When Bereaved Parent Support runs a day or weekend event for bereaved parents, one of the things that we often explore is the profound effect that the death of a child has on different relationships. It isn’t surprising that where it has potentially the most impact is in the relationship between the two parents. After all, both are individuals with different characters and feelings. The unique relationship they had with their child has now gone and they will deal with this in different ways. How they individually deal with their grief and each other will have the potential to either bring them closer together or drive them apart.
A few years ago it was said that the divorce rate following the death of a child was very high – perhaps even 80% – although it would appear that there was little research to back this up. However, a survey commissioned by The Compassionate Friends (US) in 2006 indicates this to actually be in the region of 16%, with less than half of these citing their child’s death as a contributory factor. The survey concludes that: “The figures indicate that the death of a child actually appears to draw bereaved parents together as they travel life’s grief journey.” (*When a Child Dies – a survey of bereaved parents conducted by The Compassionate Friends Inc, October 2006.)
This is good news, but it isn’t something that is necessarily easy and staying together can take a lot of effort on both sides in many different ways. Here are some of the main areas that we can work at to strengthen our relationship:
This is, perhaps, the most important area. Keep talking. Tell each other how you feel, listen to what the other person says, express your love for each other regularly. When you feel that sharp stabbing pain of loss – tell your partner. When you remember something about your child – tell your partner. When you have found something encouraging or caring that someone has said – tell your partner. And when your partner tells you something – listen (and show that you really are listening)!
Give each other space
This may seem strange in the light of the comments above. One of the things that Kath and I found in the weeks and months after Philip’s death was that we couldn’t always be the support that the other person needed. We found that each of us was ‘up and down’. When one was ‘down’ and the other was ‘up’, we could give the love and care that was needed. But when we both hit a ‘down’ together, neither of us was strong enough to provide that support. That was when tensions became more evident and we had to give each other a few minutes’ space. I particularly felt very uncomfortable that I couldn’t be there for Kath when she needed me, but taking a short ‘time out’ was really helpful and, I would say, made our marriage stronger.
Recognise your differences
You are both different people and will grieve in different ways. What is important to one person may seem trivial to the other. It is vital that you each recognise the other person’s views and needs as being valid. Don’t think that because they aren’t acting in the same way or holding the same opinion as you that they didn’t love your child as much.
The area of sexual intimacy is one where needs and desires may vary. Charlotte M. Mathes, a psychoanalyst and member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, expresses the difference between men and women very helpfully:
Commonly, men feel loved when they feel they are valued. Women feel love when they are shown compassion. Sex plays a very unique role with each gender. Men often need sex to feel loved by their wife while women may feel that sex is wrong after such a loss, but their need to touch may become more prominent.
Try to remain affectionate, reassure each other of your love, be patient with each other. You will, in time, find a place again for the physical side of your relationship.
Don’t blame each other
Anger is a natural part of grieving, but it is important not to aim that anger at your partner. You may at times find that you are more easily hurt by insensitive words, so do take extra care that the phrases you use to each other don’t convey blame. Phrases such as, “I feel sad when you …” (said gently) rather than, “You really upset me when you …” (said in a harsher tone) can avoid aggravating raw emotions and provide better paths to good communication.
Seek outside help
For both of you, being able to talk to someone who isn’t so closely involved, who will understand and listen, can be a real help. This might be a close friend, a Bereaved Parent Support Befriender, a church minister or pastoral carer, a professional counsellor or your GP. It is important that you both have someone you can turn to. Women can find it easier to talk, but for men this can be a big hurdle to jump (we don’t always like to admit that we can’t sort a situation out ourselves!). However, for Kath and I, being able to turn to someone we could trust was a real life-saver.
There are no quick fixes. But in time you will find yourselves more able to cope and even to laugh and find ways of enjoying life together again. Be assured that your relationship can survive and can grow even stronger!
*This information is supplied in good faith, but Care for the Family cannot accept responsibility for any advice or recommendations made by other organisations or resources.