Good Grieving

How do you help a grieving spouse who can’t seem to get over the loss of a parent?

My wife lost her father some time ago. She has been grieving for a long, long time; she just can’t get over the loss. I feel bad for what she’s going through, because I loved my father-in-law, too, but this has been going on for months. It’s starting to affect our marriage and our family life.

Caroline: I am going to defer to Tom on this one, since he has experienced the death of a parent himself.

Tom: When my dad died several years ago, it caused great sadness but also some relief, as it occurred at the end of a painful bout with cancer. I experienced a more intense grief for several weeks, but this gradually began to fade to the background. A funny thing happened, though. My dad had died on July 3. Nearly one year later, long after I thought I had “finished grieving,” I found myself overcome with emotion one more time.

It was June of the following year, and I was browsing for a Father’s Day card for my father-in-law. It suddenly hit me: This was the first time in my life that I would not be buying a card for my own father on Father’s Day. This felt like a sucker punch to the gut, having this emotional experience so long after his death.

I relay this story to illustrate a point that psychologists make about grief: It is quite normal for the grieving process to last as long as a year. Every time a major event or milestone passes for that year — a birthday, an anniversary, a holiday — we call to mind all the associations we have of our deceased loved one with that event. In other words, we miss them all over again. We notice their absences in a new way. Dad isn’t in his favorite chair at Christmastime; he doesn’t call on my birthday; I can’t talk to him about the Super Bowl. And on and on.

After we have been through all these events once, things get much easier. I would urge you to first pray for patience, and know that your wife’s grief will come to an end. But it may take time, as much as a year. Pray for understanding and be a support to her. You cannot “argue” her out of her grief. It is not a conscious decision on her part, so much as a heartfelt reaction.

There are some things you might suggest, though. I spend one hour each week before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer. After my dad died, I spent some of that time talking to him, sharing my feelings and struggles. This was a great emotional and spiritual outlet for me, and I experienced reassurance that my dad’s faith in the Lord was now fulfilled. In other words, I missed him — but he was fine.

Perhaps you could encourage your wife to devote specific quiet time in prayer in this way. The practice may give her a regular outlet for her grief, keeping it from overwhelming her so frequently and persistently.

Keep the faith. God can do great things with the simple gift of time.

The McDonalds are family-life coordinators of the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama.