"Grief knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can; and common sufferings are far stronger links than common joys," writer and poet Alphonse de Lamartine once said. But is it true?
Many couples who have lost a child would not agree. Many have experienced first the death of their child, then the dissolution of their marriage.
Other couples may agree that unity can grow though grief. But they also know that it takes commitment, time and strategy to push through the valley of death with a stronger marriage on the other side.
Where does a couple begin? How can two grieving hearts find comfort in each other? Is divorce inevitable after a family crisis? Read on for thoughts on how to help your marriage survive, and even thrive, after the loss of a child.
Make a decision
After a tragedy, one of the first steps to cementing the stability of your relationship is making a decision:
Will you stay together?
Each partner should commit anew to God and to each other. "The marriage that survives the death of a child includes two people who have calculated their survival," Elizabeth Brown writes in her book, Surviving the Loss of a Child. "Reasoning, blueprinting a master plan, and analysis are part of the strategies that lead a couple through the maze of downhill emotions. In order for your marriage to survive, it has to become your number-one priority."
Will you do everything in your power to pursue a thriving marriage?
If yes, sit down with your spouse and speak your commitment to each other. You could say, for example, "It’s going to be hard but I’m committed to staying with you and pursuing a healthy lifelong marriage."
When the funeral is over
Directly after the loss of a child, taking care of death necessities and planning for the memorial service occupy most of the time and thoughts of parents. But eventually all the to-do lists are done. Guests leave town and the adrenaline carrying you through the previous week or two subsides. That’s when parents can find themselves confronting grief at a deeper and lonelier level.
How can couples prepare for this potential emotional crash?
Celine*, a mother who’s mourned the loss of three children, says the first step in preparation is simply "awareness that there could be a ‘crash’ at all." That way, rather than being blindsided by the crash, you can be proactive.
Karin Gregory, a Focus on the Family Canada counsellor, suggests parents should start by recognising that "sleep (even if unattainable), nutrition (even if unpalatable), and exercise (even if unwelcome) are still necessary to the physical body, and actually aid our bodies in recovery from grief."
"Don’t be unwilling to have your family physician walk alongside," she adds. "It can be very helpful to have the objective observation of someone who knows you and your body well when assessing for depression, and other signs of decline due to grief."
After your physical needs are met, Celine says to choose a coping strategy to fit your personality. Perhaps you will intentionally set aside time and space to "just be," or maybe you’d prefer to schedule something "normal" to change your focus for even a moment.
Throughout it all, Celine advises allowing family or friends to take over some of the ordinary tasks in your day-to-day activities. Cooking, cleaning and doing laundry do not have to be high on your priority list yet. This outside help is especially important in the low after the emotional fervour of the weeks directly following the death.
Six relationship dangers
During the weeks, months and even years following a child’s death, you and your spouse will need to make a concerted effort to make your marriage priority. As you do, Brown warns to be on the lookout for these six relationship dangers.
Danger #1: "Do it my way"
Why aren’t you hurting as much as me? Why can’t you pull yourself together?
Brown explains that "the first danger to marriage is a belief that states, ‘My way of grieving is the way!’" Becoming aware of each other’s style of grieving takes time, careful observation, communication and vulnerability. In essence, it’s not easy. But it’s necessary.
"Men and women grieve differently," Brown notes. "Whether this is due to cultural indoctrination or innate God-designed differences is irrelevant." These gender generalities may help you begin to understand your spouse’s way of grieving.
While a man may be broken over his inability to protect his child, a woman may be mourning the sweet daily moments she should have cherished more or will miss in the future. Gregory says that "women often need to talk through the story, or gather meaningful mementos; men are often driven to ‘do’ something."
Through it all, Celine suggests you "extend grace to yourself and one another. Grief comes out in odd and seemingly unrelated ways sometimes."
Danger #2: "Be strong"
"Parts of the death necessities can devastate you or your partner," Brown warns. "Each should shoulder the responsibility for needs he or she can handle emotionally." There are many emotionally gruelling necessities surrounding a loss, not the least of which is the funeral.
When Craig and Sheri’s toddler daughter, Velissa, passed away, finding the perfect picture frame to hold one of the last photographs of her proved to be overwhelming for Sheri. "I was very focused and almost consumed with finding a frame for Velissa’s photo and getting it on the wall. I searched everywhere and was very distraught about not finding one," she remembers. Before Sheri reached her breaking point, Craig stepped in. He found a few frames online and they chose one together. When he ordered it, it was as if he moved mountains for Sheri.
Helping your spouse when they are most vulnerable will help your love grow.
Danger #3: Change
"Death brings change, and change is always tough. Values, priorities, and commitments fall under attack," Brown writes. The daily routines no longer seem routine and each holiday is a new reminder that you’re missing a family member. "Like a noose, free time hangs around your neck," Brown notes. What hobbies you enjoyed before may now seem trivial or pointless in light of your new perspective of life and death.
The loss of a child alters you, your marriage and your family forever. To minimise the stress and burden of change, try not to make major decisions in the first year after the death. This could include deciding to move or undertaking a major career shift.
Danger #4: Make "me" happy
Anger builds if you blame your continued grief on your spouse’s failure to "fix" you.
Instead of focusing on how your partner can make you happy, put your focus on bringing joy to your spouse. Plan an activity they enjoy, prepare their favourite meal or allow them to take a bubble bath in peace and quiet.
"About three months after Velissa’s death, I felt as close to breaking down as I have been," Sheri admits. "I told this to Craig and his lovely reaction was to give me time alone. He took the next day off from work, looked after the kids and brought my meals to me. It was refreshing and allowed me to pull together and carry on."
Danger #5: Failing to meet your partner’s ego needs
To meet your spouse’s ego needs, you must first know what they are.
"Men feel loved when they know they are respected and their sexual needs are met. Women feel loved through tenderness and understanding," Brown explains. "These expressions of love fulfill the basic human ego needs."
Meeting your spouse’s needs may be more difficult after the loss of a child for a few reasons.
A woman may struggle to meet her husband’s sexual needs when depression replaces passion and emotional exhaustion leaves her sexually numbed. Sex may even conjure deeper feelings of guilt for having pleasure during a time of mourning.
On the other hand, while a man needs physical intimacy to release tension and reconnect with his spouse, he finds it difficult to be understanding of his wife at a time when he is reeling to understand why his child died.
Though it is difficult to decipher and meet your spouse’s needs, you must do it. "You must reach out to each other, because if you fail, your marriage is doomed," Brown writes.
Danger #6: Surviving alone
"Beware! The threat of isolation is part of the parcel of grief. Togetherness has to be built," Brown warns. Each person grieves in their own way, but a husband or wife need not grieve alone. In fact, it could be disastrous to their marriage if a spouse reverts into their own means of mourning while ignoring their other half.
When there are remaining children in the home, it can be especially difficult for parents to focus on each other and their marriage while caring for the physical and emotional needs of their children. Craig and Sheri note, "It is so easy to be reactive to the needs of our children and not proactive to the needs of our relationship."
To make your marriage a priority doesn’t require you to take a weekend getaway or even go out for dinner weekly, Craig and Sheri add. They suggest taking advantage of little opportunities to spend time together, such as putting the kids to bed early to have a quiet evening or going to visit their daughter’s graveside as a couple.
Common characteristics of marriages that survived mourning
1. Shared values
"In a family where parents are driven in different directions by their grief, the marriage can be imperiled," Gregory says. But if a couple can join together with a shared vision of how they will honour their child, the relationship can flourish. For Craig and Sheri, their shared vision is based on Psalm 40:3: "He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord."
"Our family has a new testimony to share and many will hear and trust in the Lord. That is our heart’s desire: to change people’s focus from living for now to living for eternity," they explain. To further this ministry, they’ve created a website dedicated to Velissa’s life and passing, which greatly impacted the small community they live in. The website is a place to share her story and also the gospel message.
2. Compassion for others on similar journeys
Another shared ministry a couple could embark on is an "openness to minister to others on similar journeys," Celine notes. Of course, a husband and wife must do this when they are each emotionally ready to start pouring into others in such a personal way. But when you do, it can be a profound way to come alongside couples in empathetic understanding as well as continue your own healing process.
Celine says a proper perspective of life itself is fundamental to a marriage’s success after loss. This means a "deep appreciation for the gift, sanctity and fragility of life."
Both Craig and Sheri find great healing and comfort in choosing thankfulness to God for His sovereignty in life and death: "Be thankful for the time you had with your precious one, rather than bitter or angry about the time that won’t be there."
"What is a life? For some, it is 70 years, or 80 years or 90 years. But for Velissa it was about two years and 10 months. That was her life," Craig and Sheri explain. "There is nowhere we are told life should be ‘X’ years long. To the Lord, a thousand years is like unto a day and a day like a thousand years. Time is not a problem to the Lord."
Some couples never experienced moments with their child alive. For babies who passed preterm or at birth, there is still opportunity to thank the Lord for the weeks the baby grew in the mother’s womb. No matter how young the baby, Craig and Sheri are thankful for "a precious soul in heaven for eternity."