When a Partner Grieves: The Moment of Truth

Comments 30


“Your life is about to fall apart, you’re going to get divorced, and things will never be the same,” is what my wife’s cousin could have said.

But she didn’t. She told me in vague and confusing ways that we’d lost my father-in-law without warning and that I needed to tell his daughter.

Oh no.

She had to be mistaken. We had just had dinner with him the night before and he was the same great guy I’d known for a decade. He was fine!

It doesn’t always make sense when people die. I don’t think it makes sense for people even when they see it coming.

But sometimes we don’t see it coming.

We just wake up and have the same kind of day we always do. And then someone surprises us with a phone call.

And now, even though the earth will need to spin a billion more times before you can finally process it, you know: Everything is different now.

And it’s true. Everything you think and feel now has a new layer in it. Something uninvited. And it casts shadows. And makes things heavier.

The day my father-in-law died was the day my marriage died. I just didn’t know it yet.

Hold On, Don’t Let Go

One of my favorite cousins got married two Saturdays ago and I was fortunate enough to attend the wedding. It was the first day of my summer vacation visiting family and friends.

It was my second wedding since my divorce.

They feel different now.

I used to go to weddings and (even if I was wrong) I just knew they were going to be married forever. Now, it’s not like that. Statistically, one of the two marriages I’ve witnessed as a single guy will end in heartbreak and misery.

There are all these themes of love and loyalty and togetherness at weddings. All this talk of unselfishness and service and forgiveness.

It’s the kind of stuff most people tune out as they smile and take photos for Instagram and Facebook while looking forward to the party afterward.

I used to be just like that. But then my marriage died and all the symbolism and messages of love took on much deeper meaning. The sacredness of the occasion feels much greater now.

I look at these two people and (even if I’m wrong) I just know they have no idea what they’re in for.

Probably not soon.

Probably later.

Once complacency or resentment or sadness or grief sets in. My cousin is very close to her mother—my aunt. She moved to Florida a few years ago for all the same reasons I did after graduating college. Her daughter missed her very much. Would start crying the day BEFORE she or her mother would have to say goodbye to one another during visits, which is why my aunt moved back home.

It’s a beautiful mother-daughter bond. And one of them will have to say bye to the other someday. No one gets forever in this life.

My cousin is going to break on the inside when she loses her mother. She has a dad and brother, too. And lots of friends and other family members. Loss is part of life, but it’s one we don’t think about until it sucker punches us without warning.

Will her new husband know what to do when that day comes?

How could he?

I shook hands yesterday with a man at his wife’s funeral. I hugged his three daughters, all standing next to their husbands in the receiving line. And as much as I attempted to focus on these women trying to cope with and process the loss of their mother, I spent most of the time thinking about these husbands.

I can’t be certain this will be their greatest tests as husbands, but I’m pretty sure it will be their biggest one yet.

In Good Times, and In Bad

This is what we promise standing on that alter or in front of whoever is officiating our marriages.

We know there will be good days AND bad days, but we’re going to love our partners forever, no matter what. At least, that’s what we all say.

But then shit hits the fan without warning and life gets really inconvenient and THAT’s when we’re measured.

Everyone grieves differently.

I don’t know what I was expecting from my wife when she lost her father, but it wasn’t what I got. She seemed like a different person. One who no longer wanted me around. She said as much about a month into the grieving process.

I don’t know what the optimum way would be to deal with that, but I chose the wrong way. I moved into the guest room and felt sorry for myself every day until she left a year and a half later.

I would advise against that strategy.

I don’t know what it will look and feel like when your spouse or partner loses someone close to them. But it’s safe to assume they will hurt and feel brokenness on the inside. They’re going to feel lost and scared because they won’t feel like themselves anymore and that’s a terrifying experience.

I wish I could tell you what to do. How to make everything okay for your partner and you.

But there are no instruction manuals for this stuff. There are no blueprints to follow.

I thought it was unfair that because my wife was sad about losing her father that I had to be treated like a leper. So instead of being strong and EVERY DAY asking: “What can I do to make your day better?,” I pouted like an asshole instead of asking myself the hard questions about why my wife wasn’t coming to me for comfort.

When your spouse is grieving, this is NOT your time. This is THEIR time. Put them first. They hurt very badly. And you need to be the rock they can lean on instead of selfishly hoping he or she gets over it soon so your life can get comfortable again.

I write it a lot: Love is a choice.

When your spouse isn’t his or her fun self anymore and they don’t make you feel good because they’re lost in a vortex of emotion that changes day to day and they don’t know how to manage their own feelings, let alone yours, it’s easy to throw up your hands months later:

“Does she really think this is more important than our marriage?”

“If she’s not going to try, why should I?”

“Why is she doing this to me?”

The Moment of Truth

No one’s out to get you, and unless you and your spouse are master communicators (and you’re not, otherwise there wouldn’t be any problems) about half the things you believe your spouse is thinking and feeling are wrong. We’re sometimes bad guessers.

The phrase “The moment of truth” originated in Spanish bullfighting, referring to the moment in a bullfight in which the matador is about to make the kill.

Specifically, the dictionary tells us it’s “The moment at which one’s character, courage, skill, etc., is put to an extreme test; critical moment.”

When your partner is grieving and you feel your life unraveling because you don’t know how to help them, and you’re hurting yourself because you feel the relationship slipping away—it’s your moment of truth.

Theoretically, it won’t be the only one.

It’s hard to put yourself on the back burner and selflessly love without asking for anything in return.

But that’s what it takes. It’s a test of your character.

And you’re afraid. So afraid. Because you don’t know if the sacrifice is going to pay off because you’re not promised love and loyalty in return. It’s a test of your courage.

No one teaches us how to do this. To serve others at the expense of our own comfort, and sometimes, happiness. It’s a test of your resourcefulness. A test of your skill.

Because you’re being put to an extreme test.

And it’s a critical moment.

And many of us don’t make it.

Because we’re lost.

Because we’re not heroes.

But maybe you are.

And even if you’re not—maybe you can choose to be.

30 thoughts on “When a Partner Grieves: The Moment of Truth”

  1. Interestingly my last post was also about loss, and what it takes to keep a marriage together.

    I know what you mean about weddings. They take on a different meaning now, and there are times that I find it difficult to hold my own emotions in check.

    Great post.

    1. Many thanks, Drew. The wedding thing is an interesting development. How radically different the experience is now.

      As for loss, I think it’s probably the impetus for MANY divorces and broken marriages. I wish there was some practical advice that wasn’t a glorified rah-rah speech.

      But because everyone’s circumstances and chemical makeup are so unique, there’s really nothing to say, except: “Be aware that this happens. Try not to suck at it like I did.” <– that's essentially my advice. (Not super-helpful.)

      1. Agreed. I spent some time reading up on affairs a while back, and one of the things that amazed me was how loss and things like serious illness (to you or someone you care about) can often actually be the impetus for affairs.

        At first this made no sense to me (and still kind of doesn’t). I would have thought that loss would make you take a look and have greater appreciation for what you do have.

        Instead, it seems it can often remind people that time is short. And if they look at what they have and decide it’s not great or not what they want anymore, it can be the thing that drives them to make changes.

      2. Funny, but I’m on the other side of it, and I can’t say I have any answers either. In the past five years I’ve lost a stepfather in a tragic car accident, my father and sister to cancer and battled my own cancer and yet, I’d say today my marriage is stronger than ever. Why? I’m not sure I have an explanation. Perhaps it was that we both decided that we wanted to get through it together. My husband had empathy for me (which I think, Matt, is what you’re saying you lacked. And yes, it makes a difference) Perhaps it was that I developed the habit of listing 5 things everyday that I was grateful to my husband for: making me dinner, fluffing a pillow, having a sense of humor. It was a way of reminding myself why I’d fallen in love in the first place which drew me closer to him. But really, in the end, I think you’re right. Stuff happens. That’s life. Sometimes we make it thro
        ugh together. Sometimes it tears us apart. Great topic though!

        1. I don’t think it would be fair to say I lacked empathy or sensitivity, but I do think it would be fair to say I lacked patience.

          A philosophical difference, where I rank the importance of a marriage higher than I rank our parents. Probably seems crass. But I stand by it.

          And when I saw our marriage crumbling, and her seeming unwillingness (which was probably just emotional inability, but I didn’t know that yet) to let me in and try to rebuild “us,” I got really scared and really sad and really frustrated and didn’t do any of the things a spouse should do for their partners grieving a sudden and unexpected loss.

          It was a giant cluster.

          And the only way through is a willingness to sit back and love without expecting anything in return and demonstrating patience to allow your wife or husband to get through it in their own way and own time.

          Maybe her way of getting through it wasn’t the best either. I have no basis for comparison. And I also don’t think it will do me any good to try and assign blame elsewhere.

          I KNOW I could have been stronger and more giving and more selfless and more disciplined and more supportive as she (and we) worked through an extraordinarily difficult time.

          And perhaps by not doing so, I sealed my fate, and ended up going through an even more difficult time immediately afterward.

          Hard lessons. People should be as prepared as possible for those trials.

          Thank you very much for reading and commenting. 🙂

  2. I can relate to a lot of those moments of unexpected grief and difference after losing someone – death and divorce alike. I’ve been to a Bachelorette party, a wedding, and two baby showers since separating from my Ex and beginning the process of a new divorce. Nothing looks the same. I grieve over things that would have made me happy just a year ago – thinking of the hardships and unknowns ahead for the people who matter so much to me. As well, grieving over the changes happening in my own life.

    Love is a choice, and you will hear no disagreement from me on that score! Yet, also, for myself, I chose love for many years while my Ex chose differently. It’s shocking for me to realize that I had been choosing to love for so long, that I don’t know when the real feelings shifted from love to merely an affection for familiarity, history and loyalty. One -can- choose to love too long, though I never thought I’d hear myself saying that. I don’t know how long is too long. For me it was five years from when I was first threatened.

    Abusive relationships spin everything catty-wampus. There is no reason for someone who has been through your experiences to comment on it, and yet, I find in reading other folks’ blogs on divorce, I try to relate it to my own experiences, and sometimes I struggle. I suppose we each have our own filters for these things.

    Divorce is hard, even having gone through everything I have, I would much rather have tried to make things work – given any desire by my Ex to recognize his abusive behaviors. However hard it is to choose to love someone, I think it is just as hard, or harder to go through the process of dividing up lives.

    Sorry for the perhaps off-topic rambles, it’s Monday and I need more coffee apparently…

    1. Don’t apologize. I want you to write about and talk about anything you want.

      Divorce is unbelievable difficult. I had NO IDEA. Because there’s so much of it all the time, it’s just another thing! No big deal!

      But then it happens to you and you just want to die.

      That’s when I finally knew.

      Divorce and death are similar and people roll their eyes at that UNLESS they’ve been there, and then they feel bad they rolled their eyes.

      It wasn’t until I was all shattered and hollowed out that I finally understood how much pain my wife had been in.

      Changed everything.

  3. Your wife’s cousin could have warned you— if she had had any idea, She didn’t. What happened next came as a surprise to her, too– count on it.

    About the grieving — this doesn’t help I know, but I have an idea that it really wouldn’t have mattered what you did when your wife announced she didn’t want you anymore. Anything you did or could have done would have been the wrong thing to do. It’s hard, but before those words left her mouth her mind was made up and nothing you could have done would change that.

    May I suggest, therefore, that the time has come to stop beating yourself up? You’re not as “shitty” a fellow as you’ve been thinking. You’re just one of us— the 50% who get divorced. For any reason or no reason.

    1. Oh, I don’t know how much beating up on myself I’m doing.

      I don’t really feel that way, even if my writing reads that way. I’m not such a bad guy. I don’t think my ex-wife would tell you otherwise.

      I was just selfish and undisciplined during our most-trying days, because I took all the discomfort personally, instead of putting my energy into helping her overcome the tragedy.

      None of us are as “shitty” as I write. It’s just a good word. We’re all just humans, and even though we behave ridiculously, it’s ultimately normal and expected for us to do so.

      I just like to write these things down so that maybe someday someone will stumble on it and it will help them make different choices in their own life, and maybe experience better results than I did.

      I’ll never know for sure.

      As always, I appreciate you reading and commenting very much.

      Maybe you’re right. I wonder sometimes if we have as much control as I want to believe we have.

      I think about it almost every day.

      Sometimes, shit just… happens.

  4. Weddings post-divorce are hard. They are different. Untold emotions toil, and the unconditional happiness in the wedded bliss before us is harder to come by. I’ve only braved one. I’ve turned down every other invitation and sent a gift with well-meaning words of encouragement.
    A little piece of me still thinks, “congratulations on your pending divorce,” when I hear of an engagement. I have issues with marriage. I have no intention of working on those.

    1. I’m infinitely more cynical about marriage than I used to be.

      But I’m not giving up hope just yet.

      Thanks for the laugh!

  5. I suppose it’s very evolved of you to always take the blame for how things went awry after your ex’s father died. From an outside view, though – it doesn’t seem like she was open to being comforted by you.

    Yes, you can ask her every day, “What can I do to make your day better?” But what if the person wanted out of the marriage already, and used her grief and anger from losing her father to anchor her distance from you more firmly? Nothing you can really do there.

    I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. But you take so much of the blame, it makes my naturally rebellious side want to blame the other person.

    1. I’m not trying to take all the blame. But I AM trying to not point any fingers.

      Because I generally believe that if one person gives all they have to give and does all they should do, the other spouse will never fracture enough to break the marriage in the first place.

      I’m not saying she’s squeaky clean. I’m saying, if husbands walk the higher path, they might find their wives will feel better, safer, happier, and all of the things that frustrate the husband will “magically” disappear. All because he made a few, simple behavioral changes in the name of love and selflessness.

      Doesn’t really seem like that big of a trade in order to have a lasting, pleasant marriage.

      Especially when the alternative is total fuckness.

  6. Thank you for this. It is beautiful!

    And I see something wider than grief – crisis in general. In mid-life, in transition, in scary times it takes courage to ask the right questions and be there no matter what. It takes understanding you don’t have to make it mean something about you. And it takes resilience to duck the blows of a heart lashing out.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

      There’s nothing easy about adulthood, marriage, parenting, increased responsibilities, etc.

      All of it requires a bit of sacrifice. When viewed through the appropriate prism, I think one finds that the “sacrifice” and unselfishness ultimately rewards us in greater amounts than we gave.

      When we give more than we take, we always end up getting.

      I wish we’d remember that in our most-selfish moments. Even if we don’t WANT to give, we should just do it anyway, because the rewards are plenty.

  7. Matt – almost every time I read one of your posts I feel like you are talking to me. Seriously. I’ve been married over twenty years and know her over thirty. We dated for long while before we got married – mostly because for almost the first five years we were in different states. Her sister passed in April 2014 and her dad followed in June. It’s been a long grieving process and she’s more fragile than ever. Her dad was a great person and a hugely positive influence in my life – almost as much as my own dad, but without the baggage. Thanks for the post, it gives me a boost and hope for the future. Peace.

    1. My apologies for those losses, Clay. Particularly the father-in-law which I can so closely identify with.

      We lose these people who matter to us. We watch our spouses grieve and agonize. And there’s damn near nothing we can do for them.

      Our job is to just be there. Steady and ever-present. Listening. Loving.

      And when we don’t get anything in return, or when we’re shunned, or when we’re rejected because of pain unrelated to us, it STILL hurts us.

      That’s when marital commitment and unconditional love is supposed to win the day.

      That’s how everyone who gets to forever gets there.

      It’s beautiful, in a maddening, painful sort-of way.

      Always good to hear from you, sir.

  8. Some people simply do not allow their closest in at times of crises. That then drives them away. There is nothing you could have done to see that or prevent it happening. It is not your fault.

    1. I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t allowed in. And my assumption is that little things I did or didn’t do up to that point in the marriage is WHY she wouldn’t let me in.

      I’ll never really know for sure.

  9. I can relate to this. Both my parents died suddenly, with no warning w/in 5 mos of each other, and in between my father-in-law died of cancer. My husband was a rock. My siblings weren’t so lucky, both are divorced now. Their exs said they changed. Of course we changed, the world changed for us that year, and it’s never going to be the same again.

    1. The other spouses don’t think it’s fair that their partners changed out of nowhere. Some people respond really horribly to that.

      I suppose I was one of them.

      It’s a hard time and it takes a very committed, very REAL kind of love to last through those trials.

      That must have been a brutal time, Dawn. Certainly for the divorced siblings as their marriages crumbled.

      People need to “get better” at being married. And by doing so, they’ll be better able to weather the really tough times.

      Most of us screw it up so badly that at the first sign of tragedy and turmoil, the foundation isn’t strong enough to withstand it.


      Sad stuff.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Dawn.

  10. Arielle Mikkelson

    Matt, I admire you so much for your honesty and humility in admitting your faults with your wife, but as some have said, it may, or may not ,have helped. The beneficial thing for you is that you have really become an empathetic person. That is helping so many and will help you next time you have a shot at love.

    All I can say is that I think the answer here is the same as the answer for your blog “the secret.”
    We, as humans, can not fully meet each other’s needs for love, affection, admiration, validation, empathy, understanding, etc….

    And I don’t think we can simply “choose” to be unselfish and kind and loving and faithful. We have our own needs that legitimately need to be met. If we try to do it alone it’s exhausting and impossible, especially in the face of repeated, consistent rejection, like the kind you were experiencing.

    We need help from someone smarter, wiser, all knowing, all powerful and who is LOVE
    The quicker we get to the end of ourselves, the faster we find “the secret”

    1. There is a thing about submitting to a higher power that I believe most people are way too afraid to do.

      I think people are power-hungry and have a mistaken need to feel “in control of their own lives.” I’m probably as guilty of this as anyone.

      All of the evidence I’ve ever seen or heard anecdotally is that opening our hearts and ceding control of our lives to that higher power is the only way to achieve the lasting peace and contentment we all crave, but can never figure out how to capture.

      It’s just a very, very, very hard thing for people to do. Even for those of us who grew up immersed in it.

      Sadly, I think people need to learn the hard way. I know I do. You stay alive and get kicked in the teeth long enough and keep asking: “WHY, WHY, WHY!?!?!” I think maybe some people will try the only thing they’ve yet to try: God.

      I’ve seen beautiful things emerge from such bravery.

      1. Arielle Mikkelson

        Yes, Matt I think you’re right about all of that. We think we can do it our way and we keep trying….

        Here’s the interesting thing I’m finding though…

        The divorced friends I have and have dated are all so confident they want to find love again and confident that they have learned so much and are better people now and can’t wait to be that better version of themselves that they wished they had been in their marriage, and yet….

        They don’t really want to commit again
        They don’t really want to give up the comfort of their singleness and having separate homes, space, music, TV, activities
        They don’t want to share money again, ever
        They don’t want to have to compromise
        They don’t want to have to deal with another person’s kids (too much)
        They don’t want to sign up for sickness, just health
        And maybe they want to sample, because how can we know what we really want if we don’t do a lot of sampling?

        So let me ask this question….
        Have we really learned anything from our marriage and divorce about love, and unselfishness, and going the extra mile and being patient and faithful during trials? Have we really changed and matured at all?

        Or are we just lusting after others, wanting them to meet our needs at our convenience and taking the selfish road, like we may have done in marriage, by dating and discarding?

        Discarding because this person doesn’t check every box on our now ,very long, post divorced with baggage, list?

        Discarding because we hit a bump in the relationship and the “marriage baggage” is making us freak out?

        Or discarding, because ultimately, we’re still the same selfish person we were before, but now we have the “divorce/fear/baggage” excuse?

  11. This one hit uncomfortably close to home. I keep coming back to one thing you wrote: “…Instead of asking myself the hard questions about why my wife wasn’t coming to me for comfort.”

    That, I think, is the crux of it. It doesn’t sound like you were unwilling to be a support to your wife in her time of loss…and maybe I’m reading more into this than I should, but it sounds more like your wife felt like she couldn’t trust you to be her comfort and she withdrew to protect herself from further loss. Maybe you didn’t realize it at the time, but the cracks in your marriage were probably already there and when your moment of truth came, the crack grew into a chasm that neither of you knew how to bridge.

    I’ve always appreciated your willingness to own your part in the breakdown of your marriage, so I hope this doesn’t come across as a smackdown. By your own admission, the climate in your marriage was such that your wife didn’t feel she could count on you in a time of need. You can, and should, take responsibility for the things that you did that contributed to the climate of distrust and disappointment in the marriage. It’s not hard to see why your wife chose to withdraw and shut you out, but ultimately it was her choice and you had no control over that. That’s hers to own and for her own healing, I hope your she is able to come to terms with her part in all this. Otherwise she’s likely to carry it into a new relationship.

    Sigh. I’m rambling and I apologize. I just have so much empathy for both of you. One of the best things about marriage, to me anyways, is knowing you’ve got someone in your life who’s got your back. I really hope that one day, both of you will find that again and be able to appreciate how precious it is.

    Don’t know why this touched me so much, but I want you to know that I will be praying for continued healing for both of you.

  12. Oh, this. My father died the day we returned from our honeymoon. Not unexpected, but we thought it was quite a ways away.

    It does change everything. It nearly cost me my marriage as well. It took us a decade to turn it around.

    Not your fault. Retrospect clarifies many things that you could not have understood then – hell, I didn’t know what I needed, how can I expect him to? Anyway. Thank you for this.

  13. I want to pick up on a thread in the comments here, because they resonate with something I’ve brought up before: how responsible ARE you? I so admire your commitment, Matt, to taking responsibility for the demise of your marriage. Yet I wonder, as some folks have mentioned here, if you’re not going too far?

    The easiest thing to do in these situations is to push all the blame off on someone else: “he was emotionally unavailable,” “she only cared about her career,” etc. That’s being blind and stupid and immature and setting yourself up for more fuckery (a term of yours I’ve come to really like) down the line. Most of the divorce books and blogs I’ve read are all about how you really, really need NOT to do that. Okay, point taken. But maybe you can also err too far in the other direction? It takes two to make a thing go wrong.

    When your father in law died, I don’t doubt that you were a pouting and clueless douchebag, in this as in so many things (!). But maybe your wife ALSO had some responsibility to deal with her grief a little differently?

    The tricky part seems to me to BOTH take responsibility for your part AND state accurately what is/was NOT your responsibility. Doing this without minimizing or equivocating about your own part (e.g., “well, sure, I had an affair, because you were a cold bitch who only cared about the kids!”) seems like the trickiest move.

    Could you write about how to do this? I’m really sick of the self-shaming dimensions of divorce recovery literature, and could use your help.

  14. “The day my father-in-law died was the day my marriage died. I just didn’t know it yet.”

    Oh, Matt! Now your story starts to make sense.

    “Divorce and death are similar”. Yes they are. Although divorce can be tougher in some ways – we have fewer rituals for processing it. And if you have to co-parent, you can be reminded of your loss every day; you are more likely to blame yourself.

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