When the phone rang at 6:30 in the morning on a cold January day more than ten years ago, I was not alarmed. It was a Tuesday, a women’s Bible study day for me, and as our group’s facilitator, I always told my ladies they could feel free to call me any morning after 5:30, our family’s customary get-up time. So when the ringing phone broke into our early-morning routine, I assumed it was one of my study sisters calling to tell me she would not be at our meeting that day.
Instead, the voice on the other end of the phone was almost unrecognizable as my mother-in-law’s. Her choked words were drenched in shock and grief not an hour old as she told me my father-in-law had died utterly unexpectedly earlier that morning.
The minutes that followed her phone call plunged my husband into what Ecclesiastes 3 describes as “a time to mourn.” He would have to mourn not only the earthly loss of his father but also of his business mentor, college sports and wood-cutting partner, faith inspiration, and best buddy. And those same minutes plunged me into a crash course on how to support a spouse who had lost a parent.
Although every situation is different (much depends on our spouses’ relationships with their parents and the circumstances surrounding their parents’ deaths), the following are five steps I found, through trial and much more error, to be helpful in what can be described as the “worse” end of of the traditional marriage vows’ commitment to love “for better, for worse.”
1. Commit for the long, messy journey.
“Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” (1 Corinthians 13:7 NLT)
Grief, as it turns out, is not a smooth, straight, well-marked superhighway from one point to another via a series of well-defined and predictable stages. Instead, it is a rocky, uneven, unmarked, winding footpath with various side roads, detours, and delays. For this reason, walking with a partner through the loss of a parent has the potential to be much more of a marathon than a sprint.
When we make marriage vows promising to love each other “for better, for worse,” the majority of us are admittedly hoping it’s mostly for better and that “for worse” is infrequent and short-lived. But grief takes its own time. Certainly, there are some circumstances when a person’s death is to some extent expected and even considered a blessing. But even here, grieving has usually taken place beforehand. In many more instances, when a spouse loses a parent, they are likely to be heartbroken—either because they had a close relationship with their parent or because they didn’t. If there are unresolved issues, regrets, or bitterness leftover from the relationship, these get thrown into the grief pool, too.
For all of these reasons, one of the most significant gifts one spouse can offer another during a season of mourning a parent is the commitment of time, holding on, and waiting—not rushing—through what must be done.
2. Encourage Healthy Grieving
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)
Tempting as it can be to decide not to grieve, to say quick goodbyes and get on with the business of regular life, this is not something for us to wish for our spouses when they have lost a parent. Grief will not be ignored, and if it is shoved off to the side or covered over, it has a way of showing up in harsher and more complicated incarnations later on. Although bereavement is uncomfortable territory for the mourner and the supporting spouse, it is for the long-term good of both and their marriage.
When my husband lost his dad, I tried to encourage him to grieve on his own timetable and in his own way. Sometimes, this looked like him just being more quiet than usual. Sometimes, it looked like him crying at sporadic moments, during which I would hold him and not say anything. Sometimes, it looked like him talking about all the things his dad was missing, especially where his grandchildren were concerned. Again, this is messy territory that can feel like a long dark night, but the goal, when our spouses grieve healthfully and well, is that they get to the blessed point where joy does come in the morning (Psalm 30:5).
3. Suggest Useful Resources
“Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before.” (Joshua 3:4)
Sometimes our spouses who have lost parents may need support beyond what we can give to help them process such an enormous loss—to navigate an unfamiliar way they’ve never been before. When my husband lost his dad, I could not guide him with what had helped me when I lost my parent because I had never had that experience. And even if I had previously experienced it myself, each person’s grief journey is uniquely their own.
Thankfully, my husband was gifted early on with a roadmap of sorts in a thoughtful book by a grief-support organization. Each short daily reading—a year’s worth of them—reassured him he was not alone and provided Scripture-based guidance to help him process his thoughts and emotions. My husband was also open to attending a grief group, had he felt he needed the extra support. In some cases, one-on-one counseling may be prudent or even necessary.
Doing some research on resources for our hurting husbands and wives and then gently making them aware of these options can be a practical way to communicate, “You do not have to figure this out on your own. There are those who have gone before you who can help you find your way now. “
4. Check in Regularly Over Time
“Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4 NKJV)
When someone has lost a loved one, inquiries into how they’re doing are usually easy to come by in the early days. But before very long, those in the outside world can become used to the loss and start to think the same is true of the one still in mourning.
One of the gifts of support we can give our spouses who are grieving the loss of a parent is the awareness that just because they are doing normal things in life, that does not mean life feels normal to them—regularly checking in well beyond the initial period of loss—”How are you doing? How are you feeling today? What is hitting you most right now? Is there anything you need from me that I am not giving you? Am I doing something that is making this harder?”—can reassure them we’re still with them in the process of grief.
5. Look for Ways to Honor the Past and Keep Memories Alive
“‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise—’ so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'” (Ephesians 6:2-3)
Unless or until they ask you not to, bring up the parent your spouse has lost. Sometimes you may think that mentioning them will make your mate think about them when they otherwise weren’t. But of course, you know the truth: they already were. You just let them know they weren’t alone in that.
I took my cues from my husband here, and as he gradually started to say, “My dad would’ve loved this” or, “My dad used to say…” or, “I wish my dad could be here to see this,” I picked up those threads and tried to weave them into the tapestry of our life without the earthly presence of his father. I shared memories of his dad as they came to me. I, too, commented, “Your dad would have loved this,” when we experienced something that especially made me think of him. When my husband watched a particularly thrilling game in college sports (a mutual passion he’d shared with his dad), I’d comment, “Your dad would have loved this one.”
I also looked for ways to honor my father-in-law at ceremonial moments in our lives. When we threw a small family party for my older daughter’s college graduation, I included a framed photo of his dad on the gift table. And at my younger daughter’s high school graduation party, a special chair at the head of one of the tables was reserved for “Papa,” along with a note in his honor our guests could read. Both gestures gave substance and weight to a reality we all felt: his dad was indeed there with us.
One Father’s Day, about five years after my father-in-law entered into the heavenly presence of Jesus, I asked my husband, “How does it feel now? Do you feel any different today than you did on that first Father’s Day without your dad?” Without hesitation, my husband said, “Oh, yes. I still miss my dad every day, but I don’t have that sick feeling in my stomach I did back then.” I was glad this was his honest answer. I was glad he didn’t have to think about it. I wasn’t glad just for myself because it was easier on me; I was glad this was his reality. I was grateful my husband had walked the necessary way of grief and that God had entrusted me the privilege and responsibility of walking it alongside him.
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Elizabeth Spencer is a wife, mom, freelance writer, baker, Bible study facilitator, and worship leader from Battle Creek, Michigan. She writes about faith, family, and food (with some occasional funny thrown in) on her blog, Guilty Chocoholic Mama, and on Facebook. She is the author of the devotional Known By His Names: A 365-Day Journey From The Beginning to The Amen.