You might think the death of a child would bring a couple closer but that’s not always the case. I think when a child dies, how people grieve and accept the loss differs. Sometimes there is blame, especially when it comes to suicide and overdose, making a difficult situation even worse.
I want you to know that astronomically high divorce rates after death of a child is apparently a myth and a study by Compassionate Friends showed that divorce rate of couples who lose a child is 16% and not the 80% that you often hear of. However, even these findings are not thought of representing the general population since not all couples seek support. So we don’t have good numbers on this but studies do show that a marriage is at elevated risk of ending. People who are bereaved by suicide are at increased risk of suicide, depression, substance abuse, complicated grief, feelings of shame and guilt which definitely can add to marital discord.
I am not a marriage counselor. And I have no secret formula but this is a question I’m frequently asked so I’ll do my best to give you my point of view since losing my 20-year-old son Charles to suicide in 2015.
Oftentimes, the death of a child, really the death of any close loved one, can cause people to take stock of their lives. They may not have been all that happy before the death of a child and that ends up highlighting problems that were previously brushed under the rug. Often, when you go through a devastating event, people decide “life is too short” to spend it with someone that is not meeting their emotional needs, often driving a wedge in an already fractured marriage.
Randy and I had been married 30 years when Charles died. And you don’t get to that many decades without dealing with some stuff.
We didn’t blame each other and respected the fact that someone might not be on the same page at the same time. So I didn’t resent it if Randy was having a good day and I was not. I also never blamed him and visa versa.
The night we found out Charles died, we made that pact that the last chapter of his life was not the last chapter of our own. No one in our family blamed us and we both got a lot of support from family and friends which made a difference.
I think women have to understand that men have little experience for sharing their feelings and men’s networks are not as open to discussing the loss and might make them feel more isolated. I find it easy to talk within a support group while it took Randy some getting used to. For that reason, I felt I needed to be more intentional in asking what I needed and what I was expecting from him. And I pushed the point that I wanted him to share as well.
Fortunately, our Families Anonymous (FA) group had a lot of men and we had had 4.5 years of attendance under our belt before this loss. I never had to initially drag him to FA. As soon as we both heard about it, we wanted to meet others going through a loved one’s drug abuse/addiction. The isolation of the previous five years while Charles struggled with depression and drug abuse and addiction was overwhelming, lonely and depressing. Both of us were desperate to connect with others going through what we were.
The men at our group openly cried and expressed themselves –at least within the group. Not all groups have that benefit. Imagine being male and going to a support group and seeing that your gender is completely outnumbered. Men also feel like they need to be strong which to them can mean not showing outward signs of hurt and loss. That is not strength at all and can make grieving that much more difficult but none of us has a manual for how to go through this. And I think we don’t allow our men opportunities to openly share how they feel as children, teens or young adults leaving them more lost when something like this happens.
Make no mistake about it, Randy hurts every bit as much as I do. He would have to have loved Charles less to fell less hurt.
I blew up at Randy one time about five months after Charles’ death. When I was pouring my heart out, he walked out of the room to the deck, walked back in and starting giving me a weather report. I was furious, and not being one to hold back, I let him know that when I’m sharing my soul, I could give a rat’s ass about the weather short of a tornado heading towards me that very second.
I do believe it got too heavy for him and not being able to fix it, he sort of checked out by walking out. It was during this conversation that I had to let him know that he couldn’t fix this and I was not expecting him to. I just needed him to listen and I needed to hear when he was hurting, too which he had previously been open to sharing. But this was a new habit and I had to have some patience. No one else cares or loved Charles more than we did. No one wants to talk about him more than we do.
Randy also didn’t try to deny his grief and didn’t define “being strong” as burying it–something that is often typical for men. Substance abuse is also very typical after death of a child and can add to marital problems. Neither of us started drinking more or tried to “numb the pain.” I knew that I couldn’t heal if I didn’t feel so I gave it up all together which was something I had done when I lost my friend Kathryn Ray at age 23 to cancer decades before.
We did seek help. We tried a counselor and that simply was not what worked for me. I had become accustomed to a group and Randy was OK with that. So that’s what we did. We did the 8-week suicide loss group at Full Circle which was good. We did drop-in groups and I am not a co-facilitator for a local grief group.
He tends to meet one on one with other men who are either struggling with a child’s addiction, mental illness or death. And he has wanted to help one person in recovery to give back, while I do, well you know, this blog and tend to go all in. He has asked me, “Are you really going to publish that?” but I can understand him being initially uncomfortable with my boldness. It made me uncomfortable, too.
He lets me do my thing and in fact, he’s bringing home more bacon than I am currently so I have the good fortune of being able to follow my passion. I didn’t hesitate to tell people what happened and it’s taken him a while to feel comfortable with that. But I didn’t and don’t criticize.
Both of us suffered self-blame like a lot of parents of a child who died by suicide. It’s so brutal. You definitely feel, “What kind of shitty parent am I that my child would check out on me.” It takes a while before you realize that it was not personal but the result of someone who suffered. It was agony working through the coulda, woulda, shouldas–part of the grieving process but again, we couldn’t talk each other out of the step but we could support each other during these episodes. Quite frankly, that part is never 100% over but we have arrived at a place of forgiving ourselves.
Keep in mind, we didn’t have young kids at home when this happened so I didn’t have to figure out how to be a parent to those children in my grief. We definitely had conversations with our older son, Richard, but he was on his own already. Neither of us suffers from depression or bipolar and neither of us is predisposed to thoughts of suicide, so our grief is pretty even with each other.
I think it gets more complex in situations where it’s a second marriage and the child that died was a stepchild that was older when the marriage happened. When people get re-married at a later age after children have grown or almost grown, families don’t blend like they do when kids are very young at the time of remarriage.
So often the spouse that is not as emotionally attached might wonder when the spouse will return to normal, perhaps not understanding that that will never happen.
This loss changes you forever, and in some cases for the better. I am grateful I have a partner and didn’t have to go through this alone. What we share, more than anything is a love for our children, including the one that died.