The Unthinkable Grief: Coping With the Death of a Child

Marriages Can Survive the Loss of a Child

Man comforting a crying woman
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When people realize three of our children have died, we hear comments about how amazing it is that our marriage survived such a loss. We also hear dumb statements about how lucky we are to have four healthy kids and how our little ones are in a better place.


The reality is that our marriage survived these heartaches because we worked really hard to make sure the two of us would be okay. The reality is that having surviving children doesn't lessen the pain of losing children.

The reality is that I don't care where they may be in the after life, I would prefer to have our babies with us.

Talk to One Another

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

What to Do for Grieving Parents

If the two of us appear to be defensive ... it is because we are defensive. We cringe when we hear what some people say to grieving parents.

They have enough to cope with. These couples don't need to deal with hurtful remarks.

If you don't know what to say, then don't say anything. Just give them a hug. Let them know you are available to listen and that you care.

Suzanne Strempek Shea: "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, get held back by the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, in most cases nothing gets accomplished. And when it comes to sympathy cards, it’s the gesture more than the language that will remembered long after the envelope is opened. Even if all you do end up doing is signing your name."
Source: Suzanne Strempek Shea. "Putting a Card in the Mail." 3/12/2008.

Studies and Statistics About Grieving Parents

There are many who believe that there is an extremely 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. ('Bereaved parents: particular difficulties, unique factors, and treatment issues', Social Work, vol. 30, p. 20). In 1999, another survey entitled 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."

"While most of the effect after miscarriage is seen in the first two or three years, the impact of a stillbirth persisted for nearly a decade."
Source: Margarita Bauza.

"Couples more likely to break up after pregnancy loss, U-M research finds." 4/05/2010.

"Experts say that parents typically never "get over" the loss of a child, but rather learn to adjust and to integrate the loss into their lives. Still, the death of a child remains one of the most stressful life events imaginable. One-fourth to one-third of parents who lose a child report that their marriage suffers strains that sometimes prove irreparable."
Source: Jane Brody. Jane Brody's Guide to the Great Beyond: A Practical Primer to Help You and Your Loved Ones Prepare Medically, legally, and Emotionally for the End of Life Random House. 2009. pg. 143.

"It's estimated that one in five families experiences the pain of miscarriage."
Source: Megan Meany. "Revealing the 'raw heartache' of miscarriage."


Issues Couples May Face

The first six months following the loss of a child is when the majority of divorces occur. Problems that couples often encounter while dealing with grief include:

  • Lack of communication with one another.
  • Disagreement on how to parent their other children.
  • Being overprotective of other children.
  • Whether or not to have another baby.
  • Differences in how to grieve.
  • Putting blame and guilt on self and/or on spouse.
  • Turning to alcohol and drugs.
  • Looking for someone or something to blame.
  • 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.
  • Decision about whether or not counseling is needed.
  • Financial concerns.
  • Turning away from one another.
  • One spouse may tend to feel anger sooner than the other.
  • One may tend to feel sadness sooner than the other.
  • One may want to "do" something to make things right again.
  • One may just want to "be."
  • If a couple had problems before the child's death, those problems can become more difficult to deal with.

What We Learned

The two of us learned that it was important to remember that life is precious. By being overprotective of our children and one another, we were cheating all of us out of life. We learned to accept that we couldn't always keep our children safe and that we couldn't be in total control of our lives. Bob learned that big boys do cry and that he didn't have to be the strong one or the one to tough it out. We have since tried to live our lives in the present moment.

There Are No Quick Fixes

Although the first two years are the hardest, the pain is long-lasting. As the two of us were discussing writing this article, we found ourselves with watery eyes and getting emotional even though it has been many years since we lost Little Angel, Susan Sarah, and Teresa Rose.

Although it is important to accept your feelings, it is also important 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 love for one another, you will weather this storm together.