A Child’s Death Changes Everything
The death of a child not only changes a parent forever, it also permanently alters a couple’s marriage. As individuals you must each deal with the awesome, confusing, and painful thoughts and hard and often agonizing and overwhelming feelings that come with a child’s death. As a couple you must deal with how each of you has changed.
In a sense, you each have become something of a stranger to yourself and each other. And in the process, your marriage cannot be what it was before. It is the marriage of two people who have shared a very heavy loss, of two people who have seen each other grieving, of two people who have gone through the relationship struggles couples experience when a child dies.
You become new people, with no sense of whether you can or should return to being your old selves. You are likely to be beginners at dealing with the kind of grief parents feel and beginners at coming to terms, as a couple, with whatever is going on in your as individuals and as a couple. For quite a while, grief is likely to sap you and your partner of energy to solve problems, to talk about things to think things through well, and to come to terms with what has happened. For weeks, months, or even years, you may feel that you are in some kind of holding pattern, just trying to do the bare minimum to get along.
Also, your child’s death makes you different from most people you know. Although several million American couples have lost a child, you may not know anyone whose experiences can be a resource to you. In fact, your friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers, and the people in your religious congregation, may not be able or willing to help beyond the first outpouring of sympathy. Most will never have had a similar experience and most, even if they care for you deeply, will not be very comfortable with you.
Added to all this, grieving can make your couple relationship difficult. Being down so much, being needy and looking at everything in new ways after a child dies, it is easy for you and your spouse to see many negatives in each other and in your spouse to see many negatives in each other and in your marriage that may have been ignored or were not present in the past. So in additions to dealing with the loss of a child, you may have to deal with whether and how to change your marital relationship or even with the possible loss of your marriage.
Dealing wisely with your relationship will help head off or minimize difficulties. If you can work together on your relationship, you may have success at backing away from bickering, blaming, and hurt feelings. You may have success dealing with communication difficulties, disappointments, and other issues that can undermine your relationship. And you may be able to offer support, help, and understanding for each other.
Parenting together is a shared journey, and dealing with a child’s death is as well. In bereavement, the couple journey will be hard. But it does not have to end in disaster.
After a child’s death, most couples worry that it will be very hard to stay together, and even if they do they often worry about whether they will be able to have a good marital relationship.
If either of you is worried about your marital future, it may help a lot to say to each other that you have those worries and to resolve to stay together. Whether you talk about it immediately or later, it can be an important step toward a strong and lasting relationship. Many grieving parents remember clearly the talk they had with their partner in which they said something like, “It’s going to be hard for us, but I am committed to staying with you.”
Erica: One thing we talked about the morning we found David dead was we knew that people had problems with marriages after a child died. We made a decision that we were going to continue to be married and that we were going to have to work at it for the other two children. I didn’t want David to be ashamed of us. We had to do that for his memory too. I didn’t want him to be the cause of our marriage breaking up.
Elaine: I can remember laying there that night and thinking that if I could just go to sleep and sleep for a year I know things would be better then. And I can remember that night too, him and I laying there and just making a vow to each other that it would not tear us apart, because so many people, their family cannot survive. We held on tight and just decided that we can’t, we just can’t let this destroy us.
I think bereaved couples have the same reasons most couples have for staying together—their history together, the ways they are compatible, the emotional investments their relationship represents, the ways they depend on each other and feelings of affection. But I also believe many bereaved parents are motivated by an additional factor when they make the commitment to stay together. Their commitment is rooted in a sense that no one else knew the child as well or could understand as much what was lost when the child died.
Jane: People seemed to be understanding, but nobody knew Adam but [my husband] Rob. And my feeling was that nobody was gonna be able to understand the depth of our loss except this other person who had lived with him. Not that I was ever thinking of leaving or becoming friendly with anyone else, but I kept thinking, “There’s no one in this world that understands what we’ve been through except each other.” And I found that as a kind of binding thing, a commonality, that more than ever I felt we had something in common. Not just kids and a house and a marriage, but the fact that we really understand what we were missing.
With your marriage seeming to be in danger and with the two of you determined to stay together, there will come times when you may make resolutions together about ways when you may want to make resolutions together about ways to keep your relationship strong. One important thing many couples do is resolve to accept their differences and to accept that they cannot be there for one another all the time.
Brett: After our son died, we made a vow that we’d stick together and we would work together, and through the grief group we found out that we grieve differently. And we did. Then we realized that we couldn’t help each other at times. And people kept saying, “You have to be there for your wife or your kids.”
Joan: Sometimes it’s just better to be left alone. Let each other grieve how we need to.
You will find that you and your spouse will not grieve the same way. You differ in biology, personality, upbringing, current responsibilities, the relationship you had with the child, and life experiences. Even if those things didn’t guarantee that you and your partner will mourn in your own way, women and men differ in numerous ways that will show up in how you deal with your child’s death.
In some couples, one partner believes how and when the other grieves is wrong, or one partner’s grief make the other feel uncomfortable. If over a long period, you let such differences upset you or if your differences lead to conflict, they can be a wedge that pushes the two of you far apart.
Spouses have different paces into and through various parts of grieving. One partner might have stronger feelings or a certain feeling soon after the loss, while the other might feel those things later. To some parents, there seems to be a route to travel, and they talk about being farther or less far along than their partner.
There sometimes is a sense that being farther along is better, perhaps even moral. But I don’t think one pace is better than the other. Feelings of superiority or inferiority about the pace of grieving or the belief one partner’s pace is better than the other’s will make trouble you don’t need. There is no scientific basis for saying one pace in grieving is better than another.
One of you might move quickly into active talking, reading, thinking, and feeling to deal with the death, while the other might not. Again, accepting the difference is desirable.
One of you may try to be “strong” while the other is grieving intensely. “Strong” might mean doing necessary things around the house instead of focusing on grief or feeling that there was no point in doing things. “Strong” might mean not being swamped emotionally, or it might mean acting like things will be better. Lots of men feel the need to be strong for their partner, holding off their grief in order to be strong and supportive.
Differences in outward emotion lead to resentment in some couples. When one spouse feels down and the other seems up, each may resent the other. One might, for example, think “How can you dare to be so upbeat when our child is dead?” While the other might think, “When you are down like this you drag me down,” or “Get over it,” or “I am worried about you.” But such differences are to be expected and I think, accepted.
There can also be misunderstanding on both sides. The partner who controls emotions less can resent the other for seeming not to care about the child or acting superior. The partner who controls emotions more may not understand how much the one who is more emotional must be that way. Neither may grasp what they see in the other is normal and right.
In some couples there seems to be turn-taking in emotional control. When one partner is deep in grief, the other controls his or her emotions enough to do the basics and perhaps to say things meant to be soothing and supportive.
The one who wants more conversation might decide to wait it out, but might still feel angry that the partner will not talk. Also, just as the spouse who wants to talk finds the other’s silence frustrating and infuriating, the spouse who wants to talk less can be irritated by the other’s pressure to talk.
The main point is that you should expect and tolerate differences between you and your partner. Doing so is not likely to make the grieving process any easier, but it should help you and your spouse to maintain a stronger couple relationship as you deal with the death of your child.
Realize that there is no single path that couples who do well together follow. There is no formula, no sure series of steps that will guarantee a good outcome. Each couple starts at a different place, has different problems to deal with, has different resources available, and brings different histories (including different past experiences with death and other losses), different values, and different personalities to the situation. So each journey is unique.
Some couples have no serious problems after their child’s death. But other couples, even years later, struggle to build a comfortable, connecting relationship.
As bereaved parents, you travel with luggage from your past. Included in that luggage are your previous experiences, as individuals and as a couple, with death and grief. Such experiences can be a source of problems if, for example, your child’s death opens up new and difficult matters concerning a previous death.
And if you or your spouse have never dealt with a major death before, some things are likely to be harder. A first death can produce painful struggles not only with the death but with your own morality, God’s will, how and when to control emotions, whither to ask for help, what a funeral involves, how to deal with the legal and insurance matters, and many other issues. All this can make the pain and confusion of bereavement more challenging.
A child’s death can be so uniquely painful that there are real limits to how much experience can help. Even if you have dealt with the death of others who were very important in your life, you may never have dealt with feelings as deep and powerful or confusion as profound as you have experienced with your child’s death.
A couple’s history together also can make them vulnerable to problems following the death of their child. If you have lived together for years with intense anger at one another, chronically hurt feelings, communication problems that make almost every day of your relationship together very hard, and frequent doubts about your partnership, you lack a very solid foundation on which to work together after your child dies. I am not talking here about the ordinary squabbles, anger, and frustrations of married life, but about grinding day-after-day difficulties.
For some couples with a long history of relationship difficulties, the child’s death intensifies the problems. If they squabbled before, they argue more often and more bitterly afterward. If there was already considerable anger in the marriage, the child’s death intensifies those feelings.
Bill: She’s always felt some anger at me, but more so as a result of this. She said I just didn’t grieve enough or in the sense that she felt was appropriate. When we get in discussion with it, there were hostilities that would come out that we just couldn’t discuss to a point of any resolution to it. [He and his wife were divorcing.]
Sometimes a child’s death undermines a couple’s patterns of dealing with difficulty, particularly if the child was crucial in keeping the relationship going.
Al: The biggest reason I think people part after a death is that you have the problem finding a reason to go on, to keep going. If you’ve got the kid, you’ve got something in common. If he ain’t there any longer, you’ve lost that, the bond between the two of you, tying you together.
If you are a couple who relied on the child to link you, it certainly is possible to forge or discover new links or to find new ways to continue to have the child be a major link. But you also should understand that in being patient with the shared grief process, you need to be patient with the slow and unpredictable process of coming up with new or stronger ties.
For some couples, serious difficulties never arise in dealing with a child’s death. But for others, there are real struggles. If you are such a couple, you should know that many marriages survive those difficulties —even those that had problems before a child’s death. People learn and change. You can find resources in yourselves and outside that transform you and your marital relationship. Together you can make your marriage work.
This article was edited from the book Help Your Marriage Survive the Death of a Child, by Paul Rosenblatt (which is no longer being published). It was based on intensive interviews of 29 couples who experienced the death of a child, and offers perspectives and advice on common marital problems experienced by bereaved parents. It was formerly published by Temple University Press.
— ALSO —
The following are web site links to the ministry of Family Life Today where they provide you the opportunity to read the transcripts, for three radio broadcasts (aired October 15, 16, and 17, 2008) from a series titled, Will It Always Hurt This Much? (I wish we could give you the opportunity to listen to, or order these broadcasts on CD, but at this time they are making changes to their web site, so this is the best we can provide. If you’d like to try for yourself, please log onto their web site at FamilyLife.com and use their search engine.)
These broadcasts deal with the true account of Pastor Dennis Apple, who in his attempt to comfort others, was in need of comfort himself. The death of his son left him wondering, “Will it always hurt this much?” Dennis recounts one of his life’s most painful experiences. Please click onto the links below to access:
You can also obtain a copy of Pastor Dennis Apple’s book by clicking onto:
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“Nancy and David Guthrie know what it means to lose a child. Through their Respite Retreats, they offer couples the opportunity to process the grief and begin to heal.” To learn about their journey in losing a child and gain insights from this story, please click onto the Kyria.com link below to read:
And then Don and Doris tell their story of losing a child in the following Onefleshmarriage.com article:
As you travel this journey, perhaps the testimony of Ron and Nan Deal can help you in some way. We hope so and pray so. May God minister to your heart and soul as you watch the following video: