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About us

We are a European couple, I'm 23 male and she is 24 female, from Spain. We have been together for about 5 months.

Context

My girlfriend's mother passed away a couple of years ago, and she hasn't really talked to me too much about her. Some nights ago, while we were in bed about to sleep, she started crying (silently, I only noticed when I tried to talk to her about something else) because the next day was Mother's day, and that brought her back memories.

All I could come up with was hug her and kiss her, and the few words I said didn't really help her that much. I wanted to let her know that I was there for her if she wanted to talk about her mother or her feelings, but I didn't want it to make her feel like I was forcing her to talk about it.

She can be shy sometimes, specially if she feels she is being a burden to me, so she won´t bring out topics like this unless I do it first and assure her she is not giving me any trouble.

Question

How can I tell her that I'm willing to listen to her if she wants to talk about her mother, but leave her the option to say no?

  • Have you tried to talk about it before? If yes, what was her response? – A J May 4 '18 at 6:18
  • @AJ I haven´t about this specific topic. About less sensitive ones I try to do it directly, or sharing similar experiences, but I don´t want to make her feel like she is forced to talk about this if she is not ready or just doens´t want to. So I don´t know how to bring it up. – patch May 4 '18 at 6:32
  • and the few words I said didn´t really help her that much - what did you say? – Kaspar Scherrer May 4 '18 at 9:57
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    Is Mother's Day over? The Interweb suggests Dia de la Madre in Spain is the first Sunday in May, which would be this coming Sunday. If that's correct, you may be able to get some specific advice for handling the day (since it hasn't come and gone yet, and may be an ongoing "trigger" for your girlfriend). – 1006a May 4 '18 at 16:56
  • @1006a I might have missunderstood her, or she meant the day was getting close. I think regardless of that, this answers are helpfull anyway for dealing with future situations like this one, in my opinion. – patch May 5 '18 at 11:00
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I can relate to your girlfriend. I myself lost my father ~20 years ago. I'm also rather an introvert. It took me years of distance to be able to talk about it. The first few years I would not even cry, just shut down.

I still sometimes get sad when something reminds me of him, like a movie with a strong father-son scene. What I can tell you is that my wife always notices. She then just cuddles me and tells me that she loves me. For me that is about the best thing you can do in such a situation. Just hold her and have a tissue ready. If she wants to tell you something, she will. Else just be there.

It also helps talking about it, but I would reserve that for another time, when she is not overwhelmed by mourning. When you have an intimate discussion anyway, you can offer her an opportunity to talk about it.

Either do it passively by disclosing something thematically related yourself. (see this post for a discussion of this approach)

Or just ask her directly, something like: I noticed you still carry a lot of sorrow about your late mother. Whenever you want to talk about it, when you're ready just tell me. I am always there for you.

Whatever feels appropriate. Just be sensitive and if she rejects your offer, don't keep pestering her about this. You have to be patient and let her take her time.

At last, I wanted to remind that, while feeling sorrow is not a particularly good experience, those feelings need to be felt from time to time. It's part of the process of mourning. You can't spare her that, so just be supportive. I know for a loving partner that you can sometimes feel left out, but this is something you just need to give her space.

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    Would you consider changing your ‘when you want to talk’ to ‘if you want to talk’? I think that removes any implication that she should want to talk, and helps avoid the statement seeming pressurising. – Spagirl May 4 '18 at 10:21
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    Well, language I take as read, I was addressing the content. Not everyone gets benefit from talking about their feelings and the OP already described his partner as being shy and prone to worrying about being a burden. The OP doesn't say the GF is an introvert, but lots of people are and those sorts of subtle wording differences can make a wold of difference to the pressure felt to interact in a way that goes against your inclination. Mourning your mother shouldn't become loaded with expectation from others. – Spagirl May 4 '18 at 10:31
  • Anyways, that is what I felt helpful in my situation and what I wanted to share with OP, because I thought it relates. So now it stays that way. EOD. – user6109 May 4 '18 at 14:28
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    I really like this answer! This one and @OldPadawan answers are similar, and both are really helpfull to me. If I feel she wants to talk about it, I will probably use a similar approach to what you suggest here, thats why I accepted this one. Again, thank you very much :) – patch May 5 '18 at 10:57
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    While technically correct, I'm not sure I'd say late mother so early (or ever, to her). I'd simply refer to the deceased as "your mother" – Tas May 6 '18 at 23:09
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How can I tell her that I´m willing to listen to her if she wants to talk?

You've already done something very important : "All I could come up with was hug her and kiss her." You showed her you care. But words didn't help...

Sometimes, silence is much more powerful than words. Add the presence of his beloved (you). Be nice. Act "normally". Create a "warm / welcoming" atmosphere (i.e. avoid sensible topics if you have to talk, talk less, respect her silence, make dinner, do anything that keeps you and/or her busy. Something light, not so important, "routine", etc.).

Do whatever you do so that she can feel you're here for here, but not bothering her. This is the first step "telling" her that you are here to support her.

To use an image, you are the wooden pole she sees and can cling to, you are the chair she can use to sit and relax. Show you're here and willing to help. Don't say it with words until needed or if you feel it's needed/welcome. Human beings usually prefer talking when they're not stressed/pissed/sad etc. Wait until you feel she's more relax.

If really you have to use words, I would wait until we've just finished some random task, sit in the couch, and say something along the line of: "wow, we did a good job. We should take a couple of minutes off before doing X/Y/Z. Sit with me [ any love word here ]? want to talk about something?"

If she's willing to talk to you, she'll know you're opened to listen to her. If she just cuddle or say nothing, well, she knows you're here, but doesn't want to talk. It's another body language.

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    Your answer reminds me a lot of how to live with introverts. Regardless of whether OP's girlfriend is actually an introvert or not is irrelevant here. What matters is coming across as present but unintrusive, which both your answer and the introvert advice have in common. – Flater May 4 '18 at 16:01
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    @Flater : 1st paragraph of Daniel's answer = me, when I lost my father. And I was quite of an introvert at that time, still am when it comes to such things in life. And I'm like @ patch when it comes to help people in the same situation. I guess I saw both ends, as it hurts, wether you're on one side or the other... :( – OldPadawan May 4 '18 at 16:06
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    Thank you so much for your answer! It really spoke to me, I think this is great advice. I haven't lost anyone that close to me, so I was a little bit lost on how to be there for her. – patch May 5 '18 at 10:52
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Mourning

This is a sense of loss that lasts years. There is not a getting better, it is about working through ones feelings and becoming a different person.

The key issue is to show support, emotional sympathy and empathy, feeling the sadness and working with the person as they come to terms with their loss.

It is like losing an arm or a leg. Part of who you are has gone, and you know will never return. And on an emotional scale it is essential one acknowledges the feelings and let the process of letting go, and mourning happen.

There are lots of books and support to help you understand the situation and what is appropriate. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-grief-and-loss.htm

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Simply put, you already have:

All I could come up with was hug her and kiss her, and the few words I said didn´t really help her that much.

Nuh-uh. You don't get to say that it didn't help- because they will have. Just because she isn't springing up as though things are fine and isn't carrying on her day as normal, doesn't mean it didn't help.

In times like these where she's struggling and needs it, she's getting it. You're showing support, companionship by being there and offered it to her on her terms. You aren't drowning her in it which I can tell you is not helpful, so relax- you're doing what you can already.

I wanted to let her know that I was there for her if she wanted to talk about her mother or her feelings, but I didn´t want it to make her feel like I was forcing her to talk about it.

And so you have- she knows you're there if she wants to talk to you about it, she will. It may take time, or a conversation which is relevant and it comes out, who knows- but if she wants to, she will. There's no forcing involved so don't worry about it.

I've been in a similar situation when I lost my Father whhile I was in my early 20's- I dealt with it by crying my eyes out throughout the funeral, absolutely stuffing myself afterwrads and drinking a bottle of wine, throwing myself into about 3 months of intense work before finally letting myself get back to normal. I spoke to a close friend of many years about it and nobody else- but that's what I needed, it's how I dealt with it, that was that.

But remember, everyone handles and deals with grief in their own unique way- some like to get on with life and lose themselves in work, others are full of grief and sadness for months- we all have our own way. It could be that she doesn't want to talk about it and she's free to feel that way, if in a years time she's no different, but is "fine", there's no reason to push it but you can remind her you're still there for her if she feels she changes her mind.

Carry on as you already are and just be there for her. Give her the comfort and companionship she needs when you can. It's still fresh and raw for her, give it time and give it a chance.

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Literal answer

How can I tell her that I'm willing to listen to her if she wants to talk about her mother, but leave her the option to say no?

Pick a time when you are about to leave (preferably one where you could stay as leaving is optional; e.g. a run to the grocery store rather than leaving for work) and tell her then. In English rather than español, I might say

Hey, I'm heading out to [whatever]. I don't want to force you to do anything you don't want to do, but I want you to know that if you want to talk about your mother, I'm here to listen.

Then kiss her on the forehead (or some other act of physical affection that is culturally and personally appropriate) and leave.

If she seems eager to talk, you can stay and listen instead. But this way, the pressure is off. She can just let you leave if she doesn't want to talk at the moment.

When you get back, you don't need to say anything, but make sure that you express affection physically again (kiss, hug, whatever feels right) and she knows you have returned. She may want to talk then. She's had some time to think about it. If there's something that she wants to say, you're there. If not, you're still there.

Other possibilities

Keep your eye out for inexpensive things that you can buy as random gifts. The ideal is something that is fiscally cheap but well tailored to her interests. For example, if she is a big fan of unicorns, buy her a unicorn figurine or poster. "I saw this and thought of you." The idea is to express that you value her. You spend your time when you're not with her thinking about her.

If you have any dead relatives, consider visiting their graves. Ask her if she wants to go.

I've been thinking about [whatever relative] recently and would like to visit the grave at [wherever]. Would you like to go with me?

If she goes with you, you can put flowers on the grave or whatever is culturally appropriate. She may suggest stopping at her mother's grave as well, and you can go with her. This can work because it is you burdening her, so she may feel more comfortable burdening you back.

After this, set aside appropriate times when you both are free. Ask her what she wants to do with the time. Some of the time, she may want to go visit her mother's grave. The goal here is to set aside the time as being together, so she won't feel like she is burdening you with her mourning. And if she wants to watch television or play video games, that's fine too. Leave it open ended so she chooses. If she doesn't choose anything, just hang out until she starts doing something. Then help her with that.

You also may want to think up some anecdotes about that relative. So if she opens up, starts talking, and then stops, you have something to keep the conversation alive. Try to match her emotions. If she's telling happy anecdotes, share one of your own. If she's feeling guilty, try for an anecdote of you doing the same kind of thing. The approach is "I think everyone faces problems like that." If she's feeling scared without her mother to fall back to, share some of your life worries (not about her).

If she's worried about being a burden, look for tasks where you could use her help. Gender-traditional tasks include cooking and cleaning. E.g. bake cookies to take into work to share. That may or may not be appropriate here. I don't know her, so I can't say precisely. But look for things that she is better at doing than you are and try to create situations where it is appropriate for you to ask her help. You should still do most of the work though, not just give her extra tasks.

Consider volunteering somewhere to do something that she will regard as a social good. Ask her to go with you. Church groups can often help with things like that, but there are non-church groups as well (e.g. environmentalists or other political causes). Again, this should be something that she will find fulfilling. I don't know what that is, but hopefully you do. If not, consider asking a friend or relative of hers. The goal here is to make her feel valuable to the world. To think about problems beyond her own.

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