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.