Coping With the Death of a Child

Marriages Can Help Survive the Loss of a Child

Man comforting a crying woman
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When people realize you have lost one or more of your children, remarks like, "It's amazing that your marriage survived such a loss," is too common. Other statements about how lucky you are to have other children, and how your little ones are in a better place, are also frequent.

The reality is that a marriage survives these heartaches because you both work really hard on them to make sure the two of you will be okay. Having surviving children doesn't lessen the pain of losing children. Regardless of where they may be in the afterlife, families would prefer to have their babies with them.

Coping With the Death of Your Child

Don't ignore or try to bury your feelings. The death of a child will leave you feeling weak, dazed, and in shock. As a couple, you may find yourselves feeling alone and sullen. It is vital for couples who have lost a child to communicate their feelings with one another. Share feelings of helplessness, confusion, anger, depression, pain, guilt, fear, and even hatred.

It's also key to learn and understand the stages of death and dying—don't allow yourselves to get stuck in one of the stages. If you find your spouse becoming aloof, or if disharmony begins to get more intense in your relationship, seek counseling. Don't try to get through this alone.

Grieving Parents

Couples can get defensive when it comes to some of the things people say to them when they are grieving. Hurtful remarks can especially sting, so if you don't know what to say, don't say anything at all. Instead, you can give them a hug, let them know that you are available to listen, and show them that you care. You can also send a sympathy card, as Suzanne Strempek Shea shares in her experience:

"I realize that I can’t tell you what was inside each of the cards I received after the deaths of my loved ones, but I probably can tell you who made the effort to put something in the mail. If we wait for perfection, or get held back by the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, nothing gets accomplished in most cases. And when it comes to sympathy cards, it’s the gesture more than the language that will be remembered long after the envelope is opened. Even if all you end up doing is signing your name." - Suzanne Strempek Shea

Studies and Statistics

Many people believe there is a high divorce rate (80-90%) when a couple loses a child. Those claims are based on statistics from a study done by Teresa Rando in 1985 on bereaved parents. In 1999, another survey, When a Child Dies, was conducted by The Compassionate Friends organization. The results about newly bereaved parents didn't match the earlier findings. It is clear that, although couples experience great stress, their marriages aren't destined to fall apart:

"Overall, 72% of parents who were married at the time of their child's death are still married to the same person. The remaining 28% of marriages include 16% in which one spouse had died, and only 12% of marriages that ended in divorce. Furthermore, even among the 12% of parents whose marriages ended in divorce, only one out of four of them felt that the impact of the death of their child contributed to their divorce." - H. Norman Wright

Couples are more likely to break up after a pregnancy loss. This was founded by U-M research in 2010. Parents don't really get over the loss of a child. Instead, they adjust to the change. This is one of the most stressful life events. According to Jane Brody, "One-fourth to one-third of parents who lose a child report that their marriage suffers strains that sometimes prove irreparable."

Issues Couples Face

The first six months following the loss of a child is when the majority of divorces occur. Whether it's lack of communication, disagreement on how to parent the other children, or differences in how to grieve, challenges arise. Parents can also be overprotective of other children or question if they should have another baby. If a couple had problems before the child's death, those problems can become more difficult to deal with.

Additional problems that grieving couples often encounter include:

  • Placing the blame and guilt on yourself, spouse, or someone else
  • Turning to alcohol and drugs
  • One wants to talk about the deceased child, and the other doesn't
  • Wondering when and where and how to deal with a child's belongings
  • The decision about whether or not counseling is needed
  • Financial concerns
  • Turning away from one another
  • One spouse may tend to feel anger or sadness sooner than the other
  • One may want to "do" something to make things right again
  • One may just want to "be"

What to Learn

It's important to remember that life is precious. By being overprotective of children and your spouse, you are cheating yourself out of life. Try to accept that you can't always keep your children safe and be in total control of your life. Men can especially learn that big boys do cry and they don't always have to be the strong one. Live in the present moment.

It's also good to recognize that there are no quick fixes. The first few years are the hardest and while it gets easier, the pain is long-lasting. Although it is important to accept your feelings, it is also healthy to get on with living your life each day and to not dwell on your grief. Find ways to laugh with one another. With your mutual love, you will weather this storm together.