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  • Writer's pictureJody Glynn Patrick

20 Questions: Can your marriage survive a child’s death?

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

1. Communication breakdowns.

2. Differences in how to grieve.

3. Turning to alcohol and drugs or other people as a primary source of comfort.

Typically, in the aftermath of a child’s death, one partner may be floundering while the other thinks that working on a marriage is just too much to take on. But the question remains: Is your marriage strong enough to weather the most unimaginable stress of all?

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, but even the best marriages crumble under a stress the magnitude of losing a child. This abyss is deeper than bankruptcy, more wounding than marital betrayal, more demoralizing than a lost job. Losing a child is harder than losing a partner to incarceration or even to death. Bereaved parents hold the highest divorce rate on record. So how can you best protect your own marriage or relationship?

Shaky marriages may be shaky because they have weathered storms that the best marriages have never faced, so there is no predictor which marriages will survive the loss of a child and which will crumble. Communication is critical, and it is hard to manage when you may be feeling too exhausted for deep discussions or threatening disclosures of “real thoughts”. Still, when you can be truly heard without judgement or dismissal, you have the best chance to build or keep the strongest union.

Self-Quiz: How do you really feel about the hard issues?

There are clear subject areas where communication tends to break down following the loss of a child. Couples may have differing expectations or desires, and areas in which they may express or feel grief differently. The following questions are intended to help a grieving parent flesh out  sensitivities. Taking this quick self-evaluation independent of your partner’s influence, and then being truthful and non-judgmental in any discussion of their feelings in turn, is one way to facilitate a discussion. Warning: a few parenting questions are especially painful to consider and some may be insensitive to your particular situation; for that reason, I have listed them last and flagged them in green.

True or False?

  1. I don’t have the energy or interest in evaluating our marriage in any real depth at present.

  2. Comparing myself to my partner, I am (quicker) or (slower) to anger now?

  3. Comparing myself to my partner, I am (more expressive) or (less expressive) of sorrow right now?

  4. I feel some blame, even if the world judges me blameless, for my child’s death.

  5. I have financial concerns that I am hesitant to raise after our child’s death.

  6. I agree with the decisions made for dealing with our child’s belongings.

  7. I want to talk about our child (more) or (less) often than we do.

  8. It is easiest for me to grieve (with) or (without) my partner present at this time.

  9. I would like to consult a counselor for individual or couples grief support.

  10. I prefer to keep my thoughts private at this time; no counseling.

  11. I privately hold someone to blame for my child’s death, whether or not I have addressed those feelings aloud or publicly.

  12.  The person I feel most comfortable talking to right now is _________________ because ____________________.

  13. Any difficulties in our marriage that I acknowledge today existed before our child’s death.

  14. I feel a need for (more) (less) (status quo)  involvement with religion right now. [Choose best answer]

  15. My way of coping with pain right now involves self-medication (drugs or alcohol) or prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

  16. I have faith that our marriage will still be intact a year if we continue on the path we’ve set together now.

  17. I would rate our marriage a ___ on a 10-point scale right now, with 1 being the weakest and 10 being the strongest.

  18. I would eventually like to have more children, if possible. 

  19. I feel a need to be more protective with regard to our surviving children.

  20. I feel somewhat distant or removed from parenting at the moment, as if I am just going through the motions right now.

If you feel your marriage is in trouble….

You have a few options. One is to focus on the marriage and actively work on it with a partner who is also actively working on it. If that isn’t an option, hopefully you do have the option of working on your own issues and giving your partner space to grieve in their own way. Try not to make important decisions the first year because everything will be magnified as you make your way through the first milestones, or the second or even third years. There is no timetable for healing or coping, and this is the most significant grief work you will ever do.

There is no playbook for grief or a “right way” or “wrong way” to do it (though some ways are healthier and less self-destructive than others). My best advice is to be kind to one another, and patient, and present. My second best advice is to seek professional grief counseling, individually or as a couple, because it’s kind of like going to the dentist; you can prevent a lot of cavities with preventive visits.

I hope you find a little help here. Thanks for stopping by the watering hole and please, share your comments, stories about your children, or suggest topics you’d like me to consider writing about. This is, after all, your site. 

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