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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!