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

 

 

Child Loss and Secondary Losses

While I certainly had no real idea in the first hours or even weeks what losing a child entailed, I understood plainly that it meant I would not have Dominic to see, hold or talk to.

I wouldn’t be able to hug his neck or telephone him.  

He wouldn’t be sitting at my table any more.

But the death of a child or other loved one has a ripple effect.  It impacts parts of life you might not expect.  As time went on, I was introduced to a whole list of losses commonly called “secondary losses”.

secondary losses

Here are just a few:

Loss of a large chunk of “self”.  Dominic possessed part of my heart and part of my life.  It was violently ripped away when he died.  There is part of me that was uniquely reflected from him-like a specialty mirror.  I can never access that part of me again.

Loss of identity.  Before Dominic died I was one kind of mother.  I was a mother of four living children who were making their way in the world as successful adults.  I was a mother looking forward with happy anticipation to the next years.  Now I am still a mother of four children but one whose heart has been changed by tragedy and sorrow. Tomorrow is still bright, but there’s a shadow just behind it.

desimones uab family

Loss of self-confidence.  I used to enter a room without a thought to how I’d be received or perceived.  That’s definitely not the case now.  I’m self-conscious-constantly wondering if I’m saying or doing the right thing.  I never know if a grief trigger will (at best) pull my attention away from conversation or (at worst) send me scurrying for the bathroom.

Loss of sense of security.  I think every parent has moments of fear over his or her child.  When they first go off someplace without us, when they get a driver’s license, travel abroad, go to college.  But all the awful things I imagined didn’t hold a candle to the reality of waking one morning to a knock on my door and the news that Dominic had been killed.  The bottom fell out of my (relatively) safe world.  Bad things, random things can and do happen.  Once it happened to ME, it changed how I processed everything.  The passing years have softened some of the anxiety but I will never be able to assume safety again.

Anxiety

Loss of faith.  I did not “lose” my faith.  I never once doubted that God was still working, was still loving and was still in control.  But I most certainly had to drag out every single thing I thought I knew about how I thought He worked, loved and superintended the world and examine it in light of my experience of burying my son.  It took a long time to work through all the pat answers I had been offered and myself doled out to others for years that didn’t fit with my new reality.  I am learning that doubt is not denial and that I have to live with unanswered questions.

Loss of family structure.  I’ve written before that a family is more than the arithmetic total of the number of members.  There were six of us.  But we were so much more than six when we were all together!  Our talents, personalities and energy were amplified in community.  When Dominic’s large presence was suddenly whisked away, every relationship got skewed.  We’ve fought our way back to a semblance of “whole” but still miss him terribly.  We can function, but we will never be the same.

empty chair

Loss of my past.  Memories are funny things.  They are plastic and subject to change.  And my recall of an event is limited to my own perspective.  For a memory to be rich and full, I need input from others who were there as well.  One vessel of family memories is no longer available to add his unique contribution.  Every time I pull out a photo or dig down deep in my heart to draw up a treasured moment, I realize I’ve lost something I can not recover.  The joke, the glance, the odd detail are all gone.

Loss of the future I anticipated.  I’m a planner by nature.  Not a detailed, OCD, got-everything-in-order kind of planner, but a “big picture” kind of planner.  When Dominic left us in 2014, things were going (pretty much) according to plan.  Each child was well on his or her way to the career path they had chosen.  I was easing into an empty nest and exploring options for life after homeschooling.  My husband was entering his last few years of a lengthy career.  It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but when your world is shaken by child loss, everything gets scrambled.  You can’t just pick up where you left off and keep going with the pieces that remain. 

There’s a prolonged period of confusion and everyone is impacted differently and in ways you could never imagine.  All of us have changed dramatically in the years since Dominic left us.  He is not the only thing missing from the rest of our lives.  Holidays are altered.  Birthdays are different.  We have to plan special events around uncomfortable milestone dates that roll around every year whether we want them to or not.  It’s a constant readjustment to life as it IS instead of life as I thought it WOULD be.

Loss of ability to focus and function.  Oh, how this surprised me!  I was in some kind of zone for the first month after Dominic left.  My other children were home, we had to make it through planning his funeral, two graduations and cleaning out his apartment.  I also had to handle paperwork for my husband to take short-term disability due to grief.  I cried a lot, wrote down dozens of notes but managed to do what I had to do.  Then I crashed. I couldn’t remember a thing.  I couldn’t read more than a couple sentences at a time.  I hated the telephone.  I could barely stand to hear the television.  I had to make a list of the most basic things like brushing my teeth, feeding my animals, turning off all the lights before bed.  It was awful!  And it didn’t really get better for well over a year.

I still suffer from a very short attention span, low tolerance for noise and an inability to accommodate last minute changes.  I don’t schedule anything back to back.  I live in a rural area and sometimes shop in the nearby town.  I will start the day with a long list and shorten it repeatedly as I go along because driving in traffic, crowds and random sounds ramp up my anxiety and make me want to go home with or without what I came for.  I have changed the way I do so many things.  My pre-loss memory has never returned.  

griefbrain1

Loss of patience.  I am at once impatient and long-suffering.  I have zero patience for petty grievances, whining and complaining.  Yet I have compassion for other people living hard and unhappy stories.  I berate myself for not being “better” and, at the same time, extend grace to others who aren’t “better” either.  I want to shake people who bowl over weak, hurting, desperate souls.   I don’t have time for moaning about rain when you were planning a picnic but will listen for hours to a mama tell me about her missing child.

Loss of health.  I had a number of chronic health conditions before Dominic ran ahead.  Within the first year of his departure, I was hospitalized twice.  My experience is not unique.  Some parents suffer immediate health effects (heart attack, blood sugar spikes, anxiety/depression) and some see a slow decline over time.  In part because child loss, like any stressor, will negatively impact health and also because sometimes bereaved parents stop doing the things that help them stay healthy.  At almost five years, I’ve learned how to manage the stress better although some of my health issues continue to get worse.  It’s hard to tease apart what is age, what is disease and what is grief.

When your child leaves this life before you do, it changes everything.  

Not only things you might expect, but many you’d never imagine.  

It’s a constant balancing act, readjusting every day to new challenges.  

Struggling to keep my head above the waves.  

grief like the ocean learn to swim

 

 

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

NO Substitute For Rest

Some of us just don’t like sitting down.

That would be me.

I’ve always got the next thing to do written on a slip of paper somewhere and even if I can’t find that list, it’s hardwired into my brain.

Decades of guiding a busy household have worn ruts in my routine so that after my morning coffee I am compelled to get up and get going. 

melanie feet crocs and driveway step

Writing here has given me a little cushion since some mornings words pour out of me and I have to get them down before they escape my memory.  But even so, I might only extend my sitting time by an hour or so.

When the sun gets up good in the sky, that’s my cue to get up too.  Animals need feeding and even though there’s only me to feed at home I’m usually cooking for some event or someone else.

So I find it hard to rest-even when I need to and even when it is the difference between getting well and getting worse.

But this past week I’ve had to dial it back-a lot.  Some nasty cold took up residence in my chest and traveled to my ears.  It was the earache that sent me to the doctor even though the cough sounded like it was coming from my toes and just wouldn’t stop.

Thankfully a wise practitioner gave me the right mix of medicines and sent me home to let them work their magic.

I expected the antibiotics and steroid to kick in and kick that rotten bug right out.  But they didn’t.  In fact, although the earache dissipated by the next morning, I woke up feeling WORSE than when I had dragged myself to the clinic.

The prescription was clear:  Rest was what I needed. 

My family very sweetly kept reminding me of that when I forgot (at least once per hour!). But I stubbornly refused to rest as much or as often as I should have.

So it has taken longer than necessary for me to feel better.  

And once again I am learning the absolute necessity of REST to aid a body-or a heart-toward healing.  There is simply NO substitute for giving your body or emotions or spirit the space and time and leisure it needs to do the work that only it can do for itself.

When our schedules are piled high (even with good things!) and we don’t make a place for rest in our daily and weekly lives, we predispose (maybe guarantee?) ourselves toward crisis.  It might be a health crisis due to a weakened immune system or an emotional crisis because we just don’t have the energy or margin left to deal with people’s words or attitudes.

margin

For those of us already carrying the burden of child loss into this extra busy season, we have to find time to rest. 

We have to make space for solitude. 

We must declare some portion of our day or week a “drama free” zone.  

If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves exactly where we don’t want to be.  

Our bodies, minds and hearts will demand it-one way or the other.  

rest field

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