How to Support a Partner Through a Traumatic Event
In the Beginning, When the Traumatic Event is Still Fresh:
Being able to respond to a death or a trauma with your full, undivided attention can be important in times of crisis. One may need to sacrifice their own events for a short couple of weeks and show up as fully as possible to be with the partner in need. In a time of hardship or crisis, I don’t recommend sacrificing your very basic needs (sleep, food, safety) and I don’t recommend sacrificing your career, but I do think that canceling other plans and maybe putting things like trips, social plans, and anything extra for the time that someone is experiencing crisis on hold can be extremely meaningful in a relationship. Even if your partner tells you that they don’t need you, it is loving and supportive for you to be there for your partner.
The Recovery Phase:
After a traumatic event or a death, there is usually an immediate, then a long recovery phase, both emotionally and logistically, in your life. The person who has lost someone or who has experienced something difficult will most likely need a long time to recover emotionally. They must pick up the pieces of their lives, go to work again, take care of backlogged life tasks that they had to put on hold. Your partner will continue to need your emotional support and patience during this phase.
It’s helpful to remember that they might need some extra kindness, some acknowledgement that they may be struggling, and some extra TLC (flowers, dinner made for them, a bubble bath, and the list goes on). If your partner is actively grieving, it can be hard to know how long this period will last for, but it is crucial that you remain open and understanding while they process their own pain. It is very important for you as the partner to understand how you feel, what needs you may be putting on hold, and what sacrifices you have made/are currently making for your partner. It’s important for you to be aware of what you need from your partner, and to communicate with them how you are feeling.
Unfortunately, being in a relationship with someone who is grieving, someone who is depressed, or someone who is experiencing PTSD can take a toll. Your partner has already lost someone or something, and they most likely don’t want to lose you as well. It is likely that they would rather hear your feelings and understand your experience then feel disconnected from you. A helpful way to work through this time period is to go to individual therapy for your own feelings, and go to couples therapy for the two of you.
Following the first year, the initial weight of the grief or trauma will probably be lighter. If you and your partner have made it through this year, the chances are that the two of you have become stronger through the experiences and are both feeling out of the woods, so to speak. Your partner may seem a lot better, and they probably feel emotionally healthier, too. To some extent though, they will probably always be sad about their loss or remember how traumatic things were for them. A great way to support a partner is to be cognizant of the anniversary of their loss or of their trauma.
The weeks surrounding these anniversaries can be very sensitive times. It’s good to know the dates and to check in a lot with your partner’s feelings as these weeks come and go. Since the both of you were there and experienced this event together, to some extent, it can be healing to talk about what happened and how much has changed since then. Taking a trip, being available on the day of the anniversary, and checking in with what your partner needs is a good way to acknowledge them emotionally and show them that they are not alone in their experience.
Bianca is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, in San Francisco and the East Bay, who holds a Masters degree in Integral Counseling Psychology from California Institute of Integral Studies, and a Bachelor of Science in Biological Psychology from UC Davis. Bianca has had additional training in Sue Johnson’s model for couples of Emotionally Focused Therapy, as well as a two year long psychodynamic training from San Francisco’s Center for Psychoanalysis. Bianca relies deeply on background, history, attachment styles, attachment dynamics, and feelings within the couple and the relationship to work through what is coming up within a couple. Bianca’s style is warm, introspective, and thoughtful, she strives to make sure that each partner feels safe in the room.