Today is the first day of school, and it should be my daughter’s first day in third grade. Instead she’s dead. Today, many of my Facebook friends are posting pictures of their children starting school. But for my wife and me, there are no pictures, no smiles—just a deep, lingering ache that affects every part of our lives.
Those words were entered in the private journal of a father whose daughter had died just a few months earlier, the result of an auto accident. Often described as the “worst loss,” the death of a child can strain even the healthiest and most robust of marriages. While some couples do end up separating and divorcing, many other marriages are still standing. These couples successfully learned how to manage the loss, deal with grief, rise to the various challenges, and not only remain together but develop a stronger relationship after their child’s death. Here are several ways couples can navigate through this toughest of times.
Don’t believe the divorce statistics
Over the last few decades, some writers of bereavement books have stated that the divorce rate after the death of a child is 80 percent or higher. Don’t believe that dismal statistic because it doesn’t come close to reality.
The Compassionate Friends, a worldwide organization supporting families who have lost a child, recently commissioned two major studies to investigate parental grief and divorce. Their research revealed a much more optimistic picture: the divorce rate among couples who lose a child is 16 percent, which is far less than America’s national divorce rate of 40 to 50 percent. Furthermore, among the grieving parents who did divorce, only 40.8 percent of them felt that the impact of their child’s death contributed to their separation. So, as you deal with the loss of your child, maintain a sense of optimism and hope for the future of your marriage.
Accept one another’s emotions
Anytime we experience the death of someone we love, a variety of emotions erupt. Don’t run from them. Don’t hide them. Do expect them. Rabbi Earl Grollman, a grief specialist, says, “Death hurts. It’s so difficult to say goodbye—to realize that in your lifetime you will never see or touch your loved one again. Why pretend that you are not experiencing terrible inner turmoil? Your emotions are a natural response to the death of a loved one.”
Among the range of emotions you and your partner may experience are shock, sadness, guilt, regret, anger, frustration, and resentment. Accept these feelings, talk about them, and be assured that their intensity will ease as time goes on. Meanwhile, be patient with yourself and with each other. Live out the instructions of the apostle Paul, who wrote, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).
Commit to getting through the grief together
Marriage, in general, requires an abundance of love, understanding, effort, and teamwork. The same qualities must be used when a couple experiences the death of a child: love for one another, mutual understanding, putting forth the effort to work through the grief, and, perhaps most important, teamwork.
Commit yourselves to getting through the crisis together. Verbalize your commitment by periodically reminding each other, “We’re going to do this together. We’ll find our way through it.”
One woman, recalling the grief she and her husband experienced after the death of their son, said it was important in their relationship that they told each other, “This is going to be hard, but I am committed to staying with you.” She remembers that shortly after their son’s death, “We made a decision that we were going to continue to be married; that we were going to have to work at it for the other two children. I can remember just making a vow to each other that the death of our son would not tear us apart. We held on tight and just decided that we couldn’t let this destroy us.”
Support each other
When a couple experiences a tragedy, some couples turn on each other while others turn to each other. “Shared suffering can draw a couple together,” says Harold Ivan Smith, a noted grief authority. He cites the example of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. “On August 9, 1963, two-day-old Patrick Bouvier Kennedy died. The nation’s heart went out to the grieving First Family. Although he was president, John F. Kennedy rearranged his schedule to spend 23 days in isolation with Jackie, Caroline, and John. Aides and friends witnessed a new closeness between the couple. . . . Patrick’s death brought them together.”
Learn about grief together
Healing can be greatly facilitated by understanding what grief is and how it can be managed. Become students of grief together as a couple. Read books and magazine articles. Register for bereavement workshops. Attend lectures on grief recovery. Watch programs about loss. Then, discuss together what you’re learning, what’s helping you, and what inspires you and brings you hope. The knowledge you gain will give you power over the impact of grief.
Rally the troops
“In times of crisis, silence is not golden,” says Rabbi Grollman. Reach out for support from extended family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Seek out helpers and comforters—people with whom you can freely share your feelings without being corrected or scolded. Rabbi Grollman says, “We all need the support of others, particularly when we are devastated by an agonizing loss. A good friend can be a lifeline, someone you can talk to honestly, someone who will not judge you but accept you as you are.”
Participate in a support group
While the majority of people who grieve don’t need to see a professional counselor or therapist, most grievers do benefit greatly by participating in a grief support group.
After Jane’s son died from cancer, she and her partner joined a local chapter of Compassionate Friends. “The group was a lifeline for both of us,” she says. “From our first meeting, we instantly felt understood, because everyone else there had been through a similar loss. We also gained not only practical information about dealing with loss but inspiration by seeing others who had successfully coped with and survived the devastating loss of a child. Our support group made all the difference in the world.”
Be a grateful griever
Of course, when a child dies, it’s challenging to find ways to express gratitude. Yet, the Bible does tell us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Here’s an inspiring example of one person who applied this biblical principle. In the nineteenth century, Archibald Campbell Tait was the archbishop of Canterbury. Between March 11 and April 18, 1856, he and his wife lost five of their six daughters to an epidemic of scarlet fever. After burying his fifth daughter, Pastor Tait penned this prayer: “O God, You have dealt very mysteriously with us. We have been passing through deep waters. . . . [The children] are gone from us. Yet . . . I thank You not only for the children You have left to us, but those You have reclaimed. I thank You for the blessing of the last ten years, and for all the sweet memories of these lives. . . . O, Lord, comfort our hearts.”
Though you may have different grieving styles, be sure that you nurture your connection as a couple. Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair, authors of I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye, offer this wisdom for couples: “Make time to spend with each other. Don’t shut each other out or you will be strangers when you get to the other side of grief. Schedule at least 30 minutes a day to sit together. Try and talk to each other about your feelings and challenges of the day. . . . If talking is too difficult right now, just hold hands or hold each other.”
This kind of daily connection, whether physical or verbal, allows each partner to know that the relationship is important and that a close connection continues to be desired.
No matter how drained you feel, no matter how little progress you may seem to be experiencing, remain hopeful that the steps you’re taking and the work you’re doing will eventually put you in a better place. “Bear in mind that the pain of grief is usually worst right before we make progress in our grief work,” says Dr. Bill Flatt, a marriage counselor and author of Growing Through Grief. “As the old saying goes, ‘It’s always darkest just before the dawn.’ So if you find yourself in a particularly dark time right now, perhaps it means some real progress is just around the corner. Keep looking for that light! The future is bright in spite of the present gloom: hang on to that truth.”
As you and your partner make the journey through grief, continue reminding yourselves that the pain of grief eases, even if it never quite goes away. Let this wisdom from Rabbi Harold Kushner bring you inspiration to keep moving forward: “We can endure much more than we think we can; all human experience testifies to that. All we need to do is learn not to be afraid of pain. Grit your teeth and let it hurt. Don’t deny it; don’t be overwhelmed by it. It will not last forever. One day, the pain will be gone and you will still be there.”
4 ways to help grieving parents
Be an effective helper by adhering to these four simple ways of supporting a parent in grief:
1. Listen, listen, listen. Parents in grief need to tell and retell the stories of their loss. With each telling, a layer of pain is removed. It’s much like peeling an onion layer by layer. Say very little yourself, and allow the parents to do most of the talking.
2. Avoid clichés and trite responses. Too often, grieving parents hear insensitive comments, such as “your child is in a better place,” “you can have other children,” or “you need to get over this.” Such comments are hurtful, not helpful. Instead, respond with supportive statements, such as “I’m sorry,” “I care about you,” or “I want to be helpful.”
3. Be patient. Grief takes time—longer than most people assume. Don’t rush a grieving parent through the grief process. It ends when it ends.
4. Keep checking in. Be there for the long haul. The majority of friends drop away shortly after the funeral. Yet the weeks and months that follow are when a grieving parent is most in need of a supportive friend.
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister and the author of a dozen books exploring themes of grief, spirituality, and related issues. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and contributes regularly to Signs of the Times®.