Surviving as a Couple After Loss

Surviving as a Couple After the Loss of a Child
Surprisingly, the most challenged relationship surrounding the death of a child is the union of the two people that created that child.

I learned this in the most devastating way possible. My beautiful vibrant 16 year old boy woke up with a fever and was dead the next morning of a lethal killer, bacterial meningitis. It was on that tragic day, my life changed forever.

The death of a child is often referred to as “the worst that can happen. “ When it’s your child, you’ve unwillingly joined a group of people who know how it feels to have chapters of your life stripped away. Not only does it change your future, your past will never be the same.

No one is prepared for the assault the loss of a child can have on a family, and most of all on a marriage. I experienced it. On the outside, we appeared to be handling the loss with dignity and grace, but inside we were pulling apart. What was dying was our ability to love each other through the shroud of the death of our beloved child.

Struggling through the grief process is hard enough as an individual, but when you have to make room for the feelings of your partner, it’s overwhelming. When my husband and I once enjoyed memories and stories of our history together, now, our history held our greatest tragedy.

We mourned together, but more often we mourned separately. The divisiveness can be damaging and could eventually cause resentment if you don’t address it now.

For example, when my husband would come home from work happy, and it was in stark contrast to my day of feeling our son’s loss, I resented him. In turn, he resented me for putting a damper on his good day.

It happened the other way too. If I was happy, and he wanted to grieve, a wall went up between us, where no love or connection could tear down the heavy stones of sadness.
It’s impossible to give comfort when you are in the depths of despair. You find yourself angry when your partner is happy, or sad, and it’s the opposite of how you’re feeling. I was given more support from friends and family because women typically reach out emotionally more than men.

My husband went back to work within a week. Being in the entertainment business, he was committed to “ the show must go on.” I heard from many who offered my husband comfort. He responded by saying “Oh well, thanks, I’m fine. Those things happen.”

He was not fine. He wanted so much to be brave and hold the financial stability of the family together. He also wanted to avoid the inevitable, acknowledging the pain of his broken heart caused by the tragic loss of his firstborn son.

It’s important to realize you, as a couple, are at the very core of the family. The two of you are a partnership in holding the family together. If you have other children, they need your united strength. You must be committed to each other and just as committed to healing independently.

You may feel a sense of doom in your relationship, like nothing can ever go right again. It clouds everything and you’re just waiting for the next thing to happen. This is natural. We feel at our most vulnerable as parents who have lost children.

We were the architects of our child’s world, and that world came tumbling down. Those feelings of vulnerability are often difficult to discuss with your partner.

“Blaming” can also be a natural part of grieving your loss. It’s your attempt to find reason and make sense of your child’s death. This is part of the “bargaining phase” of the Five Stages of Grief. In reality, there is no way to make sense of a tragic young death.

As a grieving parent, you can’t expect your partner to comfort you. He can barely comfort himself. A neutral third party such as a therapist or a grief group is the best approach to feeling safe in discussing grief issues.

Some, who have lost a child, say they feel like they’ve fallen out of love in their marriage.
The truth is, you haven’t fallen out of love, it just that grief is the predominant emotion you are dealing with, and it’s hard to focus on refueling your love for each other.

How was your relationship before your child died? If it was strong, loving, and close, then it can be all those things again. But it takes time and attention, and sometimes, professional help. If your relationship struggled before the death of your child, then the need to seek counseling is even more important.

8 Steps for Grieving Couples
  1. Share how you feel. Sit down with each other in a relaxed environment. Take a moment to reflect and consider your partner’s feelings, point of view, and daily experiences.  This prepares you with empathy and allows you to be more open and conscious of his or her reactions and needs. Take turns listening and practice the art of not judging or trying to “fix.” If this is difficult to do, seek the help of a licensed therapist to monitor your discussion.
  2. Discuss your current support systems and look at your “ Lifeline List” of friends and family for help. Identify 1 or 2 people that each of you know and who both of you trust that can offer emotional support during this time.
  3. It’s important to have same-sex friendship/confidant, and avoid any connections in which unhealthy dependencies or liaisons may develop.  You are really vulnerable during bereavement. It’s critical to be conscious of how you develop support, so you don’t find yourself escaping into outside relationships.
  4. Recognize that resentment can arise when your partner is feeling happy and you are feeling sad, or vice versa. This is normal and the reason why we sometimes need to vent our emotions outside of our relationship.
  5. Schedule quality time with your partner. Consider a dinner date, or a quiet dinner at home after the children have gone to bed.
  6. Prepare yourself emotionally for the night out. This is not a time to be sad. You may feel sad, but sadness is also a decision you can control. Think of the times when you may have felt sad, but something funny struck you, and you laughed. That’s just how sadness can be compartmentalized.
  7. Recognize that you are creating a new relationship within your marriage. One that includes the life and the death of your child. It’s important to honor your child by healing.
  8. Interrupt the pattern of sadness by planning or doing something extraordinary or different. For us, we took a trip to Italy, just the two of us. We learned how to be together again in a loving, adventurous way. Therapists call this "pattern interrupting." It works.
Photo by Erin Muller
Remember, this man (or woman) is your beloved partner in life. Together, you’ve lost your beautiful child. Don’t let the marriage die, too. Feed your relationship with the most love you can possibly express. Your reward is a relationship made stronger when you thought all was lost, and look forward to the years ahead where you will embrace joy as a couple again.

After losing my son, I thought my heart would never heal...but it did. And so will yours. Healing doesn't mean you won't feel the pain. Healing means that the sadness of losing your child no longer defines you. It means that one day, your heart will swell with joy again. 
I promise.

Sandy Peckinpah writes and speaks on surviving loss and activating resilience. Her new award winning book entitled, "How to Survive the Worst that Can Happen" is a parent's step by step guide for healing after the loss of a child, based on her own experience of losing her 16 year old son. She also hosts a radio show in Northern CA on KRXA AM Talk Radio. Blog:    
book website:


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