You’ve probably heard people quote statistics that parents who suffer the death of a child are more likely to divorce. In fact, the often-quoted statistic is that 75 percent of parents eventually divorce within months of the loss of a child. However, that number was the guesswork of a book author who wrote about this subject in 1977. Studies conducted since then paint a different picture.
The Compassionate Friends, the nation’s largest self-help bereavement organization for families who have experienced the death of a child, conducted a survey in 2006 that showed a divorce rate of 16 percent among bereaved parents.
In another study, researchers at Montana State University-Billings administered a survey to parents who had suffered the loss of a child. The results? Nine percent of the respondents divorced following their child’s death. And 24 percent of the remaining respondents had considered divorce–but had not actually done so. So in 33 percent of the couples taking the survey, the death of a child had stressed the 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 child developed cancer. Cancer in a child was NOT associated with an increased risk of parental divorce overall. However, increased divorce rates were observed for couples where the mothers had an education greater than high school level. The risk was particularly high shortly after diagnosis, for couples with children 9 years of age and younger at diagnosis, and after a child’s death.
If you have experienced the heartbreak of the death of a child, know your union with your spouse has a very strong chance of becoming even stronger. Still, in some cases, this tragedy can stress a relationship. To keep your marriage as healthy as possible, grieving parents should keep the following in mind.
Blame is highly toxic to any marriage because it involves accusing your partner of wrongdoing. For example, a husband holds his wife responsible for their teenage son’s death because she gave their son permission to stay out late and drive to the movies with friends. On the way back from the movies, their son died in a car crash. In this scenario, the blame may erode the marriage’s foundation.
Sometimes, grieving parents direct their blame at 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 one blamed the other for the death. However, Meryl, who is Jewish, and George, who is Lutheran, were both angry with God. Prior to Danny’s death, Meryl agreed to raise Danny as a Lutheran, and their little boy attended church activities and often arrived before the services so he could talk to the pastor. When Danny died, Meryl and George felt as if God had punished them unjustly for raising their son right. However, the couple was able to let go of their anger at God. Three years after Danny’s death, George stepped inside a church for the first time since the funeral. More than a decade later, George and Meryl’s marriage is still strong.
For Patricia and Joe, who lost their son Jimmy in a car accident, it was a different story. At first, the accident drew them closer together–until Joe blamed God for the accident, and his days were consumed with overwhelming anger that never subsided. Patricia, on the other hand, turned to God after Jimmy’s death. They tried counseling, but Joe’s bitterness at God and nearly everyone around him damaged their marriage, and the couple divorced.
Resolve Your Guilt
The study by the Montana State University researchers mentioned above found that parents who have considered divorce after the death of a child are far more likely to express guilty feelings and frequently or sometimes perceive that their spouses expressed guilt. Those who hadn’t considered divorcing were more likely to rarely or never feel guilt and were much less likely to perceive that their spouse expressed guilt. If you feel guilty in some way about your child’s death, counseling may serve as an effective way to help resolve your feelings.
Realize You Both Grieve Differently
Our spouses often have similar interests and belief systems to our own. Grieving may be the first time in our relationships when we notice a significant difference between the two of us. Women, for example, are often more open and talkative about their grief while men tend to bundle their emotions inside or try to hide their vulnerability by grieving when alone. Men also can express their grief as anger. For example, when George discovered Danny had died, he punched the bedroom door, smashing a hole in the wood.
Allow Each Other to Grieve 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 now (or two years, or three, etc.).” When family says this it can be frustrating enough. But when a spouse feels as if it’s time for you to move on it can feel devastating. Everyone grieves at his or her own pace, and we have to accept our partner’s timeline. George and Meryl learned this firsthand.
About a year after Danny’s death, Meryl wanted to visit his grave every week. George wanted to visit less often. At first, this hurt Meryl’s feelings. But George convinced her going every other week was part of letting go. “I get a little crazy if it gets longer,” Meryl admits.