About a month and a half ago, I started dating a really great guy. We have incredible chemistry and a lot in common. However, our relationship has already hit a huge hurdle: two weeks ago, his brother passed away very suddenly. Adding to that pain is the fact that his family lives across the state, almost six hours away. My boyfriend is obviously taking his brother’s passing extremely hard because they were close and my boyfriend really truly admired his brother.
While his brother was in the hospital and after he passed away, I made sure to make myself available whenever my boyfriend needed to talk, even if it was late at night, although I couldn’t be there in person because he was across the state. I also made the drive to attend his brother’s viewing so that I could be supportive, and he told me over and over again how much he appreciated that. However, since my boyfriend left his family to return to our city, he’s been having a lot of difficulty adjusting to normal life once again (understandably so). He’s not sleeping, and he’s emotionally eating all the time. He tells me he doesn’t want to talk about what’s going on, and I understand. I have difficulty letting my guard down and being vulnerable, too. Plus, even though we’re dating, we’ve still only known each other for a short time, and he might not feel completely comfortable opening up to me yet.
I did ask him flat-out what I could do to be there for him, and he responded that he didn’t know. Do you have any suggestions about how to be supportive? Should I give him space to grieve, or should I make myself available to spend time with him whenever he needs it? Should I keep asking if he wants to talk or avoid the subject completely? I want to be there without smothering him. Your guidance would be appreciated. — Confused New Girlfriend
I’m really sorry to hear about your boyfriend’s brother, especially given that you didn’t have more time to create a solid foundation with your boyfriend before this happened. But it sounds like you’re doing everything right. Just being there for him and giving him space to grieve in whatever way he needs or wants to is all you can do. Unfortunately, grief is unpredictable and inconsistent. What your boyfriend needs today may not be way he needs tomorrow. The way he behaves this week may not be how he behaves next week. From day to day, his feelings are likely to change pretty dramatically, from sadness to anger and everything in between. Being aware of that and as accepting as you can is your best bet for being a supportive girlfriend.
I’d also suggest simply being honest with your boyfriend — letting him know that you want to be supportive but you aren’t sure what he needs. Let him guide you. Follow his lead. If he’s having an angry day, give him some space and time to himself. If he seems especially vulnerable, be more nurturing. If he seems like he wants to talk, listen. Ask him questions about his brother. Be interested in learning more about this person you’re going to miss out of getting to know.
Finally, be sure to manage your expectations and take care of your own emotions. As much as his brother’s death has and will continue to affect your boyfriend, it has had a sudden affect on your life too. This budding relationship that showed so much promise a few weeks ago has hit a pretty big roadblock. Your new boyfriend is no longer emotionally available to you in the way that he was, and that’s got to to suck. Don’t feel guilty if you need to grieve a little, too. This is the perfect time to turn to your friends or family members for moral support, to help you get through this time so that you can be strong to support your boyfriend.
Hopefully, your relationship will survive the challenges it faces now and be stronger for it. Last year, I answered a letter from a teenager whose boyfriend’s mother committed suicide. Like you, she wanted some guidance on how to support her boyfriend during his time of grief. Happily, she wrote back several months later and said that her boyfriend was doing OK and that they were closer than ever before, “partly because we’re kind of bound by trauma,” she wrote, “but also because he knows he can rely on me whenever he needs me.” I hope for a similar happy outcome for you and your boyfriend.
*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.