Marriages are at risk in the aftermath of a tragedy, especially after the tragic loss of a child.
It’s said that grief tears us apart with the reckless abandon of a tornado. Sometimes there’s enough remaining to rebuild and sometimes the only thing you can do is to move on and start over. My husband and I count ourselves fortunate to have survived the storm and to have come through it even stronger, but that’s not to say we weren’t tossed about by the high winds and threatened by the falling trees. We emerged from that dark night forever changed. Our priorities had shifted, sometimes in small and subtle ways and sometimes profoundly.
It was inevitable that we had changed, but the changes were unbidden and most unwelcome. It took us time to regain our equilibrium and find new footing. Many months later, when our lives began to come back into focus, it was clear that our marriage still resonated strongly in our hearts. The shared love and loss of our son bound us in unspoken unity. We had grieved together, we had grown together.
Your spouse is likely the only person in your life who truly shares your grief. After all, they, too, suffered the loss of their child. This is also the person most likely to be your most steadfast support and most loving comfort. In reality, some 16% of marriages end in the aftermath of this loss. Some say the figure is even higher. Somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of parents who lose a child report that their marriages suffer strains that sometimes prove irreparable. In addition, problems that existed before such a loss are only magnified and become more challenging.
Let’s look at some of the reasons.
A difference in grieving:
Men and women tend to grieve in entirely opposite ways and this difference can be perceived as indifference by either. Some wear their grief on their sleeves and others hold it deep inside. Recognize that this is an issue of style, not substance, and your marriage will suffer no additional harm.
Anger, sadness, denial and depression:
We all go through these emotions while grieving and the phases may be amplified, extended, repeated, avoided or ignored by one or both. They can polarize or create unity. Respect your partner’s grieving process and allow some flexibility. Let more time pass.
Blame and guilt:
Hard to believe that something as devastating as the loss of a child can withstand the addition of blame and guilt, but it’s easy to see how this could be a tipping point. If there’s reason for either emotion, seeing a therapist could save your marriage and possibly your life. Please seek help.
Some choose to turn away from their partner in a time of grief. When this happens, neither one gets the support that they so desperately need. Hurt people, hurt people. If you’re strong enough, keep facing your partner with understanding and love until they turn back towards you.
Lack of communication:
Our radar systems have been damaged and it’s hard to know what we think, much less what our partner thinks. When either partner stops communicating, a chasm develops that becomes harder and harder to bridge. Keep saying what you need to say and do your best to hear your partner. Don’t judge or edit. We all need to hear and be heard.
Alcohol and drugs:
Any problems you may have had before your loss will be compounded now. If you use alcohol, be moderate. You may need drugs prescribed by your doctor early on and should not feel bad about taking them. Ultimately, you will need to feel to heal. Dulling your senses only prolongs the time it takes to process your grief.
Becoming different people:
My husband and I feel our very DNA was changed by the loss of our son. We changed in compatible ways, but that’s not always the case. Give yourself and your spouse some time to settle into your new selves. Let the rough edges have a chance to smooth before turning a critical eye on your relationship. Be patient with yourself and your spouse.