There are no words to describe the heartache you feel over the death of your child, and the period after a child dies is a very fragile time for a marriage. That is the opposite of what you might expect, but, often, instead of the tragic loss of a child bringing the couple closer together, each partner chooses to grieve in a different way and it is difficult for the other spouse to understand that choice.
My husband and I once managed an apartment complex where a young couple with a young daughter who had leukemia lived. The couple seemed to be absorbed in doing everything possible for the child, but shortly after the child died, the couple quietly filed for divorce.
We had never heard them raise their voices to each other. Both of them had kept pretty close at home except for when the husband went off to work. They were friendly to their neighbors, and seemed happy, except for the illness of their daughter.
Here are some of the things that may have happened in this case or similar ones.
If the child has been ill for some time before dying, the task of caring for that child has usually fallen on one of the partners in the marriage more than the other. It is only natural that the caregiver is going to be less able to meet both the needs of the sick child AND the needs of his or her spouse to the same extent as before. Of course the other parent understands that the child’s needs, at least for a period of time, have to come first, but that doesn’t mean that some feelings of resentment might arise.
In the same manner, the person doing the care giving will be worn down, both physically and emotionally, and feel that no one really understands what they are going through and that their own needs are being put on hold indefinitely.
Are you and your spouse in a similar situation? Are you aware that your marriage could be in danger because of it?
Of course, the illness of a child is not something either of you chose. But, perhaps you can keep it from destroying your marriage by:
1. Asking friends and relatives for help.
You’d be surprised at how many people are too proud to ask for help. If you have a terminally ill child, you do need help. Find a friend, a relative, or hire someone who is willing to sit with your child for a few hours each week. Maybe you can recruit several friends so no one will have to be called upon too frequently.
Take those few hours, not to catch up on your household chores, but to spend alone with your spouse. Do something together where you focus on yourselves rather than on the tragedy that has touched your child.
2. Include the non-caregiving spouse in the care of the child if possible.
If the non-caregiver works outside the home, he or she may prefer to sit alone and read or watch TV while the other sits with the child in the child’s room. Try to have that person bring his book, or even the TV into the child’s bedroom so you can spend a little time together as a family each day rather than dividing the family into two camps.
3. After the death of a child, let your spouse grieve in the way that seems right to him or her.
Some people take longer than others to adjust after the death of someone close to them. If your husband or wife cries a lot, let them cry. If they want to visit the cemetery every day for a while, don’t complain. If they don’t feel like going out socially for a while, don’t insist that they need to be with other people.
4. Finally, don’t wait too long to seek professional help.
Couples sometimes decide that getting a divorce will help them recover more easily from the death of a child. In some way, they reason that seeing this child’s other parent every day will remind them of their lost child. Instead, a divorce usually results in each party having to recover not only from the loss of their child but also from the loss of a spouse.
If it seems as though your marriage is not going to survive the trauma of losing your child, seek professional help. Counselors have dealt with this kind of problem many times before and may be able to help you get your marriage back on solid ground again.