By Rachel Vanni
There is a statistic floating around that 80% of marriages end after the loss of a child. After a lot of research, it seems there are conflicting studies and papers that show that statistic to be just a number in a sea of percentages. Some papers showed the statistic to be closer to 90% while others showed no increase in divorce amongst bereaved parents. I find both to be hard to accept. As a parent who has lost a child, there is no way that the type of pain and stress you experience doesn’t have some sort of large, long-lasting impact on your marriage. When my daughter Charlie passed away at age three from a rare disease, my husband had already died, coincidentally at the young age of 35 from cancer. I never experienced the shared grief of the loss of Charlie, but I could definitely see how it could make the grieving process that much more complex. While I could solely focus on my own grief, other parents had to navigate their spouse’s feelings of loss and sadness. While grieving with support is enormously beneficial, it can also threaten one of the most important relationships you have within your life.
What Keeps a Marriage Together After Loss?
According to T.A.P.S., in the paper on parental bereavement published in Journal of Nursing Scholarship in 2003, the authors take note of four contributing factors to marital stress: differences in grieving styles, quality of marriage prior to the child’s death, cause and circumstances of death, and displacement of anger and blame onto the spouse. This makes sense to me, as so many losses and how they are processed vary, as do the grieving styles of the spouses. For example, I was what was called an “active griever” which means I dealt with the loss by jumping back into life, trying to stay busy, and processed my loss in specific places at specific times (like in therapy or in private), which is different than someone who grieves by self-isolating and being outwardly emotional. Neither is wrong. Both methods are totally acceptable ways to grieve. But if two spouses have two different styles, one spouse may interpret the active griever as not processing the loss and trying to “forget what happened,” when really, they are just processing the death in a different way. On the flip side, the active griever may become frustrated with a highly emotional griever as they could feel they are being held back from processing the loss the way they want, with pressure to talk about the loss when they aren’t ready. My marriage to my first husband was just about as strong as it could possibly be, but I could see that we likely would have had vastly different grieving styles that would have put a lot of stress on our relationship.
The circumstances surrounding the death would play such a large role as well. With any child loss, there is blame, either on yourself or a spouse, even if you know logically it isn’t your fault. My daughter was born with a rare disease, she had a poor prognosis from birth, but I still blame myself for not being able to save her. I can’t imagine being in a circumstance where the loss of a child is due to an accident or parental neglect, and the level of guilt or anger you would have surrounding that loss. A spouse would need to practice understanding and compassion towards the spouse who blames themselves. Sometimes that isn’t easy to do, especially long-term.
In summary, taking time to understand a spouse’s grieving style, showing empathy and compassion towards their feelings of guilt, and open communication about feelings seem to be the best way to keep your marriage healthy after loss.
If you are having a hard time in your marriage after the loss of a child, it may be worth it to talk through your conflict. Call West Coast Family Mediation Center at (858) 736-2411 today!