Grieving the loss of a child as a couple

Whenever trauma strikes, statistics abound. The statistical divorce rate for parents who lose a child is said to be very high. Your statistical experience may be different if you can better understand what’s happening when a couple grieves the loss of a child. Eighteen years later our divorce rate remains zero percent, but that wasn’t an easy path to follow.  

Right behind losing our son, grieving the loss of our son as a couple was the second most challenging thing I have experienced. Grief is based on personal experience and connections. For each parent, grief has common elements mixed with elements that have nothing in common with the other parent’s grief.

I will explain only my side of this experience, because primary in any loss is an allowance for each person to have their own views, their own truths, their own experience and memories, and their own deepest struggles. We may do or say things along the way that deeply offend or hurt each other unintentionally, and grief amplifies and concentrates anger and our reactions. At the same time, we may be unable to do or say things that the other parent thinks we should. There are a million points of potential anger that you will need to navigate.

Added to the challenge is the current state of your relationship at the time your child died. Every marriage has cracks in its foundation, often significant ones that we have mutually ignored for peace at the time. Any such cracks, even small ones, will get much worse with the impact of this loss and some of them will threaten your marriage.

The primary challenge is that, when we lose a child, you will each fall out of love with life for a time. Your will each struggle to redefine your own purpose and your own meaning of life, and you will each change in ways you each could never have anticipated. You will emerge after a time as two very different people who once, in an earlier life, fell deeply in love and married. But you may feel that you no longer really know the person you share your life with. Falling out of love with life means that you might fall out of love with your partner. There’s no shame, and much advantage in honestly admitting that.

It’s a massive challenge to wake up each morning surrounded by pain, to see your most loved one in such pain. Running away is a common temptation. You could feel that you would find a partner without pain, a happy person to show and teach you happiness again. But, if you do that, you will wind up with someone who will never know the real pain you have suffered, someone who will be sympathetic without ever really understanding.

Over the longer term, grief is very socially isolating. You’re changed by grief, and you no longer fit easily into the social puzzles of life. You have new emotional appendages that just don’t fit well, even with longtime friends. You are emotionally drained by the changes you must adapt to, and you must spend time and energy picking up the pieces and putting yourself back together before you can put your marriage and friendships back together.

And you will heal at different rates. Your best day yet will often collide with their worst day yet, and that flows both ways. Because you’re physically convenient, you may become the target for anger flowing freely out of you to anyone nearby. You will hurt each other at times when you are both near mortally wounded.

You may each feel responsibility differently. Parents are programmed to protect, with our life if necessary. We may each have a sense of failure, a sense of guilt for not doing more. And we are each likely to judge the other’s responsibility for this failure to protect. The failure to protect guilt is one of the most destructive in any grief, and in parental grief it can irrationally overwhelm each of us in the loss of our child.

So where do we start?

We start with honesty, with truth. We help extinguish each other’s fires of anger. We do our best to never react with anger, even to anger. We touch and hold each other. We patiently wait for each of us to unwrap and disentangle ourselves from grief. We accept each other’s truths, without demanding that they match ours. We share memories gently, knowing that for a time memories carry new pain.

I look back and see my life and marriage as two distinct periods. Before losing our son, I met and fell deeply in love with a beautiful woman. We married and had two children and built a good life together. Then life brought us the hardest challenge it could bring, our son died.

We became, through loss, two very different people emotionally. We barely recognized each other t times; we wondered what we saw in the other at times. Then we each started to slowly fall back in love with life, and we slowly became emotionally accessible to each other. As we each rebuilt and redefines ourselves, we slowly fell back into love with each other. A very different and deeper love emerged.

The deeper love of living with a survivor may be difficult to imagine early in grief. But having the opportunity of choosing someone who has survived the loss of their child, the loss of your child, you will build a love based on the deepest understanding that no matter what happens your new love will survive.

You will be there for each other, you will have experienced the worst of your lives and stayed together, and you will have a partner willing and prepared to spend the end of your lives together.

Don’t force a return to loving each other. You made a good choice when you married. Respect that and be kind when you can’t find love for each other in the middle of your pain. Be patient with emotional and physical intimacy, both of which may feel unnatural or unsatisfying when combined with grief.

I have fallen in love for a lifetime, twice with very different women in very different circumstances in our lives.  The magic is that those two wonderful strong different women inhabit the same physical body. We have embraced each other’s changes.

Be well and peaceful; love each other with patience through loss.

Anger in Grief

Anger in Grief

This is an advanced and long post. There are a few links early in the post that new followers might wish to branch off for a warm up before the main course, so that the rest of what I am saying might make more sense to you.

Anger is a common component of grief and anger is the most dangerous and destructive emotion. I commonly refer to anger as a cancer of the human soul that consumes love. Grief wounds the human soul and often cancer finds a place in a wounded soul.

In my self-developed model of the human soul, I believe that we build metaphysical connections with loved ones that allow us to give and to receive love from each of those that we love. When we are grieving, we are bleeding the life force energy of love from our soul because of the loss of a loved one, and as our reservoir of love drops anger can come to feed easily.

As we love someone longer and deeper, we establish trust. When we trust, we flow deeper love with less resistance. A special loved one dies and all of the connections we have with them, small and large, deep and shallow will bleed love from our soul towards the memory of them. The process of healing grief can reconnect those broken pathways of love to the permanent memories and monuments that we build in the gardens of our grief (insert link), and the loss of love from our own soul eventually comes to a stop.

If we consider that our soul contains only love, and is entirely responsible for our love of daily life, a sudden flow of love away from our soul can trigger panic. The loss of a deeper and more meaningful love, by its depth and breadth, can empty a soul in a very short time causing extreme anxiety and fear that can outwardly present as anger or resentment, or if internalized as numbness.

I experienced that complete emptiness after the death of our son, but at that time I had no capacity to describe or explain it, so what I felt was simply described as numbness. Numb is a common description of how many people feel when grief first sets in. Numb is often a description of the symptom of not knowing how to feel, not understanding what you feel. That’s logical because every grief is so different, a new and uncharted journey without a map. Numb is uncomfortable and unpredictable, and so, we are often made afraid and become angry by being numb.

When we internalize our anger in grief, often we are punishing ourselves for not having done more, for not doing something, for not seeing this coming, for not somehow intervening and stopping the Universe from taking this life that we loved. There’s an irrational sense of failure, of hopelessness, and of personal responsibility that is unreasonable to place on ourselves. These negative emotions can become self destructive and self defeating quickly, and they can form lasting bad habits as well,  because in our sense of failure is a sense that we might actually bear that responsibility and we twist that to we deserve to have our life punish us for the death of a loved one.

Another side effect of grief is that we lose trust in life itself. We question the purpose of the life lost as well as our own life. This is especially challenging for some who seemingly have very well defined purposes that have been derailed by grief. Grief will change how you see your own life, and questioning your own definition of purpose is a healthy and natural part of grief as you heal. But, this questioning of purpose is not wise too early in grief, because your soul is under filled with love and unbalanced to make such significant decisions competently.

The simplest explanation of the pain that we feel in grief is that we have become addicted to the love that we share with each person that we love. People who truly love life will gather love from one or many other people, from many activities and passions. The complex cocktail of love that we build for ourselves is addicting, and that wonderful addiction truly defines us in daily life. When any component of that cocktail of love is removed, we might lose the feeling and love for our life until we find ways to replace or regenerate that part of the blend of love that we live for.

That collection of love that defines our love for life is blended, not compartmentalized. So, when a significant loved one dies and our soul drains some of all of our sources of love, we can lose some or all of what defines us. Through grief, we may become someone quite different from our usual normal, for a time or for a lifetime. These changes can become negative or positive, they can redefine us as we heal, but left unchecked or unhealed they can destroy much of what we are and much of the life we love living.

In the first couple of years after our son died, I could not look myself in the eye in a mirror.  I saw that empty space, the confusion, and the destruction of so much that I had loved about life. I saw my own empty soul and wanted to avoid it. I had lost sight of my own value, a value that I had spent decades building and maintaining. My son was a large part of that value, but in those years any love that flowed into my soul drained through the wounds that his loss had left, wound that I had not healed because I did not understand how to best heal them, or even that I was the one who needed to choose to allow my soul to heal them.

While I was numb, there was very little outward anger. I had internalized it and the cancer of that anger was consuming any love that flowed into my soul. Think of it as an auto-immune reaction of the soul that was addicted to love, now unable to expand and live on the little love remaining.

As the reserves of our collected love flow out and away, we create room for that cancer of anger to come to us. The more full of love our life is, the more we become dependent on a feeling if security that an abundance of love generates in us. In grief, we sense love flowing out of us, and that triggers panic. The deeper the love, the faster that outflow is, the more we feel panic. Panic threatens us and often triggers anger.

Slowly, in spite of the serious injury to my soul, love started to collect again. I could smile, and after a time I could even laugh without guilt. My soul was healing itself. As I explored myself, modeled and explained what I was feeling, I came to understand that I could help myself to heal.  I understood that it was I who was responsible for how I would change through grief, that I could build a solid joyful memory for each of those broken pathways and that that memory would reduce the amount of love flowing out of my soul. Building good memories was my path back to live and loving life. Each fixed memory, each monument to that love built in my soul improved my feelings about life.

The vast majority of anger in grief is tied to the things that we just can’t change. It’s a lot more than simple frustration or resignation; anger is often a violent call to a forced reflection on mortality and the meaning and purpose of our own lives as well as the life of the loved one we have lost.  We are drawn into the vortex of coming to understand that love is meaningful to us, but also that love can be suddenly taken from us by any random event of the chaotic Universe. This loosens and may weaken or break some of our foundations and beliefs, upon which we have built our purpose for life.

In my writings I speak of the three choices we have as Ignore, Change, or Accept We can’t safely ignore the reality of the death of a loved one, and we have no capability to change death, so any death brings us to a forced acceptance of that death and the changes it will bring to our lives. It is human nature to fight or resist forced change, especially those changes that we see as negatively impacting our lives.

The question we must inevitably ask ourselves is: How much of our life, a life that we loved, are we willing to, or expected to sacrifice in memory of this death? The simplest answer I found is that the person you are grieving would be ashamed and disappointed if their death caused any damage to your life. They would not want that responsibility for any part of the ruin that you allow to be inflicted on yourself by their death.

With this perspective, it becomes your responsibility to heal and to minimize the damage to your soul and to your life. This is the foundation of what I mean when I distill grief to:

We grieve because we love.

No love, no grief

The Choice to Heal

Healing your soul after loss of a loved one is a deeply personal choice.

In some traditional societies, widows will choose to identify themselves as widows by wearing only black for the rest of their lives. They literally wear the loss of their husband on their perpetually black sleeve, for life. It’s one of many examples of a grief that defines the person.

My mother never healed her soul after my brother’s suicide at age 43. She kept a fire of anger burning inside until the day she died. Her anger was directed at life, at her late son, at his widow, and it shadowed every day of her life from that point on. Her anger exhausted her, hollow out her soul and deprived her of so much happiness. Her choice, her decision was that she would never love life again, she would only pretend when she had to.

Five years after my brother’s suicide, when our twenty year old son died in an avoidable firefighter training accident, I resolved to not be angry and unhealed like my mother. I had recognized anger as the enemy of healing.

It’s arrogant to believe that the loss of a loved one is somehow meant to destroy our ability to love our life. Are we that important to the purpose of the Universe that some process decided that we would be partially or fully miserable for the rest of our life, because someone we loved reached the end of their life? And most importantly, how much pain and suffering would our lost loved one wish upon us as punishment for our having loved them?

The refusal to allow ourselves to heal is a very immature phase of grief. We are grief toddlers when we decide that if we can’t have what we wanted, what we once had, we will have an angry tantrum for the rest of our lives. It can become a bad habit that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as our ongoing unhealed grief makes it harder for those around us to love us. Those who don’t heal to comfort, isolate themselves using their grief as a shield from happiness that keeps our anger inside.

The human soul is where we gather and store love that we use in daily life, and love that we share with others. Anger is a cancer of the human soul that consumes love, hollowing out the person’s love for life. When your soul is wounded by losing a loved one, some of the love that defines us flows out through the wound of the loss. If we allow the anger of our grief to restrict our ability to receive love from others and from life’s activities, our soul darkens and gets colder. The cancer of anger takes root, and we get darker and colder with time.

Your soul needs two things to begin to heal. The first thing your soul needs is your conscious permission to let your soul heal, an acknowledgement that you are ready and want to heal back to loving life again. Your soul won’t force you to heal it. Your soul will respect your will to stay as you are, wounded, if that’s how you wish to define yourself. You must decide that you are ready to let your soul heal and give yourself permission to heal.

Once your soul has your permission to heal, all it needs is love. Not love exactly like the one you lost, just some love from daily life and from the people around you who want you back from the darkness of your grief. Anything that brings a smile, any activity or hobby that you love doing, you can find small bits of love almost anywhere.

As you begin repairing and refilling your soul with love, you must actively extinguish anger from the loss. Anger from loss is mostly you taking the loss personally, and expressing how it has negatively affected you. Anger completely overrides and consumes the love you had shared so well. Anger disrespects and diminishes how you have valued that love. Anger is irresponsible to the love you built together. If you choose to allow anger into your grief, you become the arsonist burning down the hallowed garden where you built love together.

Tough love ahead warning: If you wish to stay as you are, please stop here.

“It’s too hard”. It was much harder for them, they have died. You’re alive and making this all about you and your pain. It’s supposed to be all about remembering them in ways that you find comfortable and enriching for the rest of your life. You’re supposed to be doing the hard work, finding and putting the pieces of you back together into some semblance of normality.

Give your soul permission to heal, so put out the fires of your anger and get out there and collect some loving memories and allow yourself to enjoy some life again. You can do this; you’re rebuilding your soul in lasting memory of a great love that you built together.