Relationships and marriages are hard work. We’ve all been told this, but there are some surprising events that can cause hardship for even the strongest couples. One of those is having a baby (or two or three or four or five). Going from a couple to a family is difficult whether the child is planned or not. Oftentimes the needs of each partner changes in a way that you wouldn’t anticipate. Her enjoying independent time while he goes away every weekend becomes something she resents – that he gets a “break” and she doesn’t. Her lavishing affection on an infant and being too exhausted to show him any becomes something he resents. Although they both love and adore the babe infinitely, the relationship can suffer greatly. All too frequently, people will slowly grow apart and not even notice until something drastic happens. Going from Wife to Mother and Husband to Father is a tremendously stressful time. The shift from a Family of Three to a Family of Four can be even harder. Add to that shifting towards a Family of Five or Six or Seven, well you get the picture. Differences in parenting philosophies often go unnoticed until an issue arises and if not handled well, can put the child in the middle of a lifelong battle. The stress of raising children, maintaining a home, finances, independence, family time, and couple time can destroy even the most committed couples. They are lost to becoming co-parents and roommates.
I’ve been watching this happen to so many of my friends over the last several years. Seemingly perfect families are breaking apart because the intimacy is lost between the couple. I don’t necessarily mean in a physical sense, but certainly in an emotional sense. It’s sad for everyone. I was once told, I think perhaps by my own mother, that you have to put your partner before your children because they will grow up and leave one day and your partner will still be there. It’s sage advice in an age where we worship our children to extremes. It’s also incredibly hard to do when most nights you want to smother your partner in their sleep.
You know what else is potentially disastrous to a couple? Losing a child. Today’s average rate of divorce is already at 40%-50%. Studies have shown that the divorce rate for bereaved parents is more than 8 times higher than the average. The needs of each bereaved parent is as diverse as the needs of each new parent. Men and women grieve differently. The primary caretaker grieves differently than the breadwinner, regardless of gender. While each parent grieves the same child, their relationship with that child has been very different. Their hopes and dreams, their experiences, their memories – they are all so intimate. One parent (generally fathers) may feel the need to move at warp speed. They can’t sit still because when they do, the grief rears up and overwhelms them. The other parent (generally mothers) might not be able to move at all. You may find them in bed for days / weeks / months on end, unable to stop crying. They may see the other parent’s movement as a sign that they aren’t grieving as deeply and didn’t love the child as much. The warp-speed parent might see the frozen one as stuck in grief, weak, broken. They can easily turn away from each other. Many times they simply don’t see the other parent at all.
Grief is lonely. You’re fighting so hard to keep breathing that you can’t see what’s in front of you. It’s easier to stop talking and looking to each other for support. I admit, I’m guilty of this. Too many times my tears went ignored (in my perception), that I began to hide them. I began to resent what I saw as his lack of compassion. In reality, I think my tears are simply too painful for my DH to contend with. His role has always been to protect our family, to keep us safe. He couldn’t save our son. Nolan died, literally, in his Father’s hands. He can’t protect me from this, and his own grief is so deep that often he can’t see past that. Of course, I’m making some assumptions here since I haven’t spoken to him about this. It’s my fault I’ve stopped reaching out. I can see where he tries. The brief hand on the back, the quiet given when I try to cry silently. Those are measures of comfort offered.
Yesterday we saw Nolan’s headstone for the first time. No words have been engraved yet, just his pictures on the stone. I fought tears all day at school, knowing what I would see. DH was trying to talk with me in the car since he doesn’t get my attention at all, and we do have some minutiae that needs dealing with. I’ve gotten pretty adept at silent tears, and when he noticed them, he simply stopped talking. My first reaction was that he was ignoring them and felt resentment, but then a whisper blew into my heart. Maybe it was Nolan, because he was always trying to explain his Dad to me. Nolan was, and I believe still is, the best parts of both of us. His mind was like his Dad, but his heart was all me. He understood both of us completely. The whisper helped me to see that my tears weren’t being ignored. DH was silently holding space with me while the pain gripped me tightly. The softest touch of his hand against mine brought me deep comfort. It told me he knew, he understood that there was nothing he could say or do, it told me he was there.
I think it’s important for grieving parents to hear those whispers. You aren’t going to be able to comfort each other the way each would want. You are completely broken. Anger and resentment are so much easier to feel than the loneliness of grief. It’s so easy to push each other away when you really need to hold each other closely. I’m sure I’ve failed miserably at offering the comfort my DH needs as well. We are on the same Journey, grieving the same child, but it’s an individual path. It’s such a dark place that it’s nearly impossible to notice the person walking next to you. Sometimes holding that quiet place while tears fall is the greatest comfort you can offer. Love isn’t enough to get a couple through grief. You need acceptance of each others’ failings. You need forgiveness because they can’t see beyond their own pain. You need compassion for their broken Soul. You need the whispers that allow strength in silence.