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Because family life matters

The challenge of Katie’s death to our marriage

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Mary explains the difficulties she and Chris faced after their daughter Katie died aged 19 in a car crash.

When Katie died, grief drove Chris and me apart. Although we had lost the same person our relationships with our daughter were quite different. We had no point of communication and it seemed we were in separate worlds. I remember somebody saying to me, “Well, at least you’ve got each other.” I wanted to cry out, “No, we haven’t – we cannot help each other!” I wanted Chris to grieve in the same way that I did. His withdrawal made me feel that he didn’t love Katie.

Some of the things I felt at the time were:

  • Not everyone understands my grief – grief lingers
  • Why won’t the sorrow leave me alone?
  • I’ve buried more than Katie – I’ve buried some of myself, some of my dreams.
  • I am dealing with more than memories. Unlived tomorrows, battling sorrows, disappointment and a house that became instantly quiet and empty after always being full of young people and loud music.
  • I am a Christian but sometimes felt I was barely hanging on to God during this period. People said, “How can you still believe in God?” But there was nowhere else to go. In the Bible it says: “I’m sticking with God. I say it over and over again – He’s all I’ve got left.”

Here are some of the many different ways in which we grieved:

Chris: after the funeral, I’d had enough of people. I wanted to withdraw to my study and have a conversation with God about what had happened. I don’t think it was unhealthy, I just wanted time to re-programme myself.

Mary: I couldn’t bear to be alone. Very often the house was filled with people, maybe very well-meaning, but I wanted to have special people with me, one or two at a time, who would listen, cry with me, or talk to me about Katie.

Chris: I didn’t cry. From that day to this, I’ve never cried about Katie’s death. But I’m not the sort of guy who never cries. It annoys Mary that I start to snuffle at the end of weepie films!

Mary: I cried most of the time for about a month. I found the cat a great help here! She would nestle on my shoulder, and made me sit down, for some of the time. It really upset me that Chris didn’t cry at all: it made me think that Chris hadn’t really loved Katie.

Chris: At this time, I was the one staying at home, looking after my elderly mother-in-law, who was living with us. I had quite a lot of time on my own. In the early days I made sure that Susan Lenzkes’ book, “When Life Takes What Matters”, was never far out of reach.

Mary: I wanted to go straight back to work. I was a specialist support teacher of blind and partially sighted children. Although it was painful dealing with children, it gave me the opportunity to be distracted and concentrate on something other than my grief. However, I did make trips to the toilet to shed more tears!

Chris: Katie died at Easter, and all that summer I busied myself in routine low-key jobs. I answered every condolence letter – we had about seventy of those. I also collected up all the recent snaps of Katie I could find (she hated being photographed), and sent them off to be processed – it was before the days of digital cameras. I made up about thirty sets of copies, and sent them round to all her friends.

Mary: I needed to be constantly active, always busy and “on the go”, but achieving absolutely nothing most of the time. I would wander from room to room rather frantically, wondering what I was doing there. I too found Susan Lenzkes’ book helpful, when I could settle for very short periods.

Chris: I think that a man needs the comfort of the physical relationship with his wife, especially when things are going badly for him, for instance if he has had a row with his boss, or has been made redundant at work. When Katie died, I needed comfort very much.

Mary: I couldn’t bear the thought of sex. After all, this was how Katie had been conceived and I found at this time that was all I could think about. Over time, I began to understand Chris more and realise how much we both needed each other. Our marriage is stronger and deeper now than it has ever been, and for this we thank God, and the friends who stood by us.

So what were the key pointers to the restoration of our relationship?

Friends grieved with us, prayed for us and hung on to God for us. I slowly began to realise that God was there taking us “through the valley of the shadow of death”.

We decided to go on a walking holiday in Austria, straight after our son’s wedding. Having never been there before it held no memories of Katie. For me it was a small beginning of looking outside my selfish prison and considering Chris for short periods before returning to my self-made cell.

We went to a weekend conference on “Forgiveness”. I was challenged about my judgements of different people and I identified some people who I needed to forgive, including myself. As I released forgiveness I found a new and deeper peace than I had ever known before.

The realisation that I couldn’t change Chris slowly began to dawn, although he would say that I still try sometimes! During this period I contemplated giving up on the marriage altogether, but I began to see how much we needed each other.

We came together to ask how we could use our tragedy. We attended a weekend being run by Care for the Family. From that grew the Bereaved Parents’ Network and through this I came to a much greater understanding of Chris, as he spoke with others in a way that I had never heard him do before.

No, we haven’t arrived yet, we are still in process of being changed. There are still ups and downs, but when we both stay outside the “me” box, we are on a journey of a relationship which is firmer and deeper than ever before. We believe that God has helped to restore love in us.