Monday, October 2, 2017

In Grief: Infant’s Death Threatens A Marriage

[Reviewed and updated November 3, 2019]

New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.  ~ Lao Tzu

A reader writes: My wife and I just lost our daughter. She was only 26 days old at the time. I was stationed overseas the whole time, but was home for the death. My wife and I got married shortly after our daughter’s death. Then I returned to Afghanistan to finish my tour. My wife now wants an annulment on our marriage and has moved to a different city. She still says she wants a relationship with me, just wants us to start over. Is this normal behavior?

My response: I'm so very sorry to learn of the death of your baby daughter, and I can only imagine the pain this is causing both you and your wife at this sad and difficult time.

You ask whether your wife's behavior in the wake of this loss is "normal" and, since I don't know your wife or any details about your relationship with each other, I would be reluctant to make that value judgment. Grief can make any person look and act very "crazy" to the rest of us. I also don't know what, if any, support your wife has available to her to help her come to terms with this devastating event in her life.

What I can tell you is that grief is a normal response to losing a loved one, and everyone grieves differently according to their age, gender, personality, culture, value system, past experience with loss, and available support. Grieving differs even among members of the same family, as each person’s relationship with and attachment to the deceased family member varies. How anyone reacts to a death depends on how they’ve responded to other crises in their life; on what was lost when this death happened (not only the life of the person who died, but certain aspects of their own lives as well: their way of life; who they were in their relationship with that person and who they planned to be; their hopes and dreams for the future); on who died (spouse, parent, child, sibling, grandparent, relative, friend or other; how they lived together and what that person meant to them); on the person’s role in their family; on when the death occurred (at what point in their life cycle: theirs as well as that of the person who died); and on how (the circumstances surrounding the death, and how the death occurred).

Losing an infant to death is especially difficult, because it goes against what we consider to be the natural order of things: We are not supposed to outlive our children, and the death of an innocent little baby seems so terribly, terribly unfair. It is also a loss that tends to be minimized by others in our culture, and can leave both parents feeling very isolated and alone in their grief. (See, for example, Silent Grief: Pregnancy and Infant Loss.)

You know your wife better than I do, my friend. All I can suggest to you is that you learn all you can about normal grief and what resources are "out there" and available, especially for those who have lost an infant to death, so you can better understand both your wife's and your own reactions to this tragedy and you can learn specifically what you can do about them. You might begin by spending some time on my Grief Healing website, exploring some of the links you'll find on my Death of An Infant, Child, Grandchild page. Then, if and when the timing seems right, you can gently offer to share with your wife some of the resources you yourself have discovered and explored (so you'll know why you're recommending them.)

Your wife's grief at losing your daughter could be contributing to her wanting an annulment of your marriage and wanting to "start over," but again, you know the state of your relationship and your marriage far better than I do. Put it this way: it is a myth that the death of a child usually results in the breakup of a marriage. Oftentimes such adversity is what brings couples closer together, spiritually and emotionally. On the other hand, if a marriage is already in trouble, the death of a child places an enormous extra burden on the parents and it certainly doesn't help. The fact that you two decided to get married shortly after your daughter's death, when you both were in the throes of grief, suggests to me that neither of you were in the best state of mind to make such an important, life-altering decision.

Before the two of you make any more big decisions, I would suggest that you give each other some time to come to terms with this death ~ time to explore and work through all your feelings about what has happened and what it means to both of you. I also hope that you don't try to do this all alone and all by yourselves. There is plenty of help "out there" and available if you take the time to find it. Please do not minimize the importance of this. Grief is hard work, and it shouldn't be done alone.

Finally, I'm including here an excerpt from an article by bereaved mom Sandy Goodman, who wrote that her life was changed forever when her son Jason was killed in an electrical accident:
• Grief Waits. If you put it away and try to ignore it, it will simply wait until you have no choice but to experience it. 
• We grieve as intensely as we love. 
• There is no "normal" in grieving. 
• You will never be the same person you were before your loss. 
• You must make a conscious decision to "get better." 
• There are no set-in-concrete stages or timelines in grief. 
• It is typical to feel almost numb for the first few months. When that "fog" lifts, it can be very frightening. Think of it as a wave and ride it out.
• Losing a child is "out of order". Talking to and being with other bereaved parents is extremely helpful. 
• Other people will not understand your grief unless you share it. 
• It is okay to talk about your child as long as you want. 
• It is okay to keep their belongings as long as you want. 
 • It is okay to include them in celebrations and special occasions for as long as you want. 
 "Finding closure" is not a requirement of healing. For parents, it is not even an option. 
• Even in death . . . love remains.
Sandy goes on to say that, a year after Jason died, she and her husband attended a conference in Philadelphia put on by The Compassionate Friends (TCF), where they were welcomed with open arms. “For the first time in our grieving,” she writes, “we were able to say what we felt without seeing a look of terror in the eyes of the listener. As you will learn, it is very difficult for anyone to understand the pain of a bereaved parent. It is an unthinkable loss. Had I known about TCF and the other resources immediately following Jason's death, I would have run to them before taking another breath . . . Grieving the loss of a child is an incredible amount of work, but there is an incredible amount of support available to you. Reach out, take a hand, and hold on tight.”

I hope this information helps, my friend. Please know that I am thinking of you and holding you in my heart. Know too that I am very grateful to you and your fellow soldiers for your service to this country, and you are always in my prayers. Please take good care of yourself, and stay safe until you come back home again.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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