Child Loss: Can My Marriage Survive?

A few decades ago, faulty research methods made popular an inaccurate statistic that a disproportionate number of marriages fail after a couple experiences child loss.

Like many urban legends, once fixed in the minds of many, it’s nearly impossible to dislodge.  

And that is more than unfortunate because when marriages falter (and they often do) after child loss, lots of people just give up because they think failure is inevitable.

But it’s not. 

Marriage is hard under any circumstances.  It requires sacrifice, compromise, communication, change and most importantly, commitment.

Any stressor makes it harder. 

I can’t think of a bigger stressor than child loss. It’s no surprise that many marriages tend to flounder in the tsunami of grief, sorrow and pain that follows the death of a child.

But grief rarely causes the problems that surface, it simply makes them unavoidable.

Suddenly all the energy that was once available to deflect, to distract, to pretend is gone.  And things that have gone unaddressed for years or decades can no longer be ignored.

charlie brown too tired to cry

It’s important to make that distinction because if child loss is the only reason a couple can’t find their way, then giving up might make sense.  Anyone who lives with child loss knows that the pain, sorrow and missing will never go away.  We become better able to deal with it, but it is something we will carry for life.

If, however, child loss is simply the force that shook other problems loose, then working on those specific issues is not only possible, it’s doable. 

wedding rings

Here are some common conflicts in marriage that surface after child loss:  

Different ways of expressing (or not expressing) emotion.  Men and women often grieve differently.  You and your spouse may have always dealt differently with strong emotions but until it was grief, it went unnoticed.  Sometimes these differences cause conflict because one spouse cries openly while another rarely mentions their missing child.  To the open griever, it feels like her spouse doesn’t care.  To the secret griever, it feels like his wife is dramatic and out of control.  If you don’t talk about it, the gap grows wider and can become unbridgeable. 

It’s OK to grieve differently.  But it’s not OK to blame someone for grieving differently.  Ask questions.  Give grace.  Listen carefully.  Grant space. 

style of grieving marriage quote

Blended family dynamics that have gone unaddressed.  Some bereaved parents are no longer married to the mother or father of their child.  They have remarried and are part of a blended family.  Any differences in grieving styles between spouses can be exaggerated when the biological parent feels like the stepparent “doesn’t get it”.  Sometimes the bio-parent becomes bitter that his family circle has been broken while his spouse is spared.  The list is practically endless but nearly always starts with things in the relationship that were always there-favoring one child over another, a sense that the stepparent never cared for her spouse’s children as much as for her own, or other silent resentment.

Before you assume that the only reason your spouse isn’t crying at all or as much as you is because it wasn’t HIS child, think carefully about it.  Have there been rumbles in your relationship before?  Consider the full sweep of how your spouse treated your missing child-is there ample evidence that he or she loved your child well?

Don’t jump to conclusions.  Ask questions.  Give grace.  Listen carefully.  Grant space.

listening is a postive act

Underlying health problems.  Sometimes child loss causes or uncovers health problems.  If you or your spouse suffer from heart disease, diabetes or other chronic health issues, the stress of burying a child can make any or all of them worse. Child loss can also push marginal mental health to the point of requiring counseling and/or medication.  Chronic pain tends to get worse.  Thyroid medication often needs to be adjusted.  All of these things can make someone grumpy, short-tempered, less likely to extend grace and mercy.  Add that to the stress of child loss and it’s no wonder spouses may find themselves at one another’s throats. 

One spouse may be motivated to take better care of him or herself while another may give up and give in, refusing medication or treatment for the most obvious health problems.  Frustration and a sense that the unmotivated spouse is making life harder for everyone adds to family stress.

If you find yourself or your spouse acting out of character,  a thorough physical examination and blood work can expose underlying health problems.  Appropriate medical intervention will make a huge difference.  Counseling is often an important part of that intervention.  

Old wounds.  Child loss is such a deep wound!  It frequently uncovers other, older wounds as well.  You or your spouse may have wounds from earlier in your marriage or from earlier in life before marriage.  Many, many times we cover these up and *almost* forget them.  But when a heart is shattered in the aftermath of burying a child, all those tender places become exposed.  Whatever tricks we’ve used to keep them hidden just don’t work anymore.

If you feel like you are reacting disproportionately to everyday stresses, stop and listen to your own heart.  Is there an offense behind the offense you think you’ve suffered at the hand of your spouse?  Is there an unhealed wound shading the meaning of words and actions that otherwise wouldn’t upset you?

 

heart baloon girl

I could list a dozen more examples of the complex reasons a marriage may struggle after child loss.  

I won’t.  

Marriage is a commitment.  A difficult, trying, time consuming, energy zapping commitment under the best of circumstances.  

 

Child loss may be the worst of circumstances.  

But remember that child loss alone is rarely the reason a marriage flounders.  

Look deep.  

Grant space.

Ask questions.  

Strain to hear what your spouse is really saying.  

Give grace.  

We can’t bring our children back but we can choose to fight for our marriages.  

They do not have to become another casualty in this life we didn’t choose. 

hands across table

 

 

 

 

On The Struggle Bus

I weigh more today than I’ve weighed in ten years.  

Just before Dominic graduated high school in 2008, I decided that being “fluffy” was not good for my health, not good for my joints and for the first time in my married life I had the extra energy, time and attention to work on losing weight.  

I lost over fifty pounds.  

Still not skinny, but definitely a much smaller version of me than had existed since I started having children.

IMG_0744 (1)
June 2013

But after Dom left us,  a series of choices and out-of-my-control health issues combined to make it harder and harder to maintain the weight loss I had (fairly) effortlessly maintained for six years.

I’m scheduled to see my GP tomorrow and you know what makes me more nervous than all the bloodwork they will have to do?  Stepping on the scales!

Why is is more deplorable to be fat than to be mean?

Why is it considered a greater moral failure to lug around extra pounds than to lug around a hateful heart?

I feel more like a failure because I’ve allowed pounds to creep back up on my backside than for so many other things that are so much more important.  

Menopause, middle age and many sleepless nights which increase my cortisol levels have conspired to make it harder this time than last time to rid my body of excess weight.

family fionas grad (2)

I’m active, eat well and in limited amounts (no Twinkies or high fructose corn syrup!) but my hips refuse to get smaller.

I try hard not to blame everything on child loss. 

But I’m pretty sure a significant portion of responsibility sits squarely on the fact that my heart is broken.  I am exercising so much self-control every. single. day. that I don’t have any left over.

I rarely cry any more in public. 

Goodness!  I rarely cry any more in private.  

I can return a cheery, “Have a nice day!” to any and everyone I meet.  

But that means I am constantly running a tape in my head that goes something like this:  “Don’t take it out on her.  She has no idea. Keep smiling.  People don’t know that you were about to cry just a minute ago. Don’t let that person’s ugly attitude unleash the beast inside you.”  

Can I be honest here?  

I’m tired.  

I’m tired of everything being hard.  

please be aware i am trying

I don’t know if or when I’ll lose weight (please don’t inbox me with your latest, greatest sales pitch).

I’m trying most days.  

But sometimes I just don’t have it in me to try.  Sometimes I just want to be normal-whatever THAT is.  Sometimes I just want to have one corner of life where things are easy and don’t require constant vigilance or extreme restraint.  Sometimes I want to eat ALL the things and not give a hoot if it adds inches to my waist.

the struggle bus

I won’t do it.  

Because I know it’s not what’s best.  

But I want to.  

eat whatever you want

 

Things I CAN Control

When I opened the door to that deputy and received the news, my world suddenly spiraled out of control.

Over the next days, weeks months I would have to do things I never imagined I might do and certainly things I did not WANT to do.  So, so much I couldn’t change.  So many ways I lost the right to choose.  

And I hated it!  

Wasn’t long and that sense of helplessness permeated every corner.  Even when it didn’t belong there.  I began to feel as if I couldn’t control anything.

So in many ways I stopped trying.  

But then one day I woke from the fog of despair.  I remembered that there WERE some areas of life where I could still make choices.

And it was empowering!  

So here’s a list that I pray gives hope to other hurting hearts.

THINGS I CAN CONTROL

  • My attitude (how I react to what others say or do)
  • My thoughts (with great difficulty sometimes)
  • My perspective (when I’m careful to fill my mind, heart and eyes with truth)
  • If I’m honest (about ALL things-including my feelings)
  • Who my friends are (from my end-can’t stop people from walking away)
  • What books I read (I am choosy and only read things that feed my soul)
  • What media I consume (stay away from toxic people, topics and television)
  • What type of food I eat (healthy, appropriate amounts)
  • How often I exercise (a walk, gentle yoga, online video routines)
  • How many risks I take (not just physical ones, but also emotional and relational risks)
  • How kind I am to others (being wounded does not give me the right to wound)
  • How I interpret situations (do I assume the best or the worst?)
  • How kind I am to myself (extending the same grace to ME that I extend to others)
  • How often and to whom I say, “I love you”
  • How often and to whom I say, “Thank you”
  • How I express my feelings (I can learn healthy ways to speak my truth)
  • Whether or not I ask for help (no one gets “points” for playing the martyr)
  • How many times I smile in a day (smiling, by itself, lifts mood-even a “fake” smile)
  • The amount of effort I choose to put forth
  • How I spend my money
  • How much time I spend worrying (or praying or complaining)
  • How often I spend moments blaming myself or others for past actions
  • Whether or not I judge other people
  • Whether or not I try again when I suffer a setback or disappointment (success is getting up one more time than I fall down)
  • How much I appreciate the people and things in my life

Exercising control over the parts of my life where I CAN exercise control helps me deal more effectively with the many parts over which I have no control

It does not undo the sorrow and pain of child loss, but it does work to balance the emotional scales. 

It makes it easier to face a new day.  

It helps me hold onto hope.  

And that is a good thing.  ❤

whenyoucan27tcontrolthewindadjustyoursails

 

 

Repost: No Way to “Fix” Child Loss

This was shared in a bereaved parents’ group to which I belong and I really like it.

It’s a great reminder to those of us traveling this road that it is a lifelong journey.

It’s also a good explanation of why there is a gap between our experience and those who have never experienced child loss.

Read the rest here:  No Way to “Fix” Child Loss

Busy

My empty nest means I’m rarely crazy busy even around the holidays.  

I no longer have to fit in shopping whenever I can manage it because little eyes might be watching or Christmas choir performances and church programs fill the calendar.  

No.  

Most of my shopping is online and I don’t even have to worry about whisking gifts off the porch before anyone sees them.

I’m a different kind of busy now.  

I’m busy making sure I’m not overexposed to Christmas commercials, Christmas movies or Christmas carols because they are likely to open the floodgates of tears I keep behind a dam of determination.

I’m busy drawing deep breaths when I pick up the phone and it’s a relative that never calls but needs an address for a Christmas card and, since I’m apparently the Keeper of the Addresses, always calls me.

I’m busy looking away from the childhood photos lining my upstairs hallway so I can stay focused on the vacuuming that needs doing.

I’m busy pinning down fruitless thoughts of “what if” or “if only” or “I wish”.

I’m busy getting things ready for the brief time my remaining family will be gathered around the dining room table.  I’m trying hard to accommodate schedules and preferences and favorite foods and treasured traditions.

I’m busy pushing back sadness that threatens to overwhelm me in the dark of the year when clouds and rain make it even darker, even earlier.  I’m lighting candles, plugging in lights and adding cheerful touches here and there to drive out the shadows that come creeping.

From the outside looking in, I’m awash in free time and easy choices.  

And some folks wonder why I don’t answer the phone or join in the party.  

But I am very, very busy.  

I was busy

The Importance of Making Space for Grief During Holidays

We are days away from plunging headfirst into the rough and tumble holiday season.  

Thursday is  Thanksgiving and I don’t know about you, but it seems that once I eat the turkey and dressing, the clock moves faster and the days crowd one another in a race to Christmas and the end of the year.

So I want to take a minute to think about how important it is to make and maintain space for grief during this busy season.

You have to do it.  

I know, I know-where to fit it in between family gatherings, social engagements, mandatory office parties and children’s pageants?

If you don’t, though, the grief will out itself one way or another.  

So may I offer the following practical suggestions for this upcoming holiday season?

  • Start each day (whenever possible) with a few minutes of alone time.  Let those moments be the buffer between you and the day ahead.  Don’t allow your mind to wander to your “to do” list.  Sit.  Sip the hot beverage of your choice and let silence soothe your soul.
  • Don’t overschedule your days (or nights!).  Exercise the option of saying, “no” to things that are not really important or necessary.  Just because you have done it every other year doesn’t obligate you to do it this year.  Exhaustion always magnifies despair.  
  • Try to balance busy days with not so busy days.  The surest path to meltdown is traveling in the fast lane.
  • Let other people take on responsibilities-especially if they offer- and even if they don’t.  Asking for help when you need it is a sign of maturity, not a sign of weakness.
  • Keep a pad and pen on your nightstand and jot down any random thoughts that you don’t want to forget before bedtime.  There is no sense worrying about something you can’t address until morning and writing it down means you won’t forget it.
  • Make use of online everything.  Have gifts sent directly to recipients.  Order groceries for pick up.  There are many ways to make life less hectic and more enjoyable.  If you don’t know what’s available in your area, ask friends and family.
  • Plan for at least one recovery day for every large gathering/party/meal you have to attend.  Some of us need two.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.  If you are used to having matching everything, perfect centerpieces and gourmet meals it may be hard to lower your standards.  But if there is one thing I have learned since Dominic ran ahead to heaven, it’s that the companionship of those we love trumps anything else.  People rarely remember how you set your table but they will remember who sat around your table.
  • And if your heart is too tender to do anything but hold on and hope this month passes quickly, then do that.  You don’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations.  Sometimes that’t the best we can do and that is OK.

Grief requires so. much. energy.

And you can’t spend the same energy twice.

So make space for grief in your holiday plans.  

bereaved parents have one job during the holidays to survive

Letting Go of Extra Responsibilities

I’ve always been quick to volunteer.  

Often the “yes” flies out of my lips before my brain has engaged.

That lands me in all kinds of trouble.

But I’m trying to learn to bite my tongue until I can take stock of just how taking on another responsibility may push me over the edge.

I’m walking on a razor thin rim around the pit of despair-especially this time of year and it doesn’t take much for me to fall in.

depair

I know that other people think, “Well it’s been nearly five years!”  And I understand that to them, it seems like plenty of time to get my act together, to figure out how to live with child loss, to grow strong enough to shoulder whatever burden they think I have left and just get on with life.

But what they don’t understand is that this journey requires constant adjustments, has unending and new challenges and truly is uphill all the way. 

There’s no coasting-it’s ALL hard.  

walking-up-a-hill

Think for a minute how overwhelmed you are with all the activity, demands for baked goods, invitations, shopping, cooking, visiting, managing family responsibilities, hectic schedules and every thing else that the holidays entail.

Now multiply that times one hundred or a thousand. 

That’s what it feels like for me and other wounded hearts trying to juggle ongoing pain and the holidays.

I want to participate.  I want to be the old me that could say “yes” to every request.  But I’m not that person anymore.

I will do what I can do.  

I will say “no” to what I can’t do.  

And I won’t feel guilty for preserving my energy and my sanity.  

When coping with difficult disappointment or stress, it’s wise to let go of what you really, truly don’t need. Give some of your responsibilities, if you can, to someone else. Delegate what someone else can do. Say ‘no’ to new assignments or projects that aren’t absolutely necessary, and again, don’t feel bad about it. Don’t only accept help, ask for it — and be specific.

After all, when the storm has passed and you’re feeling stronger, you’ll be able to pick up those responsibilities again.

~Steven Earp, Storms of Life