Parents who lose a child often hold in their grief, or hide it in an attempt to remain strong for their partner, but both of these strategies can backfire, according to new research.
For the study, researchers interviewed 219 couples who had lost a child. The parents were from 26 to 68 years old, and the causes of their children’s death ranged from stillbirth, to illness, accident, SIDS, suicide or homicide.
They were asked to rate how much they agreed with statements like “I stay strong for my partner,” “I hide my feelings for the sake of my partner,” or “I try to spare my partner’s feelings.” The researchers collected the data at three different times: six, 13 and 20 months after the loss.
These questions examined a phenomenon researchers referred to as Partner-Oriented Self-Regulation (POSR), which captures the way in which couples either avoided discussion of their loss or attempted to remain strong for the sake of their partner.
Many husbands and wives believe that these two strategies help to alleviate grief, but researchers said that these strategies actually exacerbated the problems of grieving.
They found that POSR was not only associated with an increase in the person’s own grief, but also with an increase in the partner’s grief.
There is a paradox, according to psychological scientist Dr. Margaret Stroebe, who conducted the research with her colleagues at the Utrecht University and VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
“While parents seek to protect their partners through POSR, this effort has the opposite effect, and it is associated with worse adjustment over time,” she said. “Surprisingly, our results suggest that POSR has costs, not benefits, and not only for the partner but also for the self.”
These results may be explained by the role of self-regulation in the grieving process, she noted. Our ability to self-regulate is essential for dealing with the world, but exerting excessive efforts to contain our emotions and regulate our feelings, thoughts, and behavior exact interpersonal and individual costs, she explained.
Like a muscle that becomes exhausted after exertion, too much self-regulation depletes our ability to self-regulate in various areas of our lives, including physical health and goal accomplishment.
Ultimately, these attempts at self-regulation may prevent partners from coping with the loss of their child, according to the researchers.
Suppressing emotions also can have adverse effects on grief between couples. One partner may think that painful feelings aren’t accepted, for example, or a partner might misinterpret no apparent grief as a lack of actual grief.
“One important implication of this research is that, in cases where professional help is indicated, clinicians can — when appropriate — guide bereaved clients away from POSR and toward sharing their grief, thereby easing their suffering,” Stroebe said.