by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, BCC
The death of a child, at any age, can create a strain in any marriage or relationship, such that the partners can wonder how the relationship will survive. Having awareness of some of the issues causing the strain and discussing them, can help cope.
When someone we love dies, emotions are heightened, and our feelings are more sensitive. There are things we, or others may say or do, that cause us to respond in a hurtful way. Partners will grieve differently, this is normal. When one person has the desire to spill out their feelings and emotions, and the other does not, couples may ask: “Why aren’t you there for me? Why can’t you listen to me? Don’t you love our child like I did?” The simple response is, each of us grieve differently, and simply because they are a couple, does not mean they will experience their grief in the same way.
One of the parents may be ready to pack away all the child’s things while the other is not. For one person, reminders of the child are helpful, while for the other they may not be. Telling the story of how the child died, or responding to the question, “How many children do you have?” can create additional tension for couples. Negotiating this landmine of thoughts and emotions can be difficult and yet is necessary for each person to find their way during this period of reorientation.
Open, honest, gentle discussion can be helpful between the partners, coming to agreement on some things, while at other times, agreeing to disagree can be helpful.
For those providing support to grieving parents, they will need a lot of listening, understanding, touch, maybe food, among other things. Remember that the couple may not be able to support the other initially and maybe even for a while.
The death of a child can rock any foundation, even a strong marriage. As partners struggle to find their own way through the grief, it can be helpful to recommit maintaining the marriage. It may not look recognizable temporarily, and it can be very painful, however, like this unending winter in the Midwest this year (April and we just had a blizzard), spring will come again. Amidst all the loss the couple now grieves, working and struggling together through the brokenness can help bring help bring the couple closer, and create new ways of supporting, listening, and even a deeper level in the loving relationship.
Some helpful resources for couples grieving the death of a child can include:
Article about relationship problems for couples whose child has died.
Compassionate Friends: support to bereaved families after the death of a child.
New York Life Foundation bereavement resources.