It’s no secret that many marriages fall apart after the death of a child. I completely understand why.
The death of a child completely shatters you. You’re the same people, but at the same time, you’re really not. Everyone changes throughout the course of a marriage but it’s rarely so sudden and complete. So you have to get to know each other again under one of the most harrowing circumstances imaginable.
No two people grieve the same, even when you’re grieving the same loss. One partner might be very vocal about how they’re feeling, while the other is quiet. One might express grief in “traditional” ways (crying, etc) while the other does things their partner finds odd. You’re also rarely grieving on the same “cycles,” so to speak. Sometimes you resent your partner for bringing you down when you’re having a good day. Sometimes, you feel guilty for bringing your partner down.
There are times in grieving where you want to be – need to be – selfish. You don’t want to consider somebody else’s feelings, only your own. You want to be taken care of, and you want to believe what you’re going through is the worst and no one can possibly understand how much you hurt. But you do have someone who understands, and it’s both a blessing and a curse. A blessing to not have to walk the path alone. A curse because some days it’s all you can do to help yourself survive, let alone someone else. Shutting down and shutting out becomes a defense mechanism.
You’re also forced to address difficult situations and emotions that you might otherwise be able to ignore. It would be easy to ignore the complicated things if you were grieving solo – you can just say that no one understands, and leave it at that. But with a partner in grief, you’re really forced to examine painful concepts and memories if you ever want to possibly rebuild your life. Sometimes you have to do that at someone else’s pace, and it’s frustrating.
I asked Mike why he thought our marriage survived and he paused and then said, “I don’t know.” I don’t either. We didn’t love each other more or better than couples whose marriages ended. I think it helped that on the days we couldn’t bear to speak to each other, we could write how we were feeling and decide if we wanted the other to read it. In the beginning we realized that the best way to take care of us, the couple, was to take care of us, individually. We allowed each other to be selfish, but we worked on keeping our communication open and honest. When one of us needed more, we tried not to let it fester. We still work on that.
For us, we give each other space when we need it and we hold each other when we need that. We went to therapy together, but we’ve mostly gone separately because we preferred it that way. We’ve had to figure out our comfort zones and what works for us, and that’s constantly changing. We rely on the “drowning” analogy a lot – that a drowning person will sometimes pull their rescuer under. When one of us is having a bad time, we’ll say, “I’m drowning,” and we’ll tell each other what we need to feel “rescued” that day without pulling the other person down.
Losing a child is the hardest thing a couple can go through. We still have our struggles and, as anyone who’s suffered loss can tell you, you never know what life is going to throw at you. We try to focus on our kids, each other, and ourselves, and not on what could have been or might be coming. And it’s hard. So hard.