Growing a Strong Marriage After The Loss of a Child
by Margaret Brownley
Grief tears us apart
with the reckless abandon
of a tornado.
- Haiku by Diantha Ain
till death do us part.
These familiar words take on an entirely different meaning when a child dies. Almost every marriage is challenged in the aftermath of such tragedy. Many couples manage to weather the storm, and their marriages are stronger because of what they went through together. But for some couples, the death of a child all too often leads to divorce.
In her book, When The Bough Breaks, Judith R. Bernstein Ph.D. wrote: Marriages don't die with the death of a child, but sometimes they receive an overdue burial.
Such was the case with Karen, who claims that the death of her child gave her the strength and courage to leave her alcoholic husband. I realized life was too short, and too precious to stay in a bad marriage.
Linda, on the other hand, was determined to save her troubled marriage following the loss of her three-year-old son in a drowning accident: I didn't want divorce to be my child's legacy. She and her husband have since worked out their differences, and are eagerly awaiting the birth of another child.
For some young couples, the loss of a child is their first real encounter with death. A marriage not yet mature enough to withstand such a test could be pushed to the limits.
The death of an adult child can strain even long-term marriages. Older couples typically get less sympathy than younger ones, and the lack of support is especially difficult for seniors facing uncertain futures, or health problems.
The Mars and Venus Factor
The differences in male and female grieving styles can take a toll on both young and mature marriages, especially in communication. In her book, After The Death Of A Child: Living With Loss Through The Years, Ann Finkbeiner writes: "The mother takes the death harder, the father doesn't cry and doesn't talk, and the couple argues about the whole thing. Men generally receive less support during times of loss than women. One bereaved father claims co-workers constantly asked, How's the wife? No one thought to ask how I was doing. Aren't I allowed to grieve?" In a society that pressures men to show strength during crisis, there's little wonder that many men cope through repression. Jeff admits to playing the pretend it didn't happen game to get through his days, and was shocked when his wife accused him of being cold and uncaring.
The loss of a child is always devastating, but even more so for couples left childless. The English language lacks a word that describes the loss of a child, or even the loss of parenthood, making it that much harder for a couple to establish a new identity, and new goals. Many grieving women prefer talk to sexual intimacy, and often feel confused and hurt when their husbands deal with their pain by turning to sex. One woman was shocked when her husband made sexual overtures less than a week after their son's funeral. How could he even think of such a thing? Such differences in grief styles can make each partner feel rejected, and with rejection comes feelings of failure.
Who's to Blame?
Women, by nature, often consider themselves caretakers, and tend to blame themselves when a child dies. Why didn't I call the doctor sooner? Why did I let him out of my sight?
Men often see themselves as protectors and problem solvers. A man might regard death as an indictment against his ability to protect his family. Why didn't I save him? Why can't I make my wife's pain go away? The loss of a child can be especially devastating to the man who imagines himself in control. Following the death of an infant to SIDS, one man had this to say: "I run a company with thousand of employees, but at home I feel helpless."
Nancy complained that her husband had become a workaholic since the loss of their daughter to bone cancer. She assumed he was running away when, in reality, he was working through grief by fixing his world. Men are not only fixers by nature, they are also hunters. One woman was astonished when the mailman delivered hundreds of dollars worth of books on grief to her front door. Her hunter husband was on a quest for information. Men tend to grieve through action rather than words. One woman was puzzled and hurt when her husband started working on their boat two days after their daughter's funeral, until she saw him painting their daughter's name on the hull.
The Nature of Grief
Gender differences aren't the only problem couples must face. Another reason the loss of a child is so hard on a marriage has to do with the nature of grief. Grief is an inner journey that forces a mental, spiritual and emotional reevaluation of personal beliefs and attitudes. Even the most loving couples pull away from each other to grieve in private, and to search out new meaning in life. Opposites often attract and, under normal circumstances, differences can enrich and even enhance a relationship. But grief tends to exaggerate personality traits, and this can put an additional strain on the marriage. An occasional drinker might suddenly start drinking more. One man blamed his wife's severe depression for his affair. Money can become even more of an issue when loss enters the picture. One woman ran up her charge cards following the death of her teenage daughter in an effort to make herself feel better. Instead of dealing with the pain, she and her husband soon found themselves in debt, and battling over money.
The nature of a child's death can also have a negative impact on a marriage. Violent deaths often require lengthy investigations or court trials, and this can put a strain on a couple's emotional and physical resources. A death due to suicide often leaves parents searching for answers rather than dealing with grief. In Recovering From The Loss Of A Child, Katherine Fair Donnelly wrote: "After a child has died, there is an underlying need to find out the why? Because no satisfactory answer is found, a parent often directs this anger toward the spouse. This is how the parent uses grief in the most negative way." In many instances anger on the part of one parent and guilt on the part of the other are a street with a dead end.
Finding The Way Back To Each Other
Losing a child has been described as the worst possible loss. Keeping a marriage intact when the world has seemingly come to an end is perhaps the hardest thing a couple will ever have to do. Those who have succeeded in finding their way back to each other say the result is well worth the effort. One woman describes her grief experience this way: We had a tough time working through our problems, but we learned a lot about ourselves, and each other. In many ways, we have become better people, more caring, and have gained a better sense of what's really important in life. Today, our marriage is stronger than ever.
Twelve Ways to Safeguard Your Marriage
#1. Resolve to Get Through it Together
Kay Talbot Ph.D. researched the dual loss of a child and role of parent. Reporting her findings in Omega, Journal of Death and Dying, Talbot wrote that mothers in her study who had survived their double tragedy, and changed in positive ways, had made a conscious decision to survive. The same holds true for couples. Husbands and wives who resolve to get through their grief together have a better chance of keeping their marriages intact than do couples that make no such conscious decision.
#2. Rally the Troops
Studies on resilience show that people are better able to cope with adversity if they have the strong support of family and friends. Likewise, couples that surround themselves with supportive people are more likely to stay together than those who try to do it alone.
#3. Learn To Respect Each Others Grieving Styles
Understanding that everyone grieves in a different way is the first step in creating harmony in the family. Different grieving styles can be a gift each partner gives the other. The partner who has trouble expressing feelings can benefit by listening to the more open partner. The spouse inclined to run away from grief can learn from the partner who faces it head-on. One partner's faith or positive outlook can help lift the spirits of the partner going through a spiritual crisis. Opposites not only attract they help each other to grow, and to heal.
#4. Schedule Time For Each Other Every Day
According to a study of SIDS parents, 90% of both men and women surveyed reported that being with their partners helped them cope with grief. If he or she won't talk, don't force it. Take long walks, share a banana split or take a weekend trip together. Sometimes the best way to get a partner to share feelings is to do something together that you both enjoy.
#5. Recognize Your Vulnerable State
Grief makes us vulnerable, our senses more acute, and we notice things we might normally overlook. This hypersensitive state makes us more likely to take offense or become hurt if a partner says or does something that seems uncaring. Even the most loving couples can become embroiled in petty arguments and misunderstandings following the death of a loved one. A simple "I'm sorry I snapped at you" or "I havent been myself lately" can do wonders in creating a more loving and caring environment.
#6. Learn to Forgive
Following the death of a child, many couples blame themselves, and each other. Often such blame is unwarranted, but sometimes, as in the case of accidental deaths, the caretaking parent might find the guilt unbearable. Learning to accept our own limitations is the first step toward understanding and forgiving ourselves and our partners.
#7. Spend Time With Couples Who Have Suffered Similar Losses
Spending time with other bereaved parents, especially those who are further along in their grief than you and your partner, can be comforting. Check out Compassionate Friends for a chapter nearest you.
#8. Schedule An Appointment With Clergy Or A Marriage Counselor
The right counselor can help a couple put problems in prospective, and focus on the real issues. But what if your partner refuses to see a counselor? According to Linda Aleahmad, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Simi Valley, California, a marriage benefits even if only one partner seeks counseling. "We each move through grief in our own way. If even one partner finds the strength to make the journey, it often frees the other partner to face the same challenge."
# 9. Take Turns Reading Aloud, And Praying Together
Praying together unites a couple in a bond with God. A conference call to God gives the marriage structure, guidance, and stability. It strengthens each person individually and as a unit; it creates an awareness that the marriage is not an isolated unit, but rather a vital part of God's plan.
#10. Work Together On A Memorial For Your Child
The male way of grieving is not to talk, but to do something. Some women have used this knowledge to their advantage. One couple grew closer by creating a scholarship in their daughter's name. Another family was able to put their differences aside by working toward getting the city to install a stop sign on the street corner where their son was killed. Men are generally more willing to talk when their hands are busy. One woman discovered the only time she could get her husband to share his feelings with her was when they went fishing together and so she planned a fishing trip for the two of them on the anniversary of their daughter's death.
#11. Volunteer Your Time
Nothing heals like giving of yourself. Working together for a common cause can help you feel close to your deceased child, and to each other. One couple ran a marathon to raise money for cancer research in honor of their son. Another couple volunteered their time at the Children's Hospital in memory of their daughter who died from seizures.
#12. Laugh Together
Humorist Victor Borge once said: "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people." Nothing connects us to each other like laughter; nothing provides more balance to a relationship. In his book The Courage to Laugh, Allen Klein writes: "In the midst of death, life feels out of balance. Humor provides that balance by providing a fresh perspective and power in a powerless situation." Invite other couples in to watch a funny movie. Plan a night out at a comedy club. Spend time together picking out humorous cards for everyone you know. Adopt a kitten or puppy and you're guaranteed to smile before the end of the day. Studies show that no matter how great the loss or how deep the grief, couples that laugh together, last.
The author of 22 books, Margaret Brownley is the author of GRIEVING GOD'S WAY, scheduled for release November, 2003.
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