A major concern many parents have after the death of their child is how the loss will affect their marriage. A common misconception is that parents who have lost a child are more likely to get a divorce. That is not necessarily true. Instead, my experience and that of others is that the death of a child does not cause
a divorce, it intensifies
the nature of the relationship the parents already had. In working with bereaved couples and individuals, I have seen couples who are open and supportive of each other develop an even stronger relationship. They lean on each other for support as they strive to make meaning, both individually and as a couple, of the death. Neither one tries to avoid the pain, but mourns in his/her own particular way. They recognize that each of them may mourn differently – the father is probably
more instrumental and the mother probably
more intuitive – and they allow for those differences.
On the other hand, I have found that couples who are historically distant from each other and do not share their feelings and thoughts are more likely to have trouble. One or both do not appreciate the uniqueness of the other’s grieving style and may say or think, “He/She obviously didn’t love our child as much as I do since he/she isn’t grieving as much as I am.” This judgmental approach tends to drive a wedge between the two parents. In addition, if either parent tries to avoid the pain of the loss, that, too only further distances them. Sadly, couples whose relationship was rocky before the death of their child will probably find it worsened after the death. Without significant work to keep it together, the marriage can deteriorate so far that it ends in divorce – another major loss in each of the parent’s lives and in the lives of any of their other children.
Another important relationship affected by the loss of a child is that between the parents and any surviving children. Here I have seen parents respond two ways. The first is to become more vigilant in protecting their other children. This is normal and usually abates over time, but with a deeper appreciation and love for the surviving children remaining. The second response I have seen is for one or both parents to be so distraught over the death that they virtually abandon the other children. Mourning for the lost child consumes them. As a result, the dead child’s siblings lose not only their brother/sister but also one or both parents. This can have devastating life-long consequences for the children. If mourning the loss of a child consumes one or both parents to the exclusion of caring for the other children, professional help is probably called for.
Finally, the relationship the parents have to the outside world needs to be considered. Our society has a name for those who have no parents (orphan), for those who have lost a spouse (widow/widower), for those who have never had a child (childless), and even for those whose children have moved out on their own (empty-nesters), but there is no special term for those whose child has died. How do these parents describe themselves, how do they answer the question “How many children do you have?” They answer it very carefully, with uncertainty and conflict. They want to acknowledge their child’s existence, but also realize that others may feel uncomfortable hearing their story. There are no short, easy answers to questions about a child who has died, but through trial and error, parents can learn what feels comfortable to say and how much of their child they want to share with others at any given moment. Not mentioning the child does have to mean they do not still love him/her or that they deny he/she ever existed, it just means that that was their choice under the circumstances at that one point in time.
Thinking about it, there may be a good reason there is no formal word for those who have lost a child: unlike any other relationship, once you are a parent you are always a parent!