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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I could list a dozen more examples of the complex reasons a marriage may struggle after child loss.
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.
Strain to hear what your spouse is really saying.
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.