Thankfully, losing a child is a relatively rare event. However, this tragedy still happens to some in our world. And one of the common concerns I hear expressed is concern for the marriage of those who have lost a child. There seems to be a real perception that couples who lose a child are more likely to experience the failure of their marriage. We explore the research on this today and then turn towards helping each other through the grief.

Many people and researchers describe losing a child as the hardest thing a couple could go through[i] and we certainly would agree with this.

How Losing a Child Impacts Marriage

Bereaved parents experience intense and overwhelming grief at their loss, and have to cope with substantial changes to their life, their role, and their relationship. Parents have to deal with their own individual grief as well as attempting to comfort each other and deal with the changes to their relationship.

This is a subject we wanted to address here but we have to be up front that we have never been through this ourselves. Others have and there are helpful blogs and articles on the Internet from those who speak to this issue from a very personal place. Our approach here is different: we wanted to look at the research and see what happens not just in the life of this couple or that couple, but across the experiences of many marriages to see what could be learned.

Losing a Child Doesn’t Increase Divorce Rates

There’s no doubt that this loss can potentially have a huge impact on marital quality, but research finds no link between the loss of a child and marital stability.

  1. So the idea that losing a child makes divorce more likely is in fact a myth[ii]. But it can definitely impact marriage in other ways, such as:
    1. Increased strain and conflict
    2. Reduced communication
    3. Distancing
    4. Reduced sexual functioning

Despite the extreme grief of losing a child, not all couples experience these negative outcomes: setting the grief and loss itself to one side for the moment, some couples end up stronger as a result of a tragedy like this. This is partly down to situational factors (things outside the couple’s control, see below), partly down to how the couple grieves, and partly down to how strong the couple were before the loss.

Situational Factors

Cause of death: we want to be cautious about comparing the cause of death knowing that each case is so unique. But generally, losing a child in sudden or violent circumstances such as accidents, homicide or suicide is much more distressing to the marriage than other causes such as illness or stillbirth[iii].

Age at death: the older a child is when they die, the more the parents have invested in them and formed strong bonds with them, so the harder their loss impacts them[iv]

Other children: having other children can be a source of comfort when one child is lost, and provide a continued sense of purpose for the couple[v]. However, it can also increase the strain on the couple as they have to care for their surviving children at the same time as dealing with their own grief[vi].

State of The Marriage At The Time of Loss

The quality of your marriage prior to the loss can impact how you cope with the loss, for good or bad. For example, if your marriage has been child-centred, you may not have nurtured a strong bond between yourselves and so probably start the grieving process more alone. Hopefully, you would both be able to recognize the need to turn towards each other during a time like this.

But pre-existing strains and conflicts before the loss of the child can also lead to couples coping poorly with the bereavement. Couples who struggled with poor communication and conflict prior to the loss are unable to properly comfort and support each other during the grieving process, and so end up becoming distanced and non-communicative rather than facing the problem together.

This can lead to a breakdown in the stability of the marriage[vii] unless the couple realizes the nature of the challenge and makes deliberate moves to compensate.

Equally, a strong marriage can help couples cope with the loss more effectively. Couples in a strong marriage are better able to support one another and feel supported, and will be more likely to use good communication and coping strategies. “Feeling secure, and protected in the relationship helped parents to survive and endure the grief after the loss of their child[viii]“.

We don’t get to choose the timing of major losses so this is another reason to create a strong marriage: it acts as a strong buffer against the blows that can come during life on planet earth. At the same time, if your marriage was not strong all hope is not lost. It just becomes a matter of turning towards one another at a time of loss like this, rather than turning against one another.

Healing from Grief Together

Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much appreciated supporters. This one shows you how to heal from grief together. It helps you to talk about differences in grieving styles and how to help one another recover from grief. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

How To Help Your Spouse Through The Grief

The grief of losing a child is complicated because on the one hand it is dependent on your own ability to manage the emotions and come to terms with the loss. But on the other hand, it is determined by how your spouse copes with the same process: if your spouse copes well, it will be easier for you to cope well, and if they struggle it may be harder for you. This means that grieving is both an individual and a joint process[ix].

Here are five particular areas to focus on as you journey through grief.

Be Real With Each Other

Couples going through the loss of a child may want to protect each other by appearing strong and not expressing their sadness in front of each other. This is not a great strategy: trying to hide your emotions makes things harder for you (since you aren’t expressing yourself) and makes things harder for your spouse (since they feel like you aren’t sharing in their grief). So hiding your emotions to protect your spouse often ends up having the opposite effect of making them feel more alone[x].

Individual and Joint Grieving

As mentioned above, grieving the loss of a child is an individual and joint process. Couples cope well when they make use of joint coping strategies: talking about their grief together, sharing resources such as books on grief and loss, and dealing with the practical aspects of the loss together (funeral arrangements etc).

However, making time for individual grieving is also important. A research study in 2016[xi] found that couples coped best when they were able to both communicate openly about their experiences, and also give each other space to process things alone. 

Utilize Social Support

Couples with a strong, healthy marriage are able to offer support to each other during the loss of a child. But relying exclusively on each other for support may put too much strain on your spouse. Finding other people who you can talk to can therefore help you cope, and also reduce the strain your spouse is feeling[xii].

Find Your Hope In Christ

A link has been found between religious faith and better marital coping with the loss of a child[xiii]. There are a few reasons for this. Couples can often turn to other members of their church for support, guidance and practical help during this difficult time. Second, praying together can help couples feel connected, strengthening their bond and helping them feel less alone in their grief. Finally, faith in the promise of eternal life gives couples hope that death is not final and lets them continue to feel connected to the child they have lost[xiv].

Look for New Meaning

Parents often take a lot of personal meaning from raising their children. That’s not wrong—that is a healthy aspect of parenting. But it means the loss of a child can devastate this sense of meaning and purpose.

Finding new meaning in other places is therefore “crucial in rebuilding the predictability and order of life[xv]“. Couples can find meaning in all kinds of things, including by investing in their own marriage, from their faith, from other passions and life goals, from deepening relationships with surviving children, or from forming new, deeper relationships with family and friends.

So if you are in this awful situation I hope today’s episode has given you some hope. Losing a child is a terrible loss, but it doesn’t meant hat you have to lose your marriage as well. It is possible to work through your grief as a couple and start to find a new sense of meaning and purpose in life.


References

[i] Sara Albuquerque, Marco Pereira, and Isabel Narciso, “Couple’s Relationship after the Death of a Child: A Systematic Review,” Journal of Child and Family Studies 25, no. 1 (2016): 30–53, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-015-0219-2.

[ii] Albuquerque, Pereira, and Narciso.

[iii] Katja Joronen, Marja Kaunonen, and Anna Liisa Aho, “Parental Relationship Satisfaction after the Death of a Child,” Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences 30, no. 3 (September 2016): 499–506, https://doi.org/10.1111/scs.12270.

[iv] Joronen, Kaunonen, and Aho.

[v] Albuquerque, Pereira, and Narciso, “Couple’s Relationship after the Death of a Child.”

[vi] Joronen, Kaunonen, and Aho, “Parental Relationship Satisfaction after the Death of a Child.”

[vii] Albuquerque, Pereira, and Narciso, “Couple’s Relationship after the Death of a Child.”

[viii] Albuquerque, Pereira, and Narciso.

[ix] Margaret Stroebe et al., “Partner-Oriented Self-Regulation among Bereaved Parents: The Costs of Holding in Grief for the Partner’s Sake,” Psychological Science 24, no. 4 (April 2013): 395–402, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612457383.

[x] Stroebe et al.

[xi] Albuquerque, Pereira, and Narciso, “Couple’s Relationship after the Death of a Child.”

[xii] Albuquerque, Pereira, and Narciso.

[xiii] Albuquerque, Pereira, and Narciso.

[xiv] Albuquerque, Pereira, and Narciso.

[xv] Albuquerque, Pereira, and Narciso.