Marriage following the death of a child

As I wrote in an earlier post, in 1977, Harriet Sarnoff Schiff wrote a book entitled The Bereaved Parent, and it was considered at the time to be groundbreakingIn the chapter “Bereavement and Marriage,” Ms. Schiff states, “some studies estimate that as high as 90 percent of all bereaved couples are in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of their child (p. 57).” This singular statement and sentiment took on a life of its own (with no research shown to back it), and it became accepted as a fact that many marriages end after the death of a child. It was quoted over and over until it became regarded as the gospel truth – if your child dies, you more than likely will have serious problems in your marriage that may end in divorce. It is still a generally-accepted fact to this day.

After I read this statement in the book, since books and research I had read over the years questioned or refuted this “accepted fact,” I performed an Internet search on “peer-reviewed articles bereaved parents and divorce.” I found some very good information and thought I would pass it along.

The death of a child creates stress on marriage

So many research articles and books are prefaced with a statement along the lines that the death of a child is catastrophic, devastating, traumatic, stressful, shattering, and is generally considered the most painful loss a person could ever experience. Any parent who has buried a child would agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments – and could probably add many more.

The death of a child adds so much stress to every part of life – emotions, finances, relationships, worldview, faith. The list goes on and on, and marriage is one of them. That being said, just the fact that a child has died doesn’t mean the marriage will end nor does it mean it becomes stronger. The possibility is there for one or the other, though.

It’s important to remember, generally speaking, that whatever shape your marriage was in and whatever “tools you had in your toolbox” and resources available to you in the “before” moment your child died are generally the same or similar tools and resources in the “after” moment, except they may be somewhat more exaggerated or diminished. If your marriage was on shaky ground before, the death of a child could emphasize those cracks even more or it could bring you closer together.

While it’s true that bereaved parents are no longer the same person after a child dies as they were before, if one partner was more rigid or less expressive or one partner is more sensitive or emotional, an entirely new person with different traits is not going to show up after a child dies. We have to learn how to navigate our way through the stresses in our marriage exacerbated by the death of our child as the person we are now (and who our spouse is now) and with the tools we have at our disposal, the same way we have to learn to navigate the world without our child.

Support from spouse

Just as a bereaved parent has expectations that friends and family will support them after a child dies, so we tend to expect our spouse to be able to support us in our deep grief. Neither of these expectations is very realistic. The fact of the matter, as Ms. Schiff states in her book, is that “it is impossible to give comfort when you feel an equal grief (p.6).”

When friends and family avoid us or don’t want to talk about our child, we tend to turn to our spouse for support and comfort. Because a spouse is also grieving the same loss and may not be able to provide the needed support – and because spouses don’t usually grieve in the same manner – it’s easy for one or both spouses to feel alone and unsupported in their grief, in turn creating additional marital tensions and/or stress. This situation is also complicated by many other factors – to name a few: lack of energy, overwhelming emotions, unrealistic expectations, and wanting to protect ourselves AND our spouse from further grief and pain.

In their article, “Grieving Together and Apart: Bereaved Parents’ Contradictions of Marital Interaction,” authors Toller and Braithwaite write about what they call “grieving together-grieving apart.”

Bereaved parents expressed a desire to grieve with their spouse in order to provide each other with comfort and support. At the same time, parents indicated they sometimes needed to grieve on their own as their experience of grief was unique from that of their partner…We labeled this grieving together-grieving apart (p. 263).

For parents,…being able to grieve and share the pain of their child’s death with their spouse was of utmost importance. At the same time, parents recognized that their own unique and individual response to their child’s death meant working through the grieving process on their own. Although [they] wanted to grieve together, both acknowledged that they each had to honor their individual grief as well.

Although parents wanted to grieve together and also honor their own individual needs, parents reported that grieving together was difficult due to the differing ways in which they and their partners approached and even expressed their grief…In addition to differing approaches to grief, parents reported that they and their partners also expressed grief in disparate ways, which influenced their ability to grieve together with their spouse and increased their perception that they were grieving more apart…This created conflict for many couples and left them believing they were alone in their experience of grief (p. 264).

There are some steps that can be taken to reduce some of these tensions. In their article, Toller and Braithwaite gave the following suggestions – accept individual differences in grieving, compromise, find alternative ways to communicate, and seeking outside help.

Accepting individual differences in grieving

One important issue for a grieving parent is to feel like their grief is important, that it is validated and not diminished or overlooked. When friends or family say things like, “Your child wouldn’t want you to be sad,” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” or the myriad of other unhelpful and hurtful comments we hear or read, a bereaved parent is made to feel that their grief is diminished or unimportant. We can write off these comments as uninformed or spoken by someone not really knowing what to say, but within our immediate families – our spouses, in particular – it’s particularly important to feel that our grief is validated and understood.

For some bereaved parents, managing the tensions of grieving together-grieving apart meant viewing each other’s way of grieving as inherent to the very nature of grief. Understanding and accepting one another’s grieving style allowed parents to honor their individual grieving needs. At the same time, accepting their individual needs resulted in parents feeling validated by one another, which in turn helped them to be more connected as a couple, consequently making it easier for parents to grieve together as well…Accepting one another’s grieving needs was not easy, but many parents believed it necessary in order to keep their marital relationship intact (p. 266).

Another important thing to realize is that, although you may both have been parents to the singular child who died, your relationships with that child were different and that will affect your grief. Your hopes and dreams and expectations for your child may have looked different than your spouse’s. Your experiences may have been different.

For my husband and I, I spent different hours of the day with Jason than Joe did. I homeschooled the kids, so the things we did during the day were different than the things Joe did with the kids when he got home from work. Yes, we shared some similar connections and activities together at times. But, there were a lot of things I did with the kids while Joe was at work, and so I have different connections and memories. I hear a song on the radio, one that Jason and I listened to as I took him to catch the bus to college, and I am flooded with memories of both of us singing at the top of our lungs as we drove along. The memory brings tears to my eyes whenever that song plays, but Joe doesn’t really have a connection to that song. Joe has memories of teaching Jason to swim and ride a bike. While I have memories of watching Joe play football in the backyard with the kids, Joe has memories of actually playing with them. Different experiences with the same child; different memories and relationships. Different grief.

Compromise

This is exactly what it sounds like. In relationships, we compromise all the time, finding ways to do something together that is important to the other person (that may not be our favorite thing to do) in order connect and show that person how much they mean to us.

The same is true with grief. Although effort may be hampered by lack of interest or energy, there are ways to find areas to do things together or to honor each other’s grief. They don’t have to be huge. It could be going to the cemetery together or going for a walk or looking at photos. Whatever is important to one person or the other for validating their grief.

One example from our lives was church. After Jason died, I experienced some bad PTSD symptoms. I could hardly sit in church (or any place that felt restrictive to me) without feeling trapped and panic-y – a flight or fight reaction. Because it was important to Joe to continue going to church consistently, I made the best effort possible to go when I felt like I could. Joe, on his part, had no problem with us sitting in the very back row closest to the door so we could leave whenever I needed to. He also was very understanding when I just couldn’t bring myself to go.

I would add one word of caution here, though, and that would be the word “mutual.” Sometimes, one partner has a stronger personality and may inadvertently be more dominant in the compromise arena, causing a partner with a less strong or more giving personality to be mowed over a bit. Joe is a much more opinionated, black-and-white person that I am, and I am a giving person who sees both sides of the coin. I would have to say that this combination did affect my grieving process in a not-so-good way for me, in particular, and there are some things I wish I had done differently instead of giving in to his wishes and putting his needs above my own. It’s really important to listen carefully to each other and actually hear and understand what the other person is saying regarding their grieving needs.

Finding alternative ways to connect and communicate

Communication doesn’t necessarily always happen verbally. In their article, Toller and Braithwaite cover some alternative ways to communicate and connect with a spouse when talking doesn’t seem to be an option.

…A number of parents found it difficult to be verbally open with each other about their child’s death. As a result, parents were closed with each other verbally, but shared thoughts and feelings non-verbally (270).

Some of the alternative ways of communicating are letter writing, holding hands and hugging, and other forms of touch.

For my husband and I, it seemed at the beginning we tended to rush to each other and hold each other as we cried. Those first days and weeks, I would hear Joe start to sob and I would just run to him to hold him as he cried. He did the same for me. We are still much more hand holders than we used to be and take time to hug and encourage each other with non-verbal communication.

Seeking outside help

“Outside help” is a pretty broad term. It could take the form of friend or family member with a listening ear who may walk beside us when our spouse is unable to do so. It could be a clergy or pastor. It could also be a licensed professional, either meeting individually or as a couple. It could also be a support group such as Compassionate Friends.

Regarding support from someone who has walked the walk, Gordon Riches and Pamela Dawson write in their article, “‘An intimate loneliness’: evaluating the impact of a child’s death on parental self-identity and marital relationships”:

Daily life is predicated on the minute detail of route tasks, family rituals and recognizable features of domestic living. The death of a child destroys this mental landscape as profoundly as an earthquake shakes one’s belief in the physical landscape. Research evidence suggests that support from others who have survived similar catastrophes can be of value for both parties. The supporter continues in the lifelong project of re-creating a lost certainty, and the newly bereaved has a model and potential guide through this unfamiliar landscape (p. 12).

For me, this was one area I wish I had pursued further. With our extended families living so far away and nearly everybody we knew disappearing, I really needed some outside support. I needed support, period!

I did try. I attended a Compassionate Friends group for mothers – with disastrous results. I reached out to Jason’s soccer coach and his wife who had lost two children in a fire, thinking they could give me some pointers on how to walk this horrible walk without my precious boy, but got no response at all to my voicemails. I reached out to church people we knew and told them how lonely we were in our grief, with very, very limited results. I tried to communicate to our homeschool group that we were dealing with this deep grief all alone, but felt like it fell on deaf ears. Our daughter and I went to a counselor once, but felt like this person really had a disconnect and lack of understanding for people who deeply grieve. The only person who I felt really heard my grief was my physician, and he gave me sleeping pills and antidepressants. I eventually gave up and figured I had to handle it on my own. Looking back, though, I wish I had found a counselor who could help me deal with some of the issues I encountered in my grief. I think it would have helped me.

Conclusion

Much more research has been done since Harriet Sarnoff Schiff wrote the book The Bereaved Parenting in 1977. If this is a subject that interests or is affecting you, please take time to read the articles linked below. If you know of any other good books or articles on the subject, please feel free to comment.

~ Becky

P.S. For simplification in writing, I have written in terms of a married couple, although this could apply to other relationship connections.

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

Links:

Toller, Paige & Braithwaite, Dawn. (2009). Grieving Together and Apart: Bereaved Parents’ Contradictions of Marital Interaction. Journal of Applied Communication Research – J APPL COMMUN RES. 37. 257-277. 10.1080/00909880903025887. https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=commfacpub

W. Toller. “Using Communication to Cope with Loss” Communication Currents Vol. 4 Iss. 4 (2009) https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=commfacpub

This is a study commissioned by the Compassionate Friends in 1996: Riches, G. and Dawson, P. (1996), ‘An intimate loneliness’: evaluating the impact of a child’s death on parental self‐identity and marital relationships. Journal of Family Therapy, 18: 1-22. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1467-6427.1996.tb00031.x

 

Mother’s Day – When motherhood doesn’t go as expected.

I wish I could skip right over Mother’s Day. There’s no getting around it. Mother’s Day makes me sad.

The only thing I ever wanted to be in life was a mother. I pictured a Norman Rockwell family – mom, dad, happy, healthy, loving kids with whom I would have a life-long, loving and happy relationship. Family Christmases. Holidays together. Celebrating important life events together. Grandkids running around the house.

Things don’t always go as planned or as we hope they will.

Jason is gone. He was my sunshine, my loving, kind, wonderful boy. He was hope for a daughter-in-law and grandchildren who would love us and want to be around us. I miss him so much.

Our older son lives all the way across the country and is married to a woman who has no respect nor care for us and actively communicates the same to our son and grandchildren. We do all we can to try to maintain a relationship and show them how much we care – call, visit whenever we can (at great financial cost to us), send gifts for nearly every occasion, etc. I can’t tell if it makes any difference at all. It breaks my heart.

Our daughter and son-in-law don’t live close to us any more and we miss them like crazy. She communicated to us a long time ago that she had no desire to ever have any children. That’s fine; it’s certainly her choice and we respect that. Our son-in-law has grown to care about us – and we for him – and for that I am thankful. He is from El Salvador and called me on Friday – Mother’s Day in El Salvador – to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day (right after he called his own mom). It was very sweet.

Other things, some I can’t talk about, have absolute crushed my heart. Some days the cross feels so heavy and I am tired.

Motherhood – and life in general – doesn’t always go as expected. Most days I keep on moving down this road of life, but some days I just have to sit and let the tears flow. Broken dreams. Broken heart. Today is one of those days.

Hugs to all mothers with broken hearts and empty arms this Mother’s Day and every day.

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

Book Review: The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff

Written in 1977, nine years following the death of her son in 1968, The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff is touted in the back-of-the-book description as the “classic  book for parents whose child has died – and for all who want to help them.” From what I’ve read, this particular book on grief and loss was one of the first of its kind written by a parent whose child had died and, therefore, was embraced by bereaved parents and widely considered as groundbreaking.

Book Introduction

In the introduction, Ms. Schiff emphasizes the fact that only a person who has walked this walk of a bereaved parent can truly understand what it’s like to walk the walk.

Some things are beyond describing. No matter how eloquent the words, their impact can fall flat when not accompanied by a similar experience…the emotions one feels are only believable and truly understood by a fellow bereaved parent. (p. xi)

She then gives her reason for writing the book: to give some suggestions that might help fellow bereaved parents on how to cope and an encouragement to carry on.

What we needed then was somebody who could say, “I survived the same ordeal you are now enduring. You can do it. I have some suggestions that might help.”

We would have placed a value beyond price on such assurances. We could have avoided some dreadful pitfalls had we been warned by people who had undergone the same grief we now faced.

…Parents with dead babies, parents whose sons died in war, parents who are elderly and lived to bury their middle-aged children, all have a great need to know that others have experienced the emotions they are feeling and that these others are dealing effectively with both their bereavement and life.

But just as important as knowing you are not alone is knowing you can and must learn to carry on despite this most unnatural of disasters.

The death of a child is frequently called the ultimate tragedy. I believe this is true. But it is a tragedy that must not be compounded by allowing everything around you to die also. There are other children, mates, sisters, brothers, friends, who need and deserve to see you functioning well.

This book is intended to help you regain that level. (p. xii, xiv)

Grieving

Although she gives some excellent advice, I feel like one of Ms. Schiff’s goals in writing this book is to encourage the grieving to “move on” as a recurring theme. For example, in the chapter entitled “Bereavement and Grieving,” Ms. Schiff writes:

Many of the negative patterns, unfortunately, are set during the weakest time – the most vulnerable time – for these parents. They are set during the early stages of grieving…It is during this early period, even though the pain is great, that we must begin to take the first steps out of the cocoon of mourning and back into the land of the living.

Although in no way should your grief be buried, it is important to take some positive steps. Do it slowly, trying to be gentle with yourself…It is important that no one neglect taking that first small step – and it should be a small one. That way, if you fall, it’s just a tiny way down. It won’t be terribly hard to climb back up again.

It’s something you can do. (p. 30-31)

She encourages dads to allow themselves to cry or to have lunch with friends or lead an activity, for mothers to put on lipstick or change their hairstyle. It feels as if she is trying to encourage bereaved parents to move on, to look for “something left to enjoy” that would penetrate their grief. Try something. If you fall down, get up and try again. “It’s something you can do.”

In the very first chapter of the book on the very first page, the author gives the biblical story of King David who, immediately following the death of his child, adorned himself with fancy clothes and put on a tremendous feast.

When friends asked him how he could eat with his child newly dead, he replied he had done all that was humanly possible while the boy was alive and now that he was gone, it was time to pickup the pieces of living and go on with life…The wise king had come to a truth that countless parents in pain have also found. The living must go on. (p. 1)

She also uses the example of the story of David later in the book, telling how their rabbi told this story at their son’s funeral.

He (the rabbi) made an excellent choice. He told the story of David and how he did everything possible for his son while the boy was alive, but, when the son died, David once again took up the business of living…It was a selection…[that] suggested a path to follow after the funeral — to attempt to emulate David and to take up life once again. (p.10-11)

Although I agree with her that we, as bereaved parents, can’t allow ourselves to become recluse, the whole get back on your feet and do something to get “out of the cocoon of mourning and back into the land of the living” early in the grieving process seems a bit premature. I feel that it puts undue pressure on parents to feel like they have to begin the “moving on” process as soon as possible following the death of their child, and it’s an unfair standard to impose on bereaved parents.

I feel, on one hand, Ms. Schiff is espousing a “new” (at the time) philosophy that it’s okay and healthy to grieve, while also seemingly to write from the accepted viewpoint at the time that a bereaved parent needs to figure out how to move on.

One interesting antidote Ms. Schiff gave regarding the perspective on grieving at that time:

One funeral director, who holds  a master’s degree in social work, recently went so far as to say that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with her magnificent public stoicism at the funeral of the assassinated president, “set grieving back a hundred years. She created an example of dignity for the world that people emulated just as they emulated her dress and little dinner parties…not stopping to think that in private she cried…just as we all do.”

“Mrs. Onassis,” said the funeral director, “set a tone for grieving the people began to follow blindly — and one that became expected by onlookers. Some of my clients, bereaved parents, actually were ashamed of their own comparative ‘lack of control’ as this attitude filtered down to the general population.” (p. 16)

Communication

One other area where I feel Ms. Schiff puts undue pressure on the bereaved parents was in her chapter titled “Bereavement and Communicating.” While addressing the difficulty in knowing what to say to a parent whose child has died, Ms. Schiff writes:

It seems impossible to me to understand the cruelty of friends and family who desert parents at such a time. But in my research I found countless couples who had horror stores to relate, such as a brother, once close, who stopped calling his sister shortly after her child died, or friends who were never heard from again after the funeral.

…Perhaps the beginnings of this type of alienation lie in the awkwardness of not knowing what to say. This discomfort can create a million excuses for a friend or relative not to call a bereaved parent. One day falls hard upon another, and suddenly the friend looks around and a month has gone by without making the difficult phone call. Now, with the time lapse, along with the awkwardness comes the need for apology, and once again the evasion “too busy” to make that call takes hold. Soon, enough time has elapsed to make the problem so embarrassing that it’s simply easier to forget the whole thing.

I believe, after much investigation that, unfair as it may see, the burden for sustaining relationships rests with the bereaved parents. At a time when it is most difficult to do, they are placed in the position of having to take the initiative of making that first call, extending that first invitation…Strike a tone of friendship. Extend a friendly hand. People want to help. They just need to be shown how…By taking that first step, the danger is averted of the awkward pause that could last a lifetime…People are basically decent. My experience has shown they truly want to help. After all, it is most difficult to live with oneself knowing you have deserted a bereaved family.

But, as in may human endeavors, people need guidance. They need to be shown how. The responsibility for maintaining social relationships often comes to rest with the bereaved. We are the ones who must set the tone and pace for social relationships. If we don’t, we may find that no one will.

Contact your friends. Ask how family members are. Put people at ease by speaking freely…Invite someone over for coffee. Or suggest meeting at a restaurant for a meal.

…It is entirely possible – if not probable – that your first act of initiative will fail. In fact, you may fall flat on your face. But the second time you take the initiative will be easier until eventually you have mastered the art of communicating although bereaved. (p. 103-107)

I have to say that one thing I will never understand is how many people we thought to be good friends – and on whom we assumed we could count for support during the worst time of our lives – could have deserted us so badly and left us so alone after Jason died. Even when I reached out, I felt like I had my hand slapped away.

I realize that it is a very difficult thing to know what to do or say when a child dies. Conversation is awkward. People don’t want to do or say the wrong thing. But I entirely disagree with the assumption – even specific direction – that the parent whose child has died has to be the one reach out, to make the invitations, to take on the “burden for sustaining relationships.” With all the bereaved parent is dealing with, it’s just plain wrong and backwards.

It’s too easy a cop-out any more, in my opinion, to just say “I don’t know what to do,” and then do nothing or expect the bereaved family to give direction or reach out. Nobody really knows what to do, especially the family who has lost a dearly loved family member and whose lives have been entirely shattered. It’s all uncharted territory for everyone. We do notice who does and who does not walk with us. We notice who stepped up and who stepped away. We forgive, even without forgiveness asked, but we notice and remember.

This may sound harsh, but, when we, as bereaved parents and siblings, are at our most raw and most vulnerable, we don’t need to be deserted. People need to step up…and to continue stepping up. We may not hear them the first time – or even the second or third time – through the fog of grief or be able to respond right then, but we don’t have the energy to reach out to family members and friends and to teach them how to support us. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it should not be the norm.

There is a lot more information available now and a lot more research has been done on grief following the death of a child, as well as some very good information written about how to help a person who is grieving. One example is a book I reviewed previously titled “A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help,” by Ginny Callaway. In addition, various bloggers have written some excellent posts on ways to help a grieving friend. I feel like there is more than enough information for a friend who would like to “help,” if only one takes the time to look.

Marriage

Regarding marriage, Ms. Schiff accurately writes that it is unrealistic to expect bereaved parents to be able to support and comfort each other. The “at least you have each other for comfort” assumption could not be further from the truth. Not only could Joe and I not adequately support or comfort each other or our surviving children, neither could we, as Jason’s parents, support or comfort Alina’s parents, even though our children died in the same accident and we certainly understood to some degree the true and deep extent of their loss. I felt a strong assumption by people we knew that this should be something we could provide for each other, and, because of that assumption, some people felt that they were off the hook to step up.

Certainly having each other for comfort would be the logical solution. Unfortunately, as a number of parents whose child died have discovered, it is impossible to give comfort when you feel an equal grief. (p. 6)

On marriage, Ms. Schiff also makes the assertion that “some studies estimate that as high as 90 percent of all bereaved couples are in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of their child.” (p.57) In my reading over the years, I have heard this statement refuted, so I performed an internet search on “peer-reviewed articles bereaved parents and divorce.” (Just a disclaimer here: Because I can’t afford to subscribe to academic sites or educational journal sites, I only have access to and use free publications, peer-review/pre-publication manuscripts, etc. I do, however, try to find reputable free publications.)

One article I found states:

One particularly frightening myth about parental bereavement is the myth that suggests that a high percentage of parents divorce after the death of a child. It is hard to imagine a more painful prediction following the death of a child than the suggestion that one’s marriage is also at risk. Yet countless married survivors have been exposed to this myth in some form.

Like many myths, nestled inside is tiny kernel of information that snowballed into its current, unrecognizable form. One of the earliest books on grief and loss, groundbreaking at the time, was The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Schiff, published in 1977. It was the first of its kind, and bereaved parents everywhere found solace in the words of a woman who was also on the grief journey following the death of her ten-year-old son.

…In the book’s chapter entitled “Bereavement and Marriage,” Schiff writes, “In fact, some studies estimate that as high as 90% of all bereaved couples are in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of their child.” Schiff doesn’t cite her sources, and subsequent analyses of the bereavement research of that time do not clearly indicate where that opinion might have originated. Yet somehow this relative innocuous statement about marital strains became a divorce “fact.” People began to perpetuate the notion that 90% of all marriages end in divorce following the death of a child.

https://www.taps.org/articles/21-1/divorce

In 2006, The Compassionate Friends organization addressed this question in one of their surveys. The results found that only 16 percent of parents divorce following the death of a child, and a significantly lower percentage (4%) said it was because of the death of their child.

In a study entitled “Bereavement and Divorce: Does the death of a child affect parents’ marital stability?,” one researcher (Torkild Hovde Lyntstad) looks at the negative effects of the death of a child on marriage.

The death of a child can be an extreme stressor for the bereaved…Bereaved parents generally assume a more negative view of the world compared to non-bereaved parents…Multiple studies indicate that the grieving period can last for a very long time, even indefinitely…The results of psychological studies of bereaved couples show that bereavement serves as a major stressor in the marriage and negatively affects many aspects of marital interaction.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263221117_Bereavement_and_divorce_Does_the_death_of_a_child_affect_parents’_marital_stability

Yet another article, “Parents Positive Interpersonal Coping After a Child’s Death,” emphasizes positive evidence of marriages surviving the death of a child.

Despite the challenging context of grieving for the death of a child, evidence shows that it is possible for parents to manage and preserve their relationship…The death of a child can lead to marital distress and divorce…however, there is also evidence of resiliency in parents’ relationship. Research has shown that not only marriages can survive the death of a child, but that this loss may even contribute to parents’ greater cohesion and strengthening of their relationship.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10826-017-0697-5

Without a doubt, the death of a child creates some major stressors on all aspects of life, marriages included, and there has been considerably more research on the subject than when Ms. Schiff wrote her book. It’s important not to assume your marriage will fail as a result of the death of a child, but it’s equally important to be aware of the pressures that it puts on a marriage and to consider strategies on how to address these pressures.

In researching this section on marriage, I have read a couple of really good articles about the stress of grieving on couples and suggested coping mechanisms, and I will review them in another post.

Siblings

One of the most difficult roles for a mother or father, when a child dies, is to continue being a parent to surviving offspring…Parenthood now becomes walking and talking and listening and hearing someone else at a time when it takes everything just to think for oneself.

Unfortunately, many surviving children suffer because their parents were unable to fulfill this responsibility, and the effects can be lifelong…A recurrent theme appears to be that the living children received precious little by way of comfort from their parents.

…Children who from infancy turned instinctively to their parents to ease hurts suddenly and in the worst possible light see another side of a mother or father…They expect solace from people who themselves need consoling.

…It requires enormous strength to deal with others’ hurts at such a time, but it is important not to allow a living child to feel alone. Use any reserve you have to take time through the initial grieving process to switch roles from the comforted to the comforter…Remember, your children are suffering just as you are suffering. They also fear the strength of their grief. (p. 83, 84, 91, 96)

In this particular chapter on Bereavement and Siblings, Ms. Schiff uses some of her personal experiences to explain the difficulties siblings go through following the death of a child. Even though she felt she and her husband had adequately supported their surviving children following the death of their son, she found out in interviews for this book that her surviving son, in particular, felt alone and unsupported in his grief. Their younger daughter had not been allowed to attend the funeral of her brother, and Ms. Schiff states her opinion that “nothing constructive can be gained by taking a child under seven to such a tragic rite.” (p. 95) As an adult, however, her daughter expressed anger at not being allowed to attend her brother’s funeral.

Entire books could be – and, since this book was written, have been – written on the subject of sibling grief. It’s difficult to cover this topic in just one chapter. Ms. Schiff gives some suggestions for talking to children of different ages and gives a list of do’s and don’ts, including asking leading questions to help children open up to talk about their grief and resisting making a deceased child into a saint, something impossible to live up to by surviving siblings.

Siblings are often called the “forgotten mourners.” Surviving siblings are asked by friends and family how the parents are doing, yet no one asks how they are doing. We were once again reminded of this recently on the anniversary of Jason’s death. Although I received some messages of support and remembrance, particularly in response to a Facebook posting, our daughter received no such messages of support or remembrance at all. This has been true from the very beginning since Jason died, and it just breaks my heart. Her grief at the death of her beloved brother was – and is – equal to ours, and she deserved – and still deserves – support that has been woefully lacking. This could be said of other surviving siblings, too, I would venture to say.

Functioning and the Rest of Your Life

The last two chapters of the book, “Bereavement and Functioning” and “Bereavement and the Rest of your Life,” are an encouragement to look beyond grief and into the future.

Functioning even at the simplest level is not easy after a child dies. In fact, it is a very frightening time. Suddenly, everyday things begin to loom large because your senses actually feel distorted…bereaved parents come to feel the whole world has come to a standstill during that initial period just after a child’s death. It is shocking to discover this is not the case. The world has gone on. Life has gone on. (p. 130-131)

She goes on to make some suggestions of how function in a world that has not stopped, starting with small tasks such as everyday chores, followed by small incremental steps “to bring something to life.”

When I began to accept the premise that functioning despite my sadness was like hiking with a heavy backpack that could not be removed, I underwent a marked change in attitude. I decided that I wanted to cope, to function, to walk through the forest, even though I was burdened by a great weight.

Mere survival, mere existence, is no longer enough for me and should not be for you.

Anyone can exist. But you have endured more pain than just anyone. You have undergone the ultimate tragedy. You owe yourself more than a shuffling-along existence. You owe yourself some surefooted living. (p. 139-140)

She concludes the book with an encouragement to not be concerned with what other people think you should do or not do, but rather to listen to your own instincts and to “concern yourself with functioning as best you can.” (p. 146)

Final Analysis

Although this book has some very good information, some of it felt a bit dated (i.e. Vietnam-era references, etc.) and the book feels like a bit like a product of its time, one when grief was thought that it needed to be “managed” as soon as possible. As I stated earlier, it’s as though the book is written as a mixture of “it’s okay to grieve” coupled with an encouragement “you have to find a way to move on.” While both of these are true, to be sure, they feel a bit too tightly compressed together in the book.

It’s important to remember, however, that at that time the generally accepted time period for grief was a few weeks to a few months after death.* Also worth noting, in my opinion, is that Ms. Schiff’s son died 1968 and that the Kubler-Ross book on the five stages of grief was written 1969, a book that took on a life of its own as the “norm” of how people should grieve or be expected to grieve. It is no small feat that Ms. Schiff wrote this book challenging some of the accepted norms of the day and speaking of her experiences as a bereaved parent. Kudos to her for tackling such a difficult subject at that time and writing this “groundbreaking” book. I feel it may have opened the door for many that followed.

As with all literature on grieving, it’s important to read this book through the prism of when the book was written and the author’s experience and point of view, taking from the text what is helpful to your life and letting the rest go. This also applies to whatever I write.

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

*Rogers, Catherine H et al. “Long-term effects of the death of a child on parents’ adjustment in midlife.” Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) vol. 22,2 (2008): 203-11. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.22.2.203

 

Reviewing Books on Grief

A while back, I purchased some books on grief for the purpose of reading them and writing reviews here on my site. But, I sort of got burned out reading books on grief, the project languished and accompanying books sat in a box. When I ran across the box recently, I decided it was time to delve back into this project. Since I hope to begin soon writing reviews on some of these books, I thought I would share my book review process.

I’m old school when it comes to books and research articles – I like holding the actual, printed item in my hands as I read – and I mark up books and research articles as I read. I’ve always been one to make notes in the margins, underline and highlight things I think are important. (I think I got this from my dad; he notoriously wrote in his books and Bibles.) Keeping several pens beside me – several colors of gel or liquid ink pens and a highlighter or two – I make notes and highlight as I read. I think this process helps me maintain focus and also helps me find things later in the text.

After gathering my pens, the first thing I do before reading a book on grief is to look at the copyright date. Then, as soon as I can find the date of the event that led to the writing of the book (death of a child or loved one, date of research performed, etc.), I write that date beside the copyright date. That gives me an idea of the span of time between the two dates. I think this is especially important when writing about the death of a child. As most bereaved parents can tell you, there is a huge difference in perspective between year 1 and year 2, or year 2 and year 5. In my opinion, true perspective comes with time.

I also make notes in the front of the book as to the author’s relationship to the topic of grief. Has the author experience the death of a child? Is the author a medical expert writing on the topic? Is this book a subject of research rather than one of walking the walk? Does the author make a valid, strong connection to the reality of walking the walk of grief that he/she is trying to address?

The motivation and accurate understanding of the author is important when reading a book, especially as a bereaved parent trying to understand this difficulty walk. For example, I recently read a statement in a book about the percentage of couples who end up divorced following the death of a child. Since there was no supporting data, I did an internet research of peer-review articles on “divorce following death of a child” and printed off several that caught my interest. One article directly refuted the statement in the book, so I highlighted this portion of the article. Another article in a well-respected magazine compared the author’s experience of how her marriage was affected WHEN HER DOG DIED to a couple’s marriage survival following the death of their child. It was an astoundingly horrific comparison, in my opinion. No matter how much you love your dog, there is absolutely no basis of comparison to the death of a child. Quite honestly, I was so offended by the comparison that all I could do was rip the article to shreds in disgust. I think most parents who have lost a child would agree.

The next thing I do is to look to see if there are any references listed in the back of the book. I think this is especially important when making strong statements. For example, if a book is going to a statement that 90% of couples who have a child die end up in divorce, I’d like to see the supporting research behind such a statement. References also give me further suggestions of books to read or articles to locate.

As I read, I make notes in the margin, underline and highlight things that catch my attention – interesting items, things I agree with, things I disagree with, things I want to further research. I’ve been know to write a great big “NO” right on top of a paragraph that seems especially egregious to me.

When I’m done reading the book, I’ll go back through and re-read what I underlined or highlighted and perhaps make further notes. If there are references or unsubstantiated statements, I’ll try to do some research on my own to see what the research source says or see if I can find some research on the unsubstantiated statements (either in support of or refuting the statements). I’ll also make note of any books mentioned that I might like to read.

And then I write.

This has been a proven way for me whenever I’ve needed or wanted to read a book or article for a deeper purpose than pleasure reading – school, reviews, research, etc.

And that’s it. That’s the process I will use when reviewing books on this site…in case you were curious and wanted to know.

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

Easter Just Isn’t the Same Any More

Miss my boy today…

Grief: One Woman's Perspective

IMG_6927Easter just isn’t the same any more, not since Jason died.

Growing up in the home of a pastor, we always celebrated Easter in a special way. New dresses, new shoes, special radio program prepared by the “Singing Knudson’s,” special music and message for church service. We, of course, did none of the Easter bunny stuff at all. It was all about celebrating the burial and resurrection of Jesus.

1988 Easter  36.jpgWe continued the traditions after Joe and I got married and our kids were born. I bought or sewed new clothes for the kids. I made a new dress for myself. I got up really early on Easter Sunday morning and put together the kids’ Easter baskets, filling them with things I had been secretly collecting for weeks. I put the baskets in front of their bedroom doors to find when they first woke up. After breakfast, off we went to…

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Jury Duty

I received a summons to serve on a jury in a few weeks, one of only three I’ve received in my lifetime.

The first one, as instructed, I called in the night before I was to report and was told I wasn’t needed.

The second one, I asked to be excused from serving. I had received the summons not long after the criminal court proceedings had concluded and the young man who killed Jason and Alina was sentenced to prison. There was no way I could go back into that same courthouse so soon after that. Once I explained the circumstances, I was readily excused.

This time, I will just have to wait and see what happens. I know that most criminal cases never reach the jury stage; they are dismissed or reach a plea bargain. I’m happy to complete my civic duty in this regard, although I strongly feel the potential weight of deciding someone’s fate held in the hands of us mere mortals.

I haven’t written much about the criminal court proceedings following Jason’s and Alina’s deaths. Most people don’t realize that there may be an additional criminal court element to a child’s death when the death is not of natural causes, and this can really complicate or prolong the grieving process. Perhaps I’ll write about it soon. Things like this jury summons have brought to mind that part of our journey.

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

Soldiering On

Growing up on a home with an older father – one of old-fashioned, strict, stoic Norwegian heritage – one thing I learned early was now to soldier on no matter what else was going on. Bad day at school or big test the next day? Didn’t matter. We got off our 1.5 hour bus ride home (school was 50 miles away) and off we went to Wednesday night church service, a 30-minute drive the opposite direction. I only missed one Wednesday or Sunday church service my entire growing up years. Huge snow storm and -40 degrees? Didn’t matter. Off to church or school we went. Argument with my mother about wanting to wear jeans to church on Sunday night? Didn’t matter. Out came the positive attitude and the nice-y, nice-y smiles if someone called or dropped by. One big, happy family.

I recently had a discussion with my sister about a bluegrass group we saw that was made up of siblings aged 7, 10 and 12. As a person who sees both sides of the coin on nearly everything, I wondered equally at their amazing talent and whether they had been coerced into forming a family band. The girls looked uncomfortable at times. The boy (7 years old) did most of the talking and sounded very scripted. He just didn’t sound like a typical 7-year old would sound. I guess it reminded me of our growing up years.

Our discussion included whether we felt coerced to perform or whether it was just the life we knew. One of my earliest memories was being paraded on stage and standing beside my sister as she quoted the 23rd Psalm to the audience. I’m sure it was really cute to have these two little girls up on stage (we were probably 2 and 4; we’re 16 months apart), but I remember feeling uncomfortable and looking up at my sister, wondering how she could remember all those words.

Was it our choice to perform at church, on the radio? I honestly don’t know. It was the life we knew from our birth. With both of my parents being school teachers as well as my dad being a pastor and all of us being on the radio every Sunday morning, I grew up feeling like I had the word “example” tattooed on my forehead. My dad felt a very strong mission to preach the gospel, and he took his family along on the journey. I would rather have gone on the journey than be left out. Sometimes it was really fun, sometimes it felt like a burden. But we always did what was expected of us and soldiered on.

This morning I did something that was unusual for me. I’ve had a bad cold that has settled into my lungs and sinuses. I stayed home a couple of days last week when it was at its worst, mainly because I didn’t feel it was fair to share it. Because of a cough that I can’t seem to kick, I have hardly slept at all for quite a few nights. However, I have gotten up and gone to work every day this week, no matter how tired I was or how bad I felt. That “soldiering on” mode just keeps kicking in. I learned it well.

Anyway, this morning I was just dragging. I thought, “What am I doing? What am I trying to prove and to whom am I trying to prove it? I just need some extra rest!” So, I sent a message to my boss that I was going to work a couple of short days and try to get some additional rest so I could feel better. Take care of myself. What a novel idea! His response was positive; he was okay with that. I laid down on the couch and immediately fell back asleep for over an hour. The extra rest was what I needed.

After Jason died, not knowing what else to do, we all went back to what we knew. Jenna and I went back to college. Joe went back to work. Eric went back to college and work. Jason had died on a Sunday. By the following Monday – six days after the accident – the memorial service was over, Jason was buried, everyone had gone home, and we were back on the treadmill of the life we knew. Soldiering on.

Except that the life we knew was no more. The “we” we knew were no more. Relationships we depended on were no more. People we counted on were gone. Everything changed. Absolutely everything. You can’t soldier on when everything changes. It’s way too exhausting and simply not necessary. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

Grieving is such hard work – mentally, physically, spiritually, in every other way you can think of, even if you have lots of support. We had no resources and very little support. We were exhausted. I have come to the opinion that, without resources and support, grief and the things we experience and the secondary losses following the death of a child go much deeper, affect us to a greater degree and stay with us a lot longer.

I am so thankful that there are so many more resources now than there were when Jason died. If a griever or friend of a griever really wants to, they can find a resource that may help. Not to say that finding a resource in any way diminishes the depth of grief; it just may provide some guidance along this long and difficult path and let the griever know they are not alone.

My suggestion to parents and families who have lost a loved one is this: don’t try to soldier on. Take care of yourself. Take care of your family. Give yourself time to grieve, no matter how long it takes. People who have not walked this walk of deep grief won’t understand the journey or how long it takes, anyway, and you have nothing to prove to them. Be true to yourself and your own journey. Some things have to be taken care of, that’s true. Do what you have to do and let some of the other things go. Give yourself permission to get off the treadmill. Give yourself permission not to solider on. Give yourself permission to grieve.

~Hugs,

Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney