Does Child Loss Destroy a Marriage?


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That which does not kill us makes us stronger. ~ Friedrich Neitzsche

A reader writes: I think we need to seek out whatever help we can to be able to balance reality against our fears . . .When we lost an infant to SIDS some time ago, the one thing that really convinced me to get help was being told that many marriages end after the loss of a child, since the couple's grief is different and they find it harder to communicate.

My response: My friend, I agree completely with your statement about seeking help and balancing reality against our fears, and I'm so pleased to know that you followed your own advice. Nevertheless, as a grief counselor, and as a wife and mother who several years ago experienced the unexpected death of our own baby, I feel a need to respond.

Many bereaved parents have been told (or have come to believe) exactly what you were told, that “many marriages end after the loss of a child." I am happy to report that this statement simply is not true. As a matter of fact, according to respected grief expert and noted author Harold Ivan Smith, research indicates that only 6% of marriages fail following the death of a child; the myth is 75% or higher. (Statement by Harold Ivan Smith during his seminar, UnderRecognized Grief, Phoenix AZ, on March 14, 2008). Dr. Smith went on to encourage those of us in the field of grief and bereavement counseling to do all we can to help debunk this myth.

One thing we can do is to help couples better understand how husbands and wives may differ in the ways they experience and express their grief. See, for example, my article, How We Mourn: Understanding Our Differences. (For an in-depth look at the many different patterns of grieving styles and the ways grief can be influenced, but not determined, by gender, see Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn by Kenneth J. Doka and Terry L. Martin.)

Obviously an event as catastrophic as the death of a child can put a terrible strain on a marriage, and it certainly won't make a bad marriage any better ~ but there are steps both parents can take to address their individual needs in grief while preserving and strengthening their commitment to each other.

I invite you to read the following articles:

Does Loss of a Child Really Destroy Marriages? by Kimberly Pryor

Growing a Strong Marriage After The Loss of a Child by Margaret Brownley

You might also be interested in the Webinar offered by The Compassionate Friends:



I can also tell you that, when our baby David died just three days after he was born, following what we thought was a normal pregnancy and delivery, we were totally devastated, and the world as we had known it completely fell apart. My husband and I were also very young, and fairly new in our two-year-old marriage. But I can tell you from my own experience that learning to cope with this unexpected crisis in our lives only made our marriage stronger. We “grew up” very quickly afterward, maturing both as individuals and as a couple ~ and I can honestly say that today, nearly a half-century later, I am absolutely convinced that what I learned from our baby’s death was a major factor in my eventual decision to work in the field of death, dying and bereavement. In the end, this catastrophic loss became for us one of life's most valuable lessons: It's not what happens to us, but how we react to it that matters.

I wouldn't wish this unspeakable loss on anyone, but bereaved parents deserve to know that the death of a child doesn't necessarily foretell the death of their marriage ~ and if they are willing to reach out for all the information, comfort and support available to them, it could even draw them closer.

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6 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing and the resources. I have to agree with your statement; It's not what happens to us, but how we react to it that matters. This goes for EVERYTHING in life. My wife and I lost our 23 year old son back in 2006 to leukemia. How we managed to get through that is attitude, love, and understanding. You can take a look inside my head at my blog. http://sobertopics.blogspot.com/
    For a deeper look into dealing with that experience as told through my eyes I'd like to invite you to experience an inspirational book that I wrote found here; http://www.amazon.com/Heading-Home-experience-tragedy-grief/dp/1460907523

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    1. You are so welcome, Matt ~ and I thank you for your comments. Clearly you speak from experience, and it's obvious from your blog that you've had a lot of it! Your book looks to be an excellent one, and I can think of no greater tribute to your son than that ♥

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  2. Interesting to read that parents do not usually separate after the death of a child. I witnessed this with 2 families during my childhood and it was much too difficult for them to sustain. I remember being fully aware of how it can stall a family to create a nonfunctioning fog over their day to day life. Back then no one talked about these things and such families were so isolated. It was painful for me to be in such households and to watch everything moving in slow motion. Thank goodness we are bringing death into the open and embracing it! Suzette/ @ SevenPonds

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    1. Yes, indeed, Suzette! I too remember when I was little how my parents dealt with the death of my baby brother, who was born prematurely and could not survive. Once my sister and I were told of the baby's death, our family never spoke of it again. Years later, when my husband and I experienced the unexpected death of our own baby, no one spoke about that, either ~ except for the two of us with each other. And in the mid-1960s, there was no such thing as grief support for postpartum mothers and dads who were mourning the death of their infants. Look how far we have come!

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  3. My dear Marty,

    I am sorry about the loss of your baby brother and the pain for your family of origin and then to have to visit that devastating sorrow again with the death of your precious new born baby, David. Well, it's just such a deep and painful wound.

    You could have been a bitter woman with the way death surrounded you but no, you are instead a healer of the broken-hearted treating all with compassion and patience.

    When I look back at the first years after Katie's death I don't know how we made it. I guess one foot in front of the other, trying to rest when I could, and welcoming the grandchildren's laughter into our lives saved us and probably some grace God mercifully gave to us.

    As you may remember, I facilitate a group for mothers who have lost children. We have met for 3 1/2 years and have 29 registered moms now. In this group there are 6 mothers who have divorced and only one has remarried.

    Peace and many hugs to you and to soberwriter and his wife,too,

    MJ

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    1. MJ, you are too modest to do so yourself, but I want to point my readers to your website, MJBH.net, where they can read about you and the beautiful book you've written about your precious daughter Katie, "When Every Day Matters: A Mother's Memoir on Love, Loss and Life." As I wrote to you after I read that book, in my next life I want you to be my mother. ♥

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