Grief can have a major impact on your life and your relationships. Since people grieve in different ways, grief has a significant impact on relationships. In the aftermath of a significant loss (such as the loss of child), some couples struggle to stay together. Although many people talk about the strain on romantic relationships after a loss, grief can put a strain on platonic relationships as well.
In the comprehensive guide below, you’ll learn about how grief impacts relationships. We’ll also provide you with ten useful tips to help your relationship survive the grieving process.
What Types Of Relationships Can Be Affected By Losing A Loved One To Death?
The death of a loved one impacts all sorts of relationships. Since people handle grief differently, the impact of grief on a relationship can vary greatly. The following are different relationships that may be affected by the loss of a loved one.
How grief impacts a marriage often depends on the relationship the couple has to the person lost. For example, the loss of a shared child can have a significant impact on both people in the relationship. Our guide on how to survive the loss of a child is a helpful resource to help couples coping with this significant loss. The loss of one person’s parent or sibling may also impact the relationship, especially when one person is grieving more than the other.
Shared grief is often a complicated thing, since no one grieves the same. While both parties may be grieving, how they express grief may be upsetting to their spouse. Some spouses struggle during grief because they feel like their spouse isn’t grieving (especially if one spouse is more demonstrative in their expressions of grief than the other).
The same is true of partners. Whether a couple is dating, engaged, or living together, grief can have a significant impact on their relationship. While coping with the loss of a loved one has the potential to bring a couple closer together, it can also be the catalyst for a breakup.
Friendships can also be affected by the loss of a loved one. If the deceased is a mutual friend, both people in the friendship may grieve that loss. Just like in other relationships, the way people grieve can cause conflict with other people mourning the same loss.
For example, a teenaged girl was killed in a car accident in a small town. At the funeral, one of her friends was angered by the people at her funeral. He didn’t feel like those people were close enough to her to grieve the way he did. This can happen in friend groups where one person feels like the others weren’t as “close” to the deceased when they were alive.
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PARENT'S RELATIONSHIP WITH CHILD
A parent’s relationship with their kids may be different after a loss, especially if it was the loss of someone in their immediate family. The loss of their partner may leave a now-single parent feeling overwhelmed and incapable of managing family life. Some parents may plunge themselves into their work to numb their grief, inadvertently leaving their children feeling abandoned.
When a couple loses a child, their relationship with their other children may change. Some may become distant and disconnected while others may become fearful and overprotective. Either way, the relationship between a parent and their surviving children may be significantly impacted by the loss of another child.
CHILD'S RELATIONSHIP WITH SURVIVING PARENT
When a child loses a parent, their relationship with their surviving parent may be different. In some cases, a child may withdraw from their surviving parent in an attempt to protect themselves. If they felt like their deceased parent was closer to them, they may feel angry and occasionally wish it was their other parent that passed.
As their surviving parent juggles all the responsibilities of providing for and caring for the household, children may shoulder a bigger burden than before. Older children may feel resentment when tasked with caring for their younger siblings. This can all impact the relationship between child and parent.
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Sibling relationships may also experience strain due to the weight of grief. For example, siblings who have lost a parent may grieve the loss in different ways. Some may find fault with their sibling, citing their behavior toward the parent when the parent was alive.
If you and your siblings are navigating the loss of a parent, our guide on what to do when your parent dies may be helpful. This guide contains all the information you need to take care of your parent’s assets, plan a funeral, and navigate the grieving process.
Extended family may develop conflict and rifts in the aftermath of a loss. While grief is certainly the culprit, bad behavior surrounding the division of assets can cause conflict to worsen after a loved one has died. Relatives of the deceased may argue about who deserves what, especially if the deceased doesn’t have a will.
Even without property disputes, extended family members may have conflict because of how each person handles their grief. While some may show a lot of emotion, others may seem cold and cut off as they cope with their grief internally.
How Can Grief Affect A Relationship?
Now that we’ve explored the different relationships that can be impacted by grief, it’s important to explore the ways grief can affect a relationship. The following are five major ways grief impacts relationships.
DIFFERENT WAYS TO MOURN
One of the most significant ways grief affects relationships occurs when two people mourn in different ways. There is no “wrong” way to grieve a loss, but many people have preconceived ideas about how a person should or should not grieve.
For example, one person might mourn by staying as busy as possible to avoid thinking about their loss while another might not understand how their loved one can seem to “move on” so fast. Everyone’s grief journey is different and it’s important to extend grace to others who mourn differently than you.
NEED FOR EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
When grieving the loss of a loved one, people often lean on their relationships for emotional support. If a person needs emotional support from their partner (or family member or friend) and doesn’t get it, they may feel like their needs aren’t being met in that relationship.
This can be especially challenging when both people are mourning and both have emotional needs. While people can take care of each other, the emotional energy required to meet another person’s needs while grieving is immense. This can cause significant strain on a relationship.
DIFFERENT PACES FOR GRIEF
Not only do people grieve in different ways, but they grieve at different paces. While one person might feel comfortable returning to work the day after a funeral, another may want several days (or even weeks) to grieve. When both people in a relationship are mourning the loss of the same person, the different paces of their grief can become a contentious topic in their relationship.
Both parties may end up angry at the other for the pace of their grief. If their loved one moves on too quickly, a person might judge their grief as too hasty. If they grieve for a long time, they may feel frustrated by a loved one who is “stuck” in their grief. Different paces (and expectations surrounding the length of the grieving process) can be a cause for disagreement.
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WISHES SURROUNDING COUNSELING
Counseling and therapy can be a polarizing topic, especially in the aftermath of a significant loss. While many appreciate the additional help provided by a mental health professional, others are adamantly opposed to visiting a pastor, counselor, or therapist to talk about their grief.
These differences can be magnified if one person in the relationship wants the other to go to counseling. A person who values counseling may feel like their loved one is being hard-headed and stubborn, while a person opposed to seeing a counselor may feel pressured to do something they don’t want to do.
WORSENING RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS
Grief can cause problems in a relationship to worsen. Since most people are at their worst when coping with stress or grief, already troubled relationships may face worsening problems in the aftermath of a loss.
Other problems occur during grief that may cause relationship problems to get worse. Grief can make people forgetful, something that others may view as their thoughtlessness. It’s important to remember that when your loved one is grieving you cannot take all of their actions (or lack thereof) personally.
10 Tips For Helping A Relationship Survive Grief
Now that you know how grief impacts a relationship, you’re ready to learn some methods to help minimize the damage done to your relationship when grieving the loss of a loved one. The following are ten of our favorite tips to help your relationship survive grief.
1. BE HONEST ABOUT YOUR GRIEF
It's important to be honest about your grief. When you’re honest about how you’re feeling and what needs to happen to help you in the healing process, you’re better equipped to manage the relationships in your life.
Honest With Yourself
Before you can be honest with anyone else, you need to learn how to be honest with yourself about the grief you’re facing. How are you really feeling? What exactly do you need to help you process your loss?
In the days following a significant loss, it’s normal to feel numb. But as the days stretch on, it helps to take time to be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. Instead of assigning value to certain emotions (like calling sadness or anger “bad” and happiness “good”), focus on identifying and understanding your emotions.
Honest With Loved Ones
Once you’re honest with yourself about how you’re feeling, you’re ready to be honest with your loved ones about how you’re processing your grief. Sharing how you’re feeling goes a long way toward improving your communication with loved ones.
It also gives them the insight they need to provide you with the emotional support you desire.
2. CLEARLY COMMUNICATE BOTH FEELINGS & NEEDS
That brings us to the second tip on our list. Once you understand how you’re feeling and what you need, make sure to clearly communicate those things with your loved ones.
The people you love want to know how you’re feeling. Even if you don’t have as much experience sharing your feelings with others, take the opportunity to share your grief with the people who love you. Let them know that you’re grieving, especially if they’re grieving the same loss.
It’s important to clearly communicate your needs with your loved one after a loss. Don’t assume the other person knows what you need. It’s also important to remember that dropping hints about something is not the same thing as asking a person to do something.
For example, it’s better to say, “I could really use help with the housework after the funeral Thursday” instead of “I’m not sure how I’m going to get everything done after the funeral Thursday.” Let your loved one know exactly what you need and expect, even if they’re usually great about sensing and fulfilling your needs.
Meeting Your Loved One's Needs
If you’re supporting someone who is grieving a loss, it’s important to do what you can to meet their emotional needs. In many cases this may look like listening to them process their feelings. In other cases, your loved one may need tangible help to manage everything on their plate.
If your loved one hasn’t communicated any needs, don’t be afraid to ask them exactly what they need. For additional tips check out our in-depth guide on how to support a grieving loved one.
3. UNDERSTAND THAT GRIEF LOOKS DIFFERENT FOR EVERYONE
Everyone handles grief differently. One of the best things you can do to help your relationship during the grieving process is to understand that how your loved one is grieving isn’t wrong, just different. Even if you have a good idea how your loved one handles grief, each loss may trigger a different reaction.
Don’t Judge Their Grief. It’s very important to avoid passing judgement on how your loved one grieves. Whether they cry in public or handle their grief in private, it’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently. Don’t assume your loved one isn’t grieving if you don’t see any tangible signs of their grief.
Different Outlets for Grief. Grieving differently isn’t just about whether a person cries or not during the funeral. Some people handle grief best by keeping themselves as busy as possible. If your loved one is diving into work, don’t assume that isn’t their method of handling their grief.
4. BE PREPARED FOR THE RELATIONSHIP TO CHANGE
Grief changes a relationship. While it can often add additional stress to a relationship, it may also create an opportunity for better communication between two parties. As you and your loved one grieve the loss of another, be prepared for your relationship to change.
Impact To Immediate Family
One of the biggest changes occurs when someone in your household passes away. Families must adjust their everyday lives to accommodate the loss of a loved one in their immediate family. This can cause family dynamics and family relationships to change drastically.
Loss Of A Parent
The loss of a parent is often a catalyst for major change among sibling relationships. While the loss of a parent may cause their bonds to grow stronger, some siblings may grow distant without parents to keep them connected.
What To Do When a Parent Dies: From Planning a Funeral to Coping with Emotions and 10 Essential Tips on Moving Forward - Read More.
Loss Of A Child
The loss of a child is one of the most significant losses a couple can experience. This can change their relationship dynamics significantly. If you’ve recently lost a child, it’s reasonable for your relationship with their other parent to change.
5. SET ASIDE TIME TO COMMUNICATE OPENLY
In the days after a death, your schedule can be extra hectic as you plan a funeral and attend to your loved one’s affairs. This can make it difficult to find time to communicate with other loved ones. Even as the weeks stretch on after a loss, it’s important to set aside regular time to communicate openly with those you love.
This is most important for people who share a home with you. Set aside a time each day (or each week) to catch up and discuss things. When you put communication time onto your calendar, you’re more likely to follow through and have necessary conversations.
About The Grief
During these times, check it with each other to see how you’re processing your grief. Some people don’t like talking about their feelings, but this regular check-in is a great way to make room to discuss the emotions surrounding a loss.
About Life In General
With the added stress of grief, many people become more forgetful than usual. Use regular check-ins as a way to stay on the same page as your loved one.
This will help you make sure things don’t fall through the cracks. It also makes space for your loved one to share things about their daily life, an important practice as you move forward.
6. ENJOY AN OUTING OR HOBBY WITH YOUR SURVIVING LOVED ONES
You don’t have to spend every waking moment thinking about your grief. Taking time to enjoy a hobby is one of the most helpful things you can do to process grief with a loved one.
Not only will it be a fun way to forget your pain for a little while, but it will provide a great opportunity to strengthen the relationship between you and your loved one.
Date Nights. It’s important for people in romantic relationships to go out on dates, even years into their marriage. This need is magnified when a couple is facing a hardship, such as the loss of another loved one. Take time to go out on dates with your significant other to reconnect and strengthen your bond.
Family Outings. If your family is grieving the loss of a loved one, put extra effort into family outings. Whether this means taking weekly trips to the library or spending time painting together, it’s important to create space to create new memories as a family.
This is especially important when someone in your household has died. It allows your family to have fun and begin to move forward from their grief. It can help your new family unit make sense of life without your deceased loved one.
New Hobbies. Make space for new hobbies. Trying new things with your loved ones is a great way to break up the monotony of life. When the weight of your shared grief is getting to be too much, consider taking up a new hobby you can enjoy together. Creative activities like art can be great during the grief process. If you want to learn more, check out our article about art therapy and how it helps people grieve.
If your deceased loved one had a hobby they loved, consider spending time learning about that hobby. Not only is it a great way to bond with your surviving loved ones, but it offers an opportunity to talk about the deceased.
7. GO ON VACATION
Vacations are a great way to strengthen a relationship. Not only do they offer space away from work, but they create an opportunity to get away from the daily demands of grief. Alternatively, some people may find solace in taking a vacation that allows them to dig deep and process their grief with a loved one.
The makeup of your vacation will depend largely on who is going and what you hope to accomplish. Remember, it’s okay to take a vacation just to enjoy a new destination. Even when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, making great memories is a good thing.
Fun Or Meaningful Location
It may be nice to take a vacation to somewhere your deceased loved one enjoyed. For example, you might go to your loved one’s hometown or visit their favorite vacation spot. Visiting these meaningful locations can create rich opportunities to talk about your loved one while making new memories with surviving relatives.
Grief Retreat Or Cruise
If you want to use a vacation as an opportunity to dig deep and process your grief, grief conferences and cruises are great opportunities to do just that. To learn more about finding a retreat or cruise that’s right for you, check out our complete guide on the topic.
8. DON'T MAKE ANY MAJOR LIFE DECISIONS UNTIL THINGS SETTLE DOWN
When possible, you should wait at least six months to make big decisions after the death of a loved one or close relative. Making big decisions too hastily during your grief can cause significant strain on your relationships.
Resist the urge to change jobs or switch careers in the early days after a loss. If you do switch jobs, make sure to ask yourself if the change is your way of dealing with the loss or if it’s been due for a while. Sometimes loss can give us clarity about the things that are important to us, but sometimes it can cause us to make hasty decisions we’ll regret later one.
Sale Of Home
Unless absolutely necessary, try not to sell your home in the days following a significant loss. While it’s normal to sell a parent’s home after their death (to redistribute their assets among surviving loved ones), try to avoid making such choices for your own home. Selling your home is a big choice that cannot be taken back when grief subsides.
If you’ve lost a spouse, take some time to grieve your loss before getting remarried. Even if you have young children at home who may benefit from having two parents, getting married too soon may make them feel like you didn’t love their deceased parent.
Eventually, you might be ready to date and remarry. When you are, our helpful guide about marriage after the loss of a spouse may be a help. In the meantime, avoid dating and don’t jump into a marriage to cope with your loss.
9. AVOID DANGEROUS COPING MECHANISMS
Just as there are many healthy ways to cope, there are also many unhealthy ways to cope with a loss. These dangerous coping mechanisms not only threaten your own well-being, but the well-being of your relationships.
Drugs and Alcohol. In the aftermath of a loss, some people turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. Even if you’re only an occasional drinker, it’s important to avoid using alcohol to cope with a loss. Drug and alcohol use can negatively impact your relationship, especially if your loved one doesn’t approve of your lifestyle choices.
Gambling or Other Addictions. Gambling and other addictions offer a temporary reprieve from your grief. However, these addictions can impact your other relationships in a negative way. For example, an out-of-control gambling problem may cause financial strain for your household and added tension in your marriage.
Avoidance. Of the things on this list, avoidance seems the least harmful. However, avoiding your grief can have unintended consequences for your well-being and the health of your interpersonal relationships. While you may be able to temporarily repress your grief, you may experience more pronounced grief down the road.
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10. SEE A COUNSELOR OR THERAPIST
Seeing a counselor or therapist can be good for the health of your relationships. Whether you go alone or as a couple, these appointments can help you work through difficult emotions and improve communication in your relationship.
There are several options for grief therapy. You may benefit from one-on-one counseling or see value from your experiences with group therapy. If you want to avoid a clinical setting, grief support groups offer a helpful option for people coping with the loss of a loved one.
Alternative Ideas Or Activities To Help Your Relationships Survive Grief
In addition to the ten tips above, we’ve compiled a list of helpful ideas and activities to help your relationships survive the grieving process. Whether you use one of these ideas or all of them, they’re sure to benefit you and your surviving loved ones.
TAKE TIME TO EXERCISE
During the most intense periods of grief, it’s easy to forget your usual self-care routine. Although you may feel like you don’t have the energy to do anything, taking time for regular exercise will boost your mood and help you tackle the hard work of grief.
Never underestimate the power of a good meal! Eating healthy is a meaningful way to give your body a boost during this difficult time. If you’re grieving as a family, spend an evening preparing a healthy meal together. Shared meals offer room for connection and fuel for your bodies.
GET THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF REST
You need rest when you’re grieving. This includes both physical rest when you sleep at night and time spent away from the demands of work. As you’re grieving, don’t be afraid to schedule extra time for you to rest. Even if you don’t typically take naps during the day, allow yourself to indulge in a nap.
Volunteer with your surviving loved ones while you process your loss. Whether you volunteer for a cause that matters to your deceased loved one or spend your time helping other mourners, volunteering together is a meaningful way to process your grief and put good out into the world.
COMMISSION OR CREATE SOMETHING IN MEMORY OF THE DECEASED
Sometimes the best thing you can do is make space to remember your deceased loved one. There are several things you can create or commission as a memorial to your loved one:
- Painting or artwork: whether you paint something yourself or hire someone to paint something, artwork is something you can hang in your home and use to remember your deceased loved one.
- Scrapbook: creating a book with photos and memories is a great way to preserve your loved one’s memory. This can be a great group activity, too!
- Photo engraved pendant: get a pendant with your loved one’s image on it. That way you can carry their memory with you wherever you go.
- Thumbprint jewelry: if you have a photo of your loved one’s fingerprint, you can get a piece of jewelry with their fingerprint engraved on it. Whether you get a pendant or a keychain, these memorials are a beautiful reminder of the person you lost.
- Cremation jewelry: if your loved one was cremated, you can purchase a piece of jewelry that incorporates their ashes. Matching cremation jewelry can be a special way for you and other loved ones to remember the deceased, allowing each person to keep them closer to their heart.
DO SOMETHING THE DECEASED ENJOYED DOING
Spend time doing something your deceased loved one enjoyed. For example, you might go hiking on your loved one’s favorite trail or go to dinner at their favorite restaurant. These little moments allow you to remember your loved one while creating new memories.
ATTEND RELIGIOUS SERVICES
If you’re religious, spend time with your loved ones going to religious services or engaging in religious activities. You may find comfort in your religion. If you share a religion with the deceased, you may find additional comfort in your shared beliefs.
Surviving Grief Frequently Asked Questions
Can grief destroy a relationship?
Grief can destroy a relationship when both individuals fail to take the necessary steps to work through their grief together. It can make a relationship stronger or weaker. The end result depends on the willingness of both parties to work through their grief and accept their partner’s ways of coping with the loss.
Can grief make you act out of character?
Absolutely! Many people act different when they’re grieving. They may be more withdrawn or more emotional. Contentious people may even find themselves forgetting to do important tasks. This all comes with the territory of grief.
Can you be in a relationship while grieving?
Yes! Even if you aren’t in a romantic relationship, everyone has relationships. Grief doesn’t mean you can have relationships with people beside the deceased. You may even find yourself in a new romantic relationship in the days following a loss, although it’s best to give yourself time if you’ve lost someone significant.
What are the negative effects of grief on a relationship?
Grief can do a number of negative things to a relationship. It may cause increased tension. If the two people are grieving at different paces, there may be misunderstandings about the nature of their grief. In many cases, grief can magnify the problems that already exist in a relationship.
How can grief affect a marriage?
Grief affects every person and every marriage differently. It can either make you and your spouse closer or it can become a wedge that pushes you apart. This usually depends largely upon the nature of your loss and your ability to communicate and grow as a couple (even when facing the stress of grief).
How much grief can a relationship handle?
This largely depends on the relationship. Some couples face a number of hardships without weakening their bond, while others may dissolve in the face of a single grief event. To prevent relationship strain, spend time communicating with your partner. Resolve to work together through your grief instead of facing things alone.
Grief & Relationships: Surviving During The Hardest Of Times
Grief can have a negative impact on relationships of all kinds. Since everyone handles grief differently, grief can become a point of contention between people who are grieving the loss of another person. The good news is that you can take steps to equip your relationship for success in the face of grief. When you use the tips and tools provided above, you’ll build strong relationships that last in the face of hardship.
June 11, 2022 by Jeri K. Augustus