‘Grief is alive, wild, untamed’: How to support a partner who’s lost a loved one

An illustration of two hands overlapping.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

When someone we love dies, we want to know that our partner, family and friends will be there to witness our pain and support us, in ways both practical and intangible.

But we often aren’t taught how to show up for folks who are deep in the throes of loss — which is unfortunate, because we all inevitably lose those dear to us. Instead, American culture tells us that grief is a short-term emotional problem that needs to be fixed, and as a result, our responses to our grieving loved ones often come from a place of fear and avoidance instead of patient care.

This week, I’m answering a question from a reader (who asked to remain confidential) that gets to the heart of this reality: “How do you help a spouse struggling with the recent death of a parent? When do you encourage therapy, (or) further help?”

I spoke with three amazing experts who have all moved through their own profound losses, and I’ve compiled a list of considerations below based on their insights.

Before we get started though, a note on grief. It’s a multidimensional experience that could last for a few weeks or for the rest of your life, depending on who has died. Don’t assume that your loved one is done grieving because it’s been (in your estimation) a long time. Grief can feel overwhelming and unwieldy one day and morph into a subtle undercurrent of sadness the next. It’s unpredictable. And all expressions of grief are normal.


“There is something feral about grief, something essentially outside the ordained and sanctioned behaviors of our culture,” writes psychotherapist Francis Weller in his book “Entering the Healing Ground.” “Contrary to our fears, grief is suffused with life force. ... It is not a state of deadness or emotional flatness. Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated. It resists the demands to remain passive and still. We move in jangled, unsettled, and riotous ways when grief takes hold of us. It is truly an emotion that rises from the soul.”

When someone you love is grieving

The first thing to address in our reader’s question is how to support someone we love as they journey through their grief.

Psychotherapist Megan Devine, who wrote “It’s OK That You’re Not OK” after losing her partner, Matt, said it’s important to meet the grieving person where they’re at.

You want to support them — not try to rid them of their difficult feelings. “We know on some level we can’t make this go away, but we are going to try, and that makes things come out sideways,” Devine told me. You absolutely can’t fix this for your partner, which should take some of the pressure off.

What you should do is accept their feelings, even if you don’t understand them. “The most powerful thing we can do is just bear witness without moving people from where they are,” said grief and trauma therapist Ajita Robinson.

Let them share their stories, their memories, all that went unsaid, their unfinished business, Robinson said. Be a sounding board for their angst and regret — without trying to rush them through these hard emotions.

“Slow down when you’re with a grieving person and treat the space with reverence,” said Joanne Cacciatore, a professor of social work at Arizona State University who operates the Selah Carefarm, a retreat for bereaved people. “Instead of being bombastic or loud, lower your voice and recognize that when someone is sharing their grief with you, you’re on holy ground with them.”

And it might sound obvious, but be sure to regularly ask the bereaved how they’re doing.

“It’s easy to get seduced by mortgage payments, kids, meals,” Cacciatore said. “When it’s quiet and you have some time to really connect, ask your partner, how are you really feeling? What do you miss most about your dad today? Are you willing to share that with me? Would you like to look through some old photos or videos together?”


Finally, embrace that this might be scary or awkward if you’ve never supported someone in this way. These aren’t conversations we have in our daily lives, and it’s hard to reach for new skills in such an intense moment, Devine said.

“To be able to say, ‘I don’t really know how to do this, but I am willing to try because I love you and want you to feel supported and heard’ is such a beautiful gift,” she said.

Honoring the dead

Beyond emotional support, there are also practical things you can do for your grieving partner, family member or friend.

Offer concrete help. If you tell a bereaved person, “I’m here if you need me, just let me know,” it’s unlikely they’ll reach out, experts said. It puts the burden back on them to figure out what they need, and asking for help can feel too vulnerable in the midst of loss.

Instead, lean on what you know about the person, be specific and ask for permission. For example: “I know that when things get really tough, you like to get takeout and watch a movie and not talk about it. Would that feel good today?” Devine said. This kind of suggestion only requires a yes or no response but still leaves room for your loved one to decline and acknowledges their autonomy, that they know what’s best for them right now.

In the early days after the death, you might offer to tackle administrative tasks, such as funeral planning or running interference when people reach out to give their condolences. Or you could take care of the household chores so your spouse has the time to get the admin work done, Devine said.

Also, think about what brings them peace and joy. Do they like to kickbox? Go to yoga or church? Hike? Invite them to go with you. If they say no, tell them that’s OK, and there’s no pressure. But keep asking.

Make space for ritual and tradition: As time passes, those who weren’t deeply close to the person who died will go back to their normal lives, and primary grievers may be left reeling.

One way you can hold space for your partner’s ongoing grief is to help them come up with rituals that regularly honor the person they’ve lost, Cacciatore said. This could look like giving the name of the person who died to the Starbucks barista instead of their own. “Sadly, I have clients who do that because no one else will say their person’s name,” she added.

Robinson’s family still sets a plate for her brother and grandfather, both of whom are dead, at the Thanksgiving table. When her grandfather was alive, the family would sit around the campfire while he told stories. Now, Robinson’s family plays games and watches a movie every year instead.

“He would want us to continue having this meal together, to honor him and our family values,” Robinson said, “and for those of us who are still here to create new meaning and rituals together.”

Some families hold birthday parties or dinners on the deceased relative’s birthday. It can mean a lot to grieving folks when you remember their loved one’s birthday and death day and, at the very least, text them a loving thought that day. In the case of your partner, it could be helpful to have a conversation early about how they want to spend that day (and respect whatever they say).

Seeking help

Our reader also wants to know when you should encourage a bereaved person to seek therapy or other forms of professional support.

Devine encourages us to expand our idea of what is “normal” during grief. Just because someone is struggling after a big loss doesn’t mean they’re in trouble, especially if they are well-supported by their network. But some people may need extra help even if their circle is showing up for them.

“The only time I’m really concerned about grieving people is when they are not eating [or] sleeping,” Devine said, or if they’re “having constant panic attacks, are self-harming or are suicidal. It’s not that they’re doing grief wrong, but these are safety issues.”

When raising the issue with your partner, you could say something like: “I’m willing to hear whatever you need to talk about, and I’m wondering if it would be helpful to look for a therapist who really gets this stuff so you have another place to process.” Or, “I see that you are working really hard to figure out what life looks like now. I wonder if talking with someone who’s really knowledgeable about grief would have some ideas on how to survive it.” What you don’t want to convey is that you are done listening, or that they are taking this loss too hard, Devine said.

If they say yes to extra support, you could offer to research grief therapists who take their insurance, or email them a list of support groups, Robinson said.

I know that this is a lot to consider. But if you’re someone who is taking the time to learn how to be present with your loved ones while they grieve, you are halfway there. Be kind to yourselves, be open to making mistakes, and keep asking hard questions.

Until next week,


If what you learned today from these experts spoke to you or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences, please email us and let us know if it is OK to share your thoughts with the larger Group Therapy community. The email gets right to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.

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More perspectives on today’s topic & other resources

We’re hosting a Twitter Spaces event today at noon, “Día de Muertos: Remembering loved ones and celebrating life.” My colleague Fidel Martinez will talk with mental health expert Mirna Martinez about what this holiday means to those who are grieving while also celebrating the lives of their loved ones. You can also make an online altar for your loved one on The Times’ website until 6 tonight.

Megan Devine’s book “It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand” offers a new approach to both the experience of grief and the way we try to help others who have endured tragedy. You can also check out Devine’s podcast here.

“Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief,” by Joanne Cacciatore, reveals how grief can open our hearts to connection, compassion and the very essence of our shared humanity.

“The Gift of Grief,” by Ajita Robinson, offers insight into the grief process and addresses the different myths that can affect your grief journey.

The Group List includes hundreds of group therapy meetings held throughout Los Angeles County, including grief support groups. Updated every year, the list includes a variety of groups for anyone needing extra support.

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Group Therapy is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. We encourage you to seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your mental health.