The Effects of the Death of a Child on a Marriage

Jean Galica, M.A., LMFT

Jean Galica

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist


The Effects of the Death of a Child on a Marriage

Introduction: The death of a child is considered one of the most difficult and traumatic events that a family can experience. It is a devastating, yet a unique experience for each individual of the family. Each year more than 300,000 children die in America, leaving thousands of families to cope with this tragedy. It is as if each family were a huge ball of yarn; each member a different colored strand woven and wound together. When one member dies, the entire ball must be unwound, the strand removed, and the ball then needs to be put back together and rewound. However, the ball can never be recreated as it was before. When a child dies in a family, the members feel as if they have been ripped apart, unwound, which creates tension and conflict. Crisis begets crisis and the greatest stress is put on the marital dyad.

The death of a child is a violation of the natural order of things. Parents expect their children to bury them, not they bury their children. Since this natural order has been disrupted, parents must now readapt to a new, seemingly illogical reality.

Parents do not easily comprehend that even though they are older, the creator, the protector, and the provider of their child, they have still survived and their child has not. The young are to grow up and replace the old. The personal identity of each parent, which was tied to their child, has been changed as well as their behavior and lifestyle. They lose a part of their future and/or their posterity. Parents tend to feel impotent and to feel a great sense of remorse and guilt over not protecting their child from death. The life of each parent is forever changed; the marital dyad is forever changed as well. There is a great need for each spouse to know how things need to be between them now.

Myths: One of the most common held myths is that after the death of a child, the majority of marriages end in divorce. The actual facts bear out that the death of a child usually acts, instead, to polarize the existing factors found in the marriage; hence, some marriage get worse, some get better, some just maintain, and some actually do end in divorce. However, those that do end in a divorce, the child’s death just hastened the overdue burial of the marriage. Marriages that have sustained the loss of a child through death experience the same valleys and peaks as any other marriage, just in a more exaggerated form. Whether they become better or worse, the one sure thing is that the marriage will never be the same again as it was before the child’s death.

Many hold to the belief that it is easier to lose a child who was either an infant or an adult. This is just NOT so. Facts bare out that the death of any child is painful and neither depth nor time of healing differs because of the age of the child or the parent.

The belief that parents can get over the death of their child quicker and easier than other family members because they have each other to lean on is NOT so! The two were wedded into one and now they are two again in that each must bear their own pain. They have lost the same child, but the loss for each is unique. It is a simultaneous grief that has ripped each of them apart, there is nothing left inside and nothing left to give even to their spouse. They cannot meet each other’s needs or anyone else’s need at that moment in time. Grieving spouses sporadically are able to support each other, but they each feel a profound sense of isolation. Grieving people tend to focus on their feelings, their needs and their day, which is normal, so they have little energy left to invest in others which would include their spouse.

Many times too much is expected of the marriage relationship, but marriage is not necessarily an all-purpose relationship. No one can meet all the needs all the time of their spouse. Many times each individual falsely expects their spouse to make the pain go away and when they cannot, they begin to feel resentment, anger, hurt, abandonment, etc., toward their spouse, they begin to argue and trivial things can become monumental and damaging to their marriage. They have lost enough; they need to value their marriage now, but many cannot and they need outside help.

Some believe grief from the death of a child should be short-lived. However, grief resulting from the death of a child often does not diminish in the same manner as grief resulting from other experiences of death. There is a prolonged sense of loss for many years and it is not unusual for it to last sometimes even as long as 20 years. It is believed that the average grief stage for the death of a spouse is two years, but it is four to five years for the death of a child.

Female vs. Male Grief: Generally, females tend to grieve more deeply in an intense manner and for longer periods of time. Mothers are usually more involved in the day-to-day intimacies of the child, so they have more reminders of their child’s death, such as one less plate to set at the dinner table, grocery shopping (going by the peanut butter, corn flakes, whatever their child’s favorite and most hated foods were), the once dreaded car pools that are now longed for, clothes shopping, and the list just goes on and on.

Generally, males tend to focus more on tasks than relationships, they are defined more by their work than emotional ties; hence, their grief becomes far more inward and less observable. Social mores tell men that they should not cry, they are the family protector, they have to be strong for the family, so they suppress their grief. Women are allowed to cry while men are to be strong.

Grief in males seems to decline much more rapidly than in females. In fact, grief in females after the death of a child tends to be particularly intense for about two years after the child’s death. So, while the husband’s grief is decreasing, his wife’s grief is either increasing or at least remaining constant. This needs to be recognized and understood by both spouses as a normal phenomenon.

Wives tend to feel resentment at their husbands for seemingly being less tortured, while husbands have difficulty in truly comprehending the pervasiveness of their wife’s mourning. Husbands may feel or think their wife is over-reacting by crying all the time and they are just not dealing with reality.

Women deal with their feelings more directly in revealing what they feel (scared, sad, inadequate, etc.), and it is considered a statement of fact. They ask for support and it is considered a practical response, not a defeat. Consequently, what a wife sees as an appropriate or helpful expression of feelings, her husband may see it as a portrayal of a loss of control and/or a prelude to a breakdown for himself.

Males tend to grieve very privately. They cry, but they cry in private, they want to be alone, work it out in private, and wives would do well to let them have their space. Husbands feel a great pain when people ask how his wife is doing, but they never stop to inquire about him. In many case studies, this repeatedly came up that men saw this as a dagger, as if their grief was less and unimportant. Counselors would do well to take this to heart and include and welcome the fathers and realize tears are not the only signs of grief. Men also reported that some of the sharpest pain they felt came from the fact that they could not protect their child. They feel a particular shame and helplessness that comes when they fail to do what they believe is their job to do, protect their family and especially their child.

Profile of a Grieving Couple: Four major issues that grieving couples repeatedly reported resulting from the death of their child are (1) sexual problems, (2) emotional distance, (3) more conflict and/or fighting, and (4) if the child was the glue that held their marriage together, they have a need to find a new foundation.

Grieving is some of the hardest work an individual ever does. It is a coming to terms with the fact that, in this instance, their child is dead, one who loved them back, whose needs gave shape and focus to their days is now dead. They can never have their child back, he/she is not just on a trip, they cannot be replaced, what the parent wants most they cannot have, because their child is gone forever from the face of the earth. It is final! If parents do not grieve the loss of their child, they will stay frozen in their pain. They must now build a life in which the child does not live, but they need to keep the child alive in their hearts and memories. The parent tends to be left with more pain and to have a harder time coming to terms with their loss the more conflicted the relationship was between them and their child,

Research bears out that the differences in which individuals grieve are often greater than the differences between the ways the sexes grieve. One of the factors that contribute to the different ways in which parents grieve is the degree to which each was invested in the parenting role of the child. Grief is a process and not an event. Trying to even figure out how to comfort a grieving spouse is difficult by the very fact that the mode of grieving changes within an individual from one moment to the next moment.

The components of grief many times carry the characteristics found in clinical depression, such as anhedonia, depressed mood, anxiety and/or panic attacks, insomnia, lethargy, loss of appetite or uncontrollable eating, withdrawal, suicidal ideation, and even PTS. Grief, however, is different than clinical depression in that grief does follow a somewhat predictable course and grief does not typically respond to antidepressants in the way that clinical depression does. The three major divisions of grief are (1) the shock or disbelief, (2) the suffering, and (3) recovery. There, however, is no average or measurable amount of time with each division, but each phase must be walked through. Consequently, the feelings of extreme grief do lead to a sense of recovery. Anger appears to be a basic part of early grief and it is a storm that must be weathered by each spouse.

In addition, the nature and special circumstances surrounding the death of the child influences the grief response. If the death was suicide, the parents tend to experience the most guilt of all deaths. Parents tend to feel they should have been more observant or it was really their fault. Children that die traumatic deaths, such as accidents or murder, parents experience almost as much guilt as those of suicidal survivors. They feel they should have prevented the accident, they should have interrupted the events, and they usually experience a great amount of rage, especially if the child was murdered or killed by a drunk driver, etc. Children who are either stillborn or miscarried, the mother in particular will carry a great amount of guilt and tends to feel it was her fault. Children who die an anticipated death, the parents tend to experience the least amount of guilt, but they still do experience guilt. They tend to feel guilty about whether they called the doctor soon enough, did they choose the right treatment plan, etc. However, their anticipatory grief may have been prolonged or even exacerbated the marital relationship to the point of causing huge consequences.

Children who die a sudden death, the parents initially tend to have a more difficult time coping than do those parents who expected the death of their child, but the stress associated with a terminal illness of a child seems to diminish the couples’ coping capacity and makes subsequent adjustment actually more difficult. Many times children who have died from a terminal illness leave their parents with huge medical bills which will greatly impact the parents’ lifestyle. A counselor would do well to encourage such parents to seek the help of a money manager, a lawyer, etc., to develop a manageable repayment plan for them.

Parents have a great need to know why did their child die, what can they attribute their death to or, in other words, who can they blame. Since the beginning of time, parents who have lost children to death have been asking those questions which remain unanswered. One of the most lethal situations that can exist between spouses is if one is blaming the other for the child’s death and/or one of them feels personally responsible. If this is happening in the marriage, it is paramount that they as a couple seek therapeutic intervention for not only their marriage but for their individual selves as well.

The sexual intimacy of the couple is usually interrupted by the death of a child. Men usually want to return more quickly to their sexual relationship, sometimes within a week, as they crave the comfort and escape from grief that sex provides. It tends to help them feel alive and pleasurable. However, some men lose interest in sex and usually this stems from the feeling of how they could not protect their child who died. They feel worthless and inadequate which equates to being unable to function sexually. They become so depleted with sadness.

Grief tends to leave women sexually numbed, uninterested in sex, and basically unable to respond. They feel they should not engage in anything pleasurable while their child is dead. Many times they have a fear of pregnancy. After all, their husband was the procreator of the child who died. Their memories of sex that culminated in the birth of the child who is now dead cannot be reconciled with sex after the death of their child.

Women tend to experience sexual desire out of feelings toward their partner and how things are going in the relationship. They need to feel fairly comfortable with their partner and their own body and they need the freedom to set aside concerns of the day and what is on her mind to freely respond and enjoy sex.

Usually it is necessary to wait until both partners are ready. A counselor needs to have a couple talk about their sexual relationship, help each partner understand how the other one is feeling. Many times one will have to take it more slowly than they prefer and the other may have to engage while possibly still feeling awkward. Couples need to both accept and respect their differences while giving their spouse the benefit of the doubt. With time, the sexual relationship is resumed in most cases.

Those that did have a very healthy sexual relationship before the death of their child may actually return very quickly to a sexual relationship. Usually sobbing and crying in bed holding each other over the loss of their child, the holding and warmth and closeness culminates in sexual intercourse. Sex for them is an all-encompassing sharing of love, touching, caring, and a very beautiful thing.

Another hurdle that many couples feel is being out in public and enjoying their selves. Usually one partner is ready to go out socializing before the other. They tend to feel people are watching them, expect them to feel morose since their child has died and that they should not laugh again or have fun. One way to help a couple overcome this barrier is to suggest they go someplace where they do not see people they know. They could go for a walk on a beach or go to a restaurant they have never been to and the likelihood of running into anybody they know is nil. Usually after breaking the barrier once it becomes easier. Another suggestion is a vacation. In one case study, the couple went to Hawaii, they ate, they laughed, they played and romped in the sand, they made love, they cried, they went to the movies, and when they returned home after a week, they no longer had the mental barrier.

Helping Grieving Couples: In order for them to survive as a couple, they need to talk to each other about their individual grief experience. They need to discuss what each is feeling and thinking. This will help keep them from making faulty assumptions and reaching wrong conclusions about each other. They need to know each other is grieving, just differently. They need to know that expressing thoughts and feelings helps one “name” what is bothering them and it will help them move toward solutions.

Couples need to deal with issues of guilt, anger, sorrow, their possible feelings of being unimportant, unknown, or impotent, and they do need to know there is an end to the intense pain and suffering.

Couples need to know of healthy ways they can preserve the memories of their child. If parents watched their child die, a slow terminal illness that shriveled their body away wracked with pain, they need help in replacing those images in their mind with the good times they had with their child, how their child looked when they were healthy, etc. If their child died a violent death and they saw the child in that state, those memories need to be replaced. Some parents want to know all the gory details of their child’s death, others do not. Let them know they have a choice.

Parents need to tell stories about their children, reminisce, and keep pictures of their child. They need to keep a family picture with the child in the picture up or at least another picture of the child out for all to see. Couples need to choose ways of remembering that are comfortable for them. They need to think of happy times and of the child’s personal triumphs and special times of joy. Recalling a humorous occasion also helps.

Parents need to know they never will nor should they ever forget their child; however, they need to keep the memory alive in a positive way, which not only eases the grief but it also blesses and ministers to others. For instance, they can setup a memorial fund and know that something good is being done in their child’s memory.

The child’s death anniversary is not a happy one and ignoring it does not help the couple heal. Some things that could be done are a memorial prayer service or doing something special for someone else in the child’s name.

A tremendous way to augment a couple’s grief coming out is for them to be with others who understand exactly what they are going through—a support group. Encourage them to find a support group. A good place to possibly find one might be through a search on the Internet if you do not know of any local groups or organizations. Some national organizations that you might want to search out are The American Cancer Society, The Center for Loss and Life Transition, The Compassionate Friends, or MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Drivers), just to name a few.

If the couple is religious, that needs to be addressed. A study was done that showed parents who attended church more regularly had lower levels of grief reactions such as guilt, anger, and loss of control and despair than did parents who attended less regularly or not at all. Studies indicate that religious parents tend to be less anxious and depressed than those without a religion, so the couples’ faith may be of great support to them.

However, some parents blame their lack of faith, going to church, etc., as God’s way of punishing them and this should be addressed. Their views of an afterlife should be explored to gain a greater insight into working with the couple.

It is also important that the parents do not get caught up in justifying the death of their child as God’s will and be pressed to use that as an explanation of why their child died. For some, they believe they have to act as if nothing happened, it is a mark of spirituality, and that God’s work for their child on earth is over. Depending on their beliefs of an afterlife, they may believe that one day they will see their child again in the afterlife; however, they should never disallow themselves to grieve or to admit they are disappointed or even angry over their child’s death. The parents may accept the fact that God allowed the child to die for whatever reason without bitterness towards God, but to deny their pain will not help them to heal. All parents, religious or not, need to grieve and come to terms with the death of their child. Many religious persons need permission to grieve and to know that grieving is not a mark of or even poor spirituality on their part.

Some individuals believe that the longer they grieve the more it symbolizes their love for their child. However, this line of thought actually impedes recovery. Some just need to know that they do not need to serve a life sentence to prove their love for their child.

Another area that needs to be explored between the spouses are the earlier losses sustained by either or both of them. Past losses may set off a resonance of other significant losses in life, especially those as a child. One or the other may find they have unfinished business, unresolved feelings, and that they are now left with a large residue of not only sadness but also anger. It is important for spouses to know about their partner’s family and what losses they have sustained, how they dealt with those losses as a family, etc., as that may explain a lot about their partner’s behavior now at the death of their own child.

A counselor may also want to know what else is going on in the life of each of the partners, such as a new business, work problems, other medical emergencies in the extended family of either partner, possibly a new baby in the home if the wife was already pregnant when the other child died, etc. Many different situations could put grieving on hold for either of the partners and that only serves to put them further out of sync as a couple. Couples also need to be warned against making any major decisions in their lives for at least a year or so after the death of a child. This would also include the decision to divorce. Any and all decisions of any consequence that can be put off by the couple are only a plus in their recovery.

Negative reactions to grief that a counselor would want to look for in either one of both of the spouses are if either blames the other for the death of the child, any alcohol/drug abuse to anesthetize the grief, either partner having an affair, retreat into work/becoming a workaholic, the development of physical symptoms that the child experienced in their illness, extreme hostility toward specific persons connected with the child’s death, chronic guilt and a lowered self-esteem, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, avoidance of customary mourning rituals, self-destructive or self-punishment behaviors, and/or radical changes in lifestyle.

Conclusion: In conclusion, the death of a child is a HUGE loss for anyone. Grief needs to be understood as being very deep inside a person and for healing to take place; it does need to come out. However, how, when, and at what rate that happens is unique to each individual. There is no correct or wrong way to grieve.

One of the greatest gifts a counselor can give to a grieving couple is equal support for both of them, walk with them through the grief process, help them reconnect to their families and to their selves as they have new identities and the need to overcome barriers to their new identity, give them a safe place to be empathically understood as well as a place to grieve safely in whatever manner they need to, to give them reassurance, and, most of all, help them as a couple to communicate to each other about their separate experience of grief over the death of their child while allowing them to validate each other’s different grief response.

This information is derived from the author’s own experience of working with grieving parents and also the following books and articles.

Bernstein, J.R. (1997). When the Bough Breaks. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel.

Donnelly, K.F. (1994). Recovering from the Loss of a Child. New York: Berkley Books.

Finkbeiner, A.K. (1996). After the Death of a Child. New York: The Free Press.

Gottlieb, L.N., et al. (1996). The long-term effects of grief on marital intimacy following an infant’s death. Journal of Death and Dying, 33 (1), 1-19.

Rosof, B.D. (1994). The Worst Loss. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Schiff, H.S. (1978). The Bereaved Parent. New York: Penguin Books.

Schwab, et al. (1996). The experience of the family when a child dies. The Family Journal, 4 (1), 30-6.

Wiersbe, D.W. (1992). Gone but not Lost. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Wolfelt, A.D. (1998). Grief myths and bereaved parents, Part I. Bereavement Magazine, (September/October), 8-10.

Wolfelt, A.D. (1998). Grief myths and bereaved parents, Part II. Bereavement Magazine, (November/December), 8-10.

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