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 groundbreaking. In 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.
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.
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.
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
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