The most challenged relationship surrounding the death of a child is the union of the two people that created that child.
No one is prepared for the assault the loss of a child can have on a family, and most of all on a marriage. I experienced such tragic loss when my beautiful vibrant 16-year old son woke up with a fever and was dead the next morning of a deadly strain of bacterial meningitis. Our lives changed forever.
On the outside, my husband and I appeared to handle the loss with strength and grace, but inside we were dying.
On the outside, my husband and I appeared to handle the loss with strength and grace, but inside we were dying. Struggling through the grief process is hard enough as an individual, but making room for the feelings of your partner can be overwhelming. When my husband and I once enjoyed memories and stories of our history together, now, our history held our greatest tragedy. We mourned together, but more often we mourned separately.
On the night of our son’s death, we held hands, looked in each other’s eyes, and vowed to support each other through this. We had no idea where our bereavement might lead, we just knew we had to commit to our marriage and the parenting of our three living children.
We soon discovered how difficult it was. We struggled to be a vessel of comfort to each other, putting on our “I’m fine” face, but in reality we were drowning in the depths of despair.
As a parent, your demands are many. The pull of the missing child is often greater than your ability to stay emotionally present with your spouse. You may find yourself angry when your partner has a good day, and is happy, but you’re not.
We feel at our most vulnerable as parents who have lost children.
We feel at our most vulnerable as parents who have lost children. You may feel a sense of doom in your relationship, like nothing can ever go right again. It clouds everything and you’re subconsciously waiting for the “next tragic thing” to happen. I was terrified of losing another child... or my husband. The thoughts consumed me, and I felt as though fear had taken up permanent residence in my head. I lost my enthusiasm for being creative, adventurous and bold.
We were once the architects of our child’s world, and that world came tumbling down on the day they died. Those feelings of vulnerability are a natural reaction to loss and often difficult to discuss with your partner.
“If only” can also be a natural part of grieving. It’s your attempt to re-write the story with “If only I had...”, then your child might still be alive. I did it myself. I kept thinking, if only I had taken my son to a different doctor, or, if only I had gotten up earlier I could have saved him. The reality is, he died, and I can’t go back and fix it. Therapists call it “magical thinking.” It’s an attempt to emotionally find a way to change what happened, and yet there is no changing, only acceptance.
You try everything to make sense of your child’s death.
You try everything to make sense of your child’s death. This is the “bargaining phase” of Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ Five Stages of Grief. In reality, there is no way to make sense of a tragic young death.
Some, who have lost a child, say they feel like they’ve fallen out of love in their marriage. The truth is, you haven’t fallen out of love; your heart is broken and sorrow is your predominant emotion. It’s hard to focus on refueling your love for each other. This loss of connection was the breaking point for me to make an appointment with a therapist, and I’m so glad I did.
It’s important to realize you, as a couple, are at the very core of the family. The two of you are a partnership in holding the family together. If you have other children, they need your united strength. They need a “whole” you. You have no choice but to heal.
How was your relationship before your child died? If it was strong, loving, and close, then it can be again. It takes time, attention, and sometimes, professional help. If your relationship struggled before the death of your child, it’s even more important to seek counseling.
6 Lifelines For Grieving Couples
1. Don’t try to minimize your partner’s grief.
It’s easy to judge when your partner should or shouldn’t be happy, especially when you’re trying to calm your own mental storm. We all heal on different timetables. If you interfere with your partner’s normal and natural reaction to loss, quarrels ignite. When this happens, it’s important to sit down with each other (after you’ve calmed down), and take time to really listen to your partner’s feelings and consider their point of view. Take turns and practice the art of not trying to “fix.” Just listen with your heart. If this is difficult to do, seek the help of a licensed therapist to monitor your discussion.
2. Stay socially active, even when you don’t feel like it.
There’s nothing more lonely than grieving. When you’ve lost a child, it’s difficult to find joy in the friends and relationships you once had. Many friends stay away, thinking you want to be alone. They often feel awkward and don’t know what to say. Try taking the first step and make the call. You’ll be surprised at how relieved your friends will feel. Stay active with social connections, even when it feels like the last thing you want to do. The quicker you recover your social activities, the more active your recovery becomes.
3. Create a support system, a team of people to help you.
Depression is a natural reaction to loss that is difficult to navigate alone. This is why we need to vent our emotions to trusted friends or professionals, not our grieving spouse. Discuss your current support system and look to your “ Lifeline List” of friends and family for help. Identify 1 or 2 people you know and trust. Ask if they’re willing to offer emotional support during this time. Also consider enlisting a mental health professional.
4. Sex can be an issue.
It’s not uncommon for a couple’s sex life to suffer under the shroud of grief. You subconsciously strip yourself of the possibility of experiencing pleasure in the midst of such pain. Don’t stop trying. Sexual intimacy is renewing. Hold onto it as an important part of comfort and healing. It induces “feel good” hormones that are vital for recovery. For those that find it difficult, seek professional help. It’s a critical part of keeping your marriage alive.
5. Watch for symptoms of unhealthy dependencies.
Signs of unhealthy grieving can be: use of drugs, alcohol, poor eating habits, too much or too little sleep, adultery, or other risky behaviors. If you notice symptoms in yourself, take action quickly with a medical or mental health professional. If you notice it in your partner, ask one of your support team to guide you in getting the right kind of help.
6. Seek quality time with your partner. Do a “pattern interrupt.”
Grieving can become a habit unless certain actionable steps are taken to activate healing. It’s possible to interrupt this habit by doing something out of the ordinary. Consider a dinner date, or a short vacation. Sometimes it’s hard to plan anything during bereavement, you must... and keep it simple. Prepare yourself emotionally for the date. This isn’t time to be sad. Sadness is a decision you learn to control. Think of the times when you may have felt sad, but something funny struck you, and you laughed. That’s just how sorrow can be interrupted. Use this tool of “pattern interrupt,” and you’ll discover the key to shifting your emotional state.
Your beautiful child died, but don’t let your marriage die, too.
Your beautiful child died, but don’t let your marriage die, too. You’re beginning to create a new relationship within your partnership, one that reflects how strong you really are. Allow joy to seep in and hold your marriage sacred. You’ll look back one day and see how far you’ve come.
Your love for your child will never die. It will surprise you to see how your love grows, just as it would if they were still alive. In fact, the happier you are, the more you can include their memory as an important part of your future. You’ll honor them by healing.
Remember, your spouse is your beloved partner in life. Together you hold the history of your precious beautiful angel. Let that history be a source of joy, without the pain. Heal yourself, and keep your marriage strong.
Your child wouldn’t want it any other way.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.