by Carol Ruth Blackman
Losing a child affects parents in many ways. Survival skills are needed to keep your marriage strong after losing your baby. We'll look first at the differences between husbands and wives, then discuss some of the dangers to be aware of and include suggestions for successfully surviving the natural differences between a husband's and wife's grief and the dangers which arise after loss.
In marriage, two become one by turning to each other. In grief, two often turn away from each other becoming isolated and lonely. The deep pain of grief seems to wrap its victim in a cocoon as you focus on your agony. Bereavement makes us very self-centered at the exact time our spouse needs us for support. Pregnancy loss and infant loss sadly are not recognized as major losses to those who were not intimately associated with the child or pregnancy so you'll find yourself looking to each other for help in coping more than if it were a loss more readily recognized by society.
Your loss may represent a different meaning for each of you. Men and women both may be plagued with feelings of failure -- men especially because they are protectors and women because they are nurturers. Marriage can be strengthened deeply by shared sorrow, but it requires work to bring about the strengthening.
Men and women grieve differently
First we need to recognize some differences between men and women: Men and women tend to often fall into general differences simply due to our hormonal makeup. Of course there are always exceptions to every rule, and you may find in your marriage the roles seem reversed on some of these. Since we generally marry someone with a personality quite different from our own, we find that during grief the differences often make it hard for us to understand why our spouse grieves so differently than we do.
• Men usually talk for practical reasons whereas women tend to talk for recreation. Men talk about something, come to a solution and then go on. Women just want to talk about what has happened. Finding a solution is not always as important as just knowing someone is listening (preferably her husband).
• Men tend to approach situations with their heads -- thinking on facts and taking responsibility, and may feel a need to DO something after a loss; whereas women approach situations with their hearts and are more concerned with relationships, feelings, other people and rather than feel a need to be doing something, a woman likes to ponder the situation.
• Men often think more about the overall picture while women are concerned with the event's details.
• Men usually are more caught up in work outside the home but women are intricately intertwined with their homes and families to the extent that they perceive them as part of their personality or worth. This probably is one reason grief generally lasts longer for women.
• Men need to know they've succeeded which is vital for their self-esteem. Women also have a real need for success but their need for security, especially after loss, often outweighs other needs. A bereaved mom needs to be reminded she was a good mother and did all she could have done for the child's sake. To satisfy her deep need for security she looks to her husband and family. She measures her security by her perception of her value to others.
• Men tend to be more reserved in expressing emotions, whereas women are more encapsulated by their emotions, feeling a real need to express what they're feeling by talking. Friction arises when a wife feels her husband is insensitive or uncaring about their loss because he doesn't cry, talk about the child or seems to re-adjust to work soon after loss. Husbands are often frustrated by their wife's emotional outpouring, inability to handle social situations, depression, and lack of desire to resume normalcy of life. Remember too that some people are unable to cry in front of others, even their own spouse.
To survive requires you become as a third person to each other. Listen to your spouse -- accept their form of grief as you accept how their normal personality differs from yours. When you interject your grief timetable on your partner you are creating a prisoner that will hinder you from sharing your grief with each other.
Fight the dangers!
Survival of your marriage requires a calculated strategy to fight the dangers.
Danger #1: My way is the ONLY way to grieve!
Because one parent finds something very comforting and healing, it's tempting to think the other one needs this too. What is comforting to one may be sheer torment to their spouse. Recognize that everyone grieves differently. It's often difficult for bereaved parents not to express verbally how they wish their spouse would change. Acceptance of your spouse's different mode of grief can be a tough assignment.
Danger #2: Change
Death always brings change, even when it's early in a child's life. Priorities and commitments involved with the child come to a screeching halt. Suddenly your stability is gone and even the most simple of life's daily chores now become memory-filled challenges. Change pulls our life preserver from our grasp in the turbulent waters of grief. When a spouse criticizes their partner's grief or lack of grief, the ability to stay afloat is lost. Your home needs to be a safe harbor in the turbulent waters of grief. There's a real need to plan ways to support each other during this time.
Danger #3: Placing Blame
Feuding begins with placing blame, resentment or venting hostility on your spouse. Seek to be a support and safe harbor for your spouse rather than becoming a storm they need to seek shelter from. Never use silence as a tool for communication with your spouse after loss -- your partner can only interpret it as a negative response. Express your feelings, for your spouse has no extra energy to guess at what you might be feeling. Seek to phrase your statements to your spouse so they reflect what you feel rather than placing blame. Learn to say "I'm having trouble keeping from being upset when you..." instead of blurting "You make me angry when you...."
Danger #4: Not meeting your spouse's need for love
Everyone needs love but men and women interpret love differently. Generally speaking men feel loved when they know they are respected and their sexual needs are met. Women feel loved through tenderness and understanding. Tragedy causes a woman to need extra outward expressions of understanding and tenderness from her husband along with feeling his "protective care." Touching, holding, and cuddling are important even though she may have little desire for sex. Fear of repeating the same excruciating pain of loss often makes a woman want to refrain from sex while in grief. Many women feel sex is wrong when their precious child has just died, whereas sex reassures men that they are loved, needed, and that their wife really cares about them. Men usually relate first sexually, then verbally. Sexual intimacy nurtures the husband's emotional needs. Both parents are very insecure, fragile and vulnerable after loss. Meeting your partner's need for love will bind you more closely together. Knowing someone loves you is a needed security blanket at such a time. It is a MUST that you reach out to each other to keep your marriage from falling shipwreck in the turbulence of loss. What a needless added tragedy occurs when a marriage is shattered by loss.
Danger #5: Surviving Alone
Beware you don't use isolation from your spouse as a tool of survival. Caution needs to be exerted when work, hobbies, social circles or other commitments keep you from spending very much time with your spouse. Be aware too, that spending binges may occur as a sort of diversion from the pain. Excess spending only adds to your pain for it usually creates friction with your spouse and puts a squeeze on your finances, thus creating further stress. Marriages that survive the death of a child take WORK. Your marriage has to be your "Number 1" priority.
Suggestions for helping your marriage survive
- Determine your marriage will come out stronger.
- Accept the fact that you and your spouse will sorrow differently.
- Don't place bigger-than-life-sized expectations on your spouse.
- Seek to rebuild your relationship.
Submitted by Jenny Coffey. Jenny lost her first child at 36-weeks-gestation to a cord accident and has since gone on to have two successful subsequent pregnancies. She works very hard in a nonprofit organization to help bereaved parents and spends a lot of time on the Internet helping others as best she can.
Copyright © Jenny Coffey. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.