By: Joseph A Ditlow, Esq.
Over the course of the last several days, we have been reminded just how precious life is; especially the lives of our children. What sparked these thoughts? – most notably, the senseless bombing at the Boston Marathon that took the life of an eight-year-old boy; and, the tragic death of a 16-year-old-girl resulting from a head-on collision Sunday night in the Glenwood Canyon.
When parents are getting ready for the arrival of their children, most people seek advice on what to expect, whether it be from a book, or a trusted friend or family member. Once they are born, keeping them healthy and safe becomes a top priority. And, as they get older, the worry shifts to preventing the outside world from harming them. Yet, as the events of the past week make clear, no matter how hard you strive to protect your children from harm, the world sometimes intervenes in unimaginable ways. That leaves families with another topic that is rarely discussed or even contemplated…what do we do as parents when we lose a child?
In 2006 it was anticipated by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that approximately 150,000 children and young adults would die in the United States. These deaths leave hundreds of thousands of parents with the burden of coping with the loss and developing a new family identity that accompanies outliving ones child. Jean Galcia, M.A., states that “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 [a marriage] the marital dyad.” 
This leads us to the common perception that, generally speaking, marriages that suffer the loss of a child often end in divorce. Ms. Galcia states that this idea is more of a myth…
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 marriages 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.
The Compassionate Friends survey, When a Child Dies, further negates the myth; noting, roughly 16% of marriages that suffer the loss of a child end in divorce. This is clearly below the national average of 50%. Ms. Galcia notes, despite the low divorce rate, the loss of a child has an isolating effect on a marriage. She states:
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.
What issues should grieving couples be on the look-out for? : 1) sexual problems, 2) emotional distance, 3) increased conflict/fighting, and 4) “if the child was the glue that held the relationship together, they have a need to find a new foundation.”
Studies show that the grieving process is individualized to the person grieving. Life experiences, social norms, and support networks are factors in navigating one’s grief. Some internalize their grief. Others attempt to verbalize their grief with their support networks. It would thus seem clear, again as a general rule, that parents who are opposites in their coping can lead to conflict.
What tools should grieving parents use to keep their marriage intact? There are numerous sources on coping with the loss of a child. Most major book stores have entire sections devoted to the topic. Faith and social outlets are a great source of solace in your time of grief. Greif counseling is also an option. There are even Youtube.com videos on the topic. The resource you choose to get through the loss of the child is, again, extremely personal. However, in order to move forward with your life, and your marriage, it is crucial that your grief is addressed.
One thing is clear…your relationship will be tested unlike any other stressor in your marriage. Remember, at the end of the day, your spouse/partner is the person you count on the most. Learn to understand the differences in your grieving. Be patient and work to build each other up.
The Law Office of Angela Roff, PC, expresses our deepest condolences if you have or are currently grieving the loss of a child. As Christopher Robin said: “There is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
 When A Child Dies Survey 2006, The Compassionate Friends, http://www.compassionatefriends.org/about_us/Media-Resources/Surveys.aspx
 Jean Galica, M.A., LMFT, http://www.theravive.com/research/The_Effects_of_the_Death_of_a_Child_on_a_Marriage
 When A Child Dies Survey 2006, pg. 5.
 Galica at ¶6
 A.A. Milne, Earnest H. Shepard, Winnie-the-Pooh