package. So maybe the book, then some nice bath products and her favorite treat (or whatever else she might be into).
Best of luck, and my condolences for your loss.
On Grief and Grieving by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross is also a good book to consider, depending on your Grandma’s willingness to read non-fiction vs memoir. My Grandma was more keen on distractions and she doesn’t have the greatest reading skills, so I gave her four seasons of Reba. Chats on the phone are also good ways to keep her from feeling lonely.
So, unfortunately, this is an area in which I have some experience. None of the people I’ve dated have lost a parent (or other close family member), but my three best friends from high school, including by bff, have all had a parent die at some point in the last decade, as well as some more recent friends.
They all process and deal with feelings in general, and grief specifically, in their own way (being different people and all). These are some things that I have done:
The late father of one of my friends was a coach at schools in his spare time. Last year, during the month of the tenth anniversary of his death, I offered to my friend to take him to a local high school game of the sport his dad coached in honour of his dad. I also offered the alternative of going for dinner at a nice pub nearby, if the game would be too much. We ended up going for dinner and having a lovely time, I think.
I have written on the fb page of another friend’s late father around his birthday and the anniversary of his death (which are within a week), saying I know how missed he is by his family.
While visiting that same friend one year, I asked if he would like me to go out and get him breakfast on the morning of the anniversary. He said yes, so I wrote down what he wanted, and got up early so it would waiting for him when he got out of the shower.
I plan this year to make a donation to the Heart and Stroke Foundation in one of my friends’ name, as their parent died suddenly of a heart attack, and because I have noticed that when making purchases online if there is an option to give a portion of the proceeds to a variety of charities, my friend always picks that one.
I have also sent a short ‘thinking of you, let me know if you want to talk about random stuff or if there’s anything else I can do” note to a different friend with whom I’m less close on Mother’s Day (his mother passed away before I knew him, though he perhaps has talked about his experience the most of all the friends).
One friend, with a late father, I made a booklet of poetry I liked about fatherhood for Father’s Day. I don’t know if that was the ‘right’ thing to do, but hopefully my caring and wish to honour his father and his feelings were evident and balming even if my execution left something to be desired.
And one friend, the aforementioned bff, with whom I’d previously seen and spoken to on the phone daily, and then when I went away to university, talked to a least once a week by phone, and much more often by text and IM, barely spoke to or hung out with me for about six months after the memorial service (which I of course came home for). This was hard, especially since he was hanging out with all our mutual friends on the regular. I thought he didn’t want to be friends with me anymore and was pretty depressed about this fact, while respecting that it was his right not to be friends with anyone he didn’t feel like. We are much better now though.
Okay, so hopefully that was helpful to some extent. Also, something that was done for my family after my mother’s father died, which meant a lot to me: a family friend brought over an apple tree sapling they had bought for us to plant in our back yard in his memory. It was perfect. (A few years later an asshole baby beaver killed it; since then I’ve been less fond of our national animal.)
One last thing: Please read the AMAZING Dear Sugar article on this very subject – http://therumpus.net/2011/03/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-67-the-black-arc-of-it/
I like this. I like all of this. My partner is a super-introvert type and when he has sad stuff going on, I favor the reminder-release method. I give him a hug or kiss, and then I give him space. I clean the kitchen or work on my own stuff. Sometimes he tells me a story from childhood, and I listen, or sometimes he goes back to normal, happy-space, and I follow. I guess we’ve had enough conversations about me being here and wanting to help that I trust him to drive and come to me with his needs, I just follow his cues.