You’ve probably heard people cite statistics that parents who suffer the death of a child are more likely to get divorced. In fact, the frequently cited statistic is that 75 percent of parents eventually divorce months after the loss of a child. However, that number was the guesswork of a book author who wrote on this subject in 1977. Studies since then paint a different picture.
The Compassionate Friends, the nation’s largest bereavement self-help organization for families who have experienced the death of a child, conducted a survey in 2006 that showed a 16 percent divorce rate among bereaved parents.
In another study, researchers at Montana-Billings State University administered a survey to parents who had suffered the loss of a child. The results? Nine percent of those surveyed divorced after the death of their son. And the remaining 24 percent of those surveyed had considered divorce, but actually hadn’t. So, in 33 percent of the couples who responded to the survey, the death of a child I had he emphasized marriage, but the divorce rate was nowhere near 75 percent.
A third study, published in 2010 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, investigated whether there was a higher divorce rate in spouses whose children developed cancer. Cancer in a child was NOT associated with an overall increased risk of parental divorce. However, higher divorce rates were observed for couples in which the mothers had an education beyond the high school level. The risk was particularly high shortly after diagnosis, for couples with children 9 years of age or younger at the time of diagnosis and after the death of a child.
If you have experienced the anguish of the death of a child, know that your bond with your spouse has every chance of becoming even stronger. Still, in some cases, this tragedy may emphasize a relationship. To keep their marriage as healthy as possible, grieving parents should keep the following in mind.
Guilt is very toxic to any marriage because it involves accusing your partner of wrongdoing. For example, a husband holds his wife responsible for the death of their teenage son because she gave her son permission to stay up late and drive to the movies with friends. Upon returning from the movies, her son died in a car accident. In this scenario, guilt can erode the foundation of the marriage.
Sometimes grieving parents direct their guilt to an outside entity. Compare Meryl and George vs. Patricia and Joe. Meryl and George’s 11-year-old son Danny died of heart problems. Neither blamed the other for the death. However, Meryl, who is Jewish, and George, who is Lutheran, were angry with God. Before Danny’s death, Meryl agreed to raise Danny a Lutheran, and her little one attended church activities and often arrived before services so she could speak with the pastor. When Danny died, Meryl and George felt that God had unfairly punished them for raising their son well. However, the couple was able to let go of their anger against God. Three years after Danny’s death, George entered a church for the first time since the funeral. More than a decade later, George and Meryl’s marriage is still going strong.
For Patricia and Joe, who lost their son Jimmy in a car accident, it was a different story. At first, the accident brought them closer together, until Joe blamed God for the accident and their days were consumed with overwhelming anger that never abated. Patricia, on the other hand, turned to God after Jimmy’s death. They tried counseling, but Joe’s bitterness toward God and nearly everyone around him damaged their marriage and the couple divorced.
Resolve your guilt
The Montana State University researchers’ study mentioned above found that parents who have considered divorce after the death of a child are much more likely to express feelings of guilt and often or sometimes perceive that their spouses expressed their fault. Those who had not considered divorcing were more likely to rarely or never feel guilty and were much less likely to perceive that their spouse was expressing guilt. If you feel guilty in any way about your child’s death, counseling can be an effective way to help you resolve your feelings.
Realize that you both suffer differently
Our spouses often have interests and belief systems similar to ours. Grief may be the first time in our relationships when we notice a significant difference between the two of us. Women, for example, tend to be more open and talkative about their pain, while men tend to accumulate their emotions within themselves or try to hide their vulnerability by grieving when they are alone. Men can also express their pain as anger. For example, when George found out that Danny had died, he knocked on the bedroom door and punched a hole in the wood.
Allow each other to cry at your own pace
Many of you reading this have heard these words before: “Why don’t you move on? It’s been a year (or two years, or three, etc.).” When family says this, it can be quite frustrating. But when a spouse feels like it’s time for you to move on, it can be devastating. Everyone suffers at their own pace and we have to accept our partner’s schedule. George and Meryl learned this first hand.
About a year after Danny’s death, Meryl wanted to visit his grave every week. George wanted to visit us less often. At first, this hurt Meryl’s feelings. But George convinced her that leaving every other week was part of letting go. “It drives me a little crazy if it goes on long,” admits Meryl.