The fact that so many bereaved parents tell me they don’t feel they can share their experience on their own FaceBook or other social media pages.
That’s just WRONG!
They have been shushed to silent suffering because when they break open the vault of emotions and let others see what’s inside, most people turn away-or worse, they condemn that wounded heart for sharing.
I first shared this post four years ago after a group of bereaved parents and I were talking about how things that used to be simple and straightforward simply weren’t anymore.
Things like the question, “How many kids do you have?”
Things like going to a movie or picking a place to eat out.
So. Many. Things.
Honestly, I thought it’d be less of a minefield by now-I mean it’s been six years already! And while there ARE some things that I find easier, most of the things I talk about in this post are still hard.
One of the things I’ve been forced to embrace in the wake of child loss is that there are very few questions, experiences or feelings that are simple anymore.
“How many children do you have?”
A common, get-to-know-you question lobbed across tables, down pews and in the check-out line at the grocery store. But for many bereaved parents, it can be a complex question that gets a different answer depending on who is asking and where we are.
For many of us there’s a sense of being locked in time, stuck in space, unable to leave the moment one received the news or the few days before and after.
It’s maddening that the earth still turns, the sun still rises and people go on with life when in so many ways our world is frozen in place.
Elizabeth Gilbert describes deep grief as a “coordinate on the map of time” and a “forest of sorrow”.
I like that.
Child loss is a place no parent wants to go. I found myself in territory so unfamiliar there was no way to get my bearings.
Left alone, I faltered, would have stayed lost, was doomed to walk in circles trying to find my way out.
I desperately needed a guide.
Deep grief sometimes is almost like a specific location, a coordinate on a map of time. When you are standing in that forest of sorrow, you cannot imagine that you could ever find your way to a better place. But if someone can assure you that they themselves have stood in that same place, and now have moved on, sometimes this will bring hope.
Thankfully some parents, further along in this awful journey, created safe spaces for broken hearts to gather and to share.
I am oh, so grateful to them for that!
Not everyone who finds the way to hope and light chooses to come back for those still wandering in the forest of sorrow.
But some do.
They retrace painful steps carrying a torch and say, “Come with me. I can show you the way to hope.”
It’s the subject of everything from romantic comedies tohundreds of books.
“Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” and all that.
So it shouldn’t surprise those of us walking this Valley that our spouse may be grieving very differently than we do. But it often does. Because everything is amplified when it echoes off the high mountains on either side.
And just when we need it most-for ourselves and for extending to others-grace is often in short supply.
So differences become offenses and offenses stack like bricks to build a wall between us and the one person as intimately connected to our missing child as we are.
Instead of holding each other up, we sometimes tear each other down. Instead of leaning in, we pull away. Instead of talking, we tune out.
Instead of crying together, we cry alone.
Even when we open up and try to address these differences it often ends in disagreement or is met with silence.
I firmly believe that grief doesn’t really change the fundamentals in a relationship but it magnifies them. We all have cracks in our marriages. Two imperfect people do not make a perfect couple regardless of how lovely the photos might be.
Child loss makes the cracks more evident. What might be ignored otherwise, becomes unavoidable. Add gender differences to the load of grief and it’s no wonder many of us struggle.
So how can a marriage survive?
Here are a few pointers:
Admit that you and your spouse are different people. Your life experiences, gender and personality affect how each of you grieve. Different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.
Purpose to assume the best and not the worst of your spouse. When he or she makes a comment or shoots you a “look” don’t immediately ascribe dark motives. It may be she’s having an especially bad day or he is tired or distracted.
Look for common ground. When you are both in a neutral environment and rested, ask your spouse what they need from you. Then listen without being defensive. It could be that seeing you cry upsets him so that’s why he tries to shut you down. She might long to hear him say their child’s name aloud. Even if nothing changes, sometimes being heard makes a difference.
Consider couples’ counseling. Having someone outside your immediate grief circle listen to and guide you through feelings, concerns and problems is almost always helpful. It might only take a few sessions to give you both the tools necessary to walk yourselves through the rough patches.
Talk TO your spouse instead of ABOUT him or her. This can be a hard one! I think we all need a safe friend or two who will let us vent. That’s healthy. But it’s not healthy to talk about our spouse to others in what amounts to a bid for support of our own opinions and prejudices. Gathering wood for the fire of offense is easy. Putting out the blaze (even if you want to) is hard.
Remember that when feelings fluctuate, commitment carries you through. Grief isn’t just one emotion, it’s a tangled ball of emotions. On a given day you might feel sad, disoriented, angry, anxious and despondent. All that emotional weight is added to whatever else you may be feeling about your spouse. Sometimes it’s just too much to bear and running away seems like the most logical answer. But it’s not. We can never run far enough or fast enough to get away.
There’s no magic to marriage before or after child loss.
It’s mostly work.
We can choose to do that work together in spite of our differences.
We can choose to grow stronger instead of growing apart.
My husband and I do not do this perfectly or even close to perfectly. But we are still trying. At different points in this long (almost) six years, we’ve been better or worse at all of it. So don’t think if you are struggling it means you can’t get hang on. Sometimes it’s by the tips of your fingernails, but if you refuse to let go, you can make it.
One of the things I’m learning in this journey is that people are much more likely to listen and be willing to make accommodations for my tender heart if I approach them BEFORE the “big day”-whatever that may be.
And yes, it seems unfair that those of us carrying a load of grief are also the ones that have to alert others to the load we’re carrying, but that’s simply the way it is.
They don’t know what they don’t know.
So, if you need to change things around consider speaking upNOW instead of huffing off LATER.