Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 01/11/2012

20 Questions: Can your marriage survive your child’s death?

griefWhy so many marriages fail after the loss of a child…

  • Communication breakdowns.
  • Differences in how to grieve.
  • Turning to alcohol and drugs or other people as a primary source of comfort.

Typically, in the aftermath of a child’s death, one partner may be floundering while the other thinks that working on a marriage is just too much to take on. But the question remains: Is your marriage strong enough to weather the most unimaginable stress of all?

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, but even the best marriages crumble under a stress the magnitude of losing a child. This abyss is deeper than bankruptcy, more wounding than marital betrayal, more demoralizing than a lost job. Losing a child is harder than losing a partner to incarceration or even to death. Bereaved parents hold the highest divorce rate on record. So how can you best protect your own marriage or relationship?

Shaky marriages may be shaky because they have weathered storms that the best marriages have never faced, so there is no predictor which marriages will survive the loss of a child and which will crumble. Communication is critical, and it is hard to manage when you may be feeling too exhausted for deep discussions or threatening disclosures of “real thoughts”. Still, when you can be truly heard without judgement or dismissal, you have the best chance to build or keep the strongest union.

Self-Quiz: How do you really feel about the hard issues?

There are clear subject areas where communication tends to break down following the loss of a child. Couples may have differing expectations or desires, and areas in which they may express or feel grief differently. The following questions are intended to help a grieving parent flesh out  sensitivities. Taking this quick self-evaluation independent of your partner’s influence, and then being truthful and non-judgmental in any discussion of their feelings in turn, is one way to facilitate a discussion. Warning: a few parenting questions are especially painful to consider and some may be insensitive to your particular situation; for that reason, I have listed them last and flagged them in red.

True or False?

  1. I don’t have the energy or interest in evaluating our marriage in any real depth at present.
  2. Comparing myself to my partner, I am (quicker) or (slower) to anger now? [Choose best answer]
  3. Comparing myself to my partner, I am (more expressive) or (less expressive) of sorrow right now? [Choose best answer]
  4. I feel some blame, even if the world judges me blameless, for my child’s death.
  5. I have financial concerns that I am hesitant to raise in the aftermath of our child’s death.
  6. I agree with the decisions made for dealing with our child’s belongings.
  7. I want to talk about our child (more) or (less) often than we do. [Choose best answer]
  8. It is easiest for me to grieve (with) or (without) my partner present at this time. [Choose best answer]
  9. I would like to consult an outside, independent counselor for individual or couples grief support.
  10. I prefer to keep my thoughts private at this time; no counseling; it’s still too fresh for me.
  11. I privately hold someone to blame for my child’s death, whether or not I have addressed those feelings aloud or publicly.
  12.  The person I feel most comfortable talking to right now is _________________ because ____________________.
  13. Any difficulties in our marriage that I acknowledge today existed before our child’s death.
  14. I feel a need for (more) (less) (status quo)  involvement with religion right now. [Choose best answer]
  15. My way of coping with pain right now involves self-medication (drugs or alcohol) or prescription or over-the-counter drugs.
  16. I have faith that our marriage will still be intact a year if we continue on the path we’ve set together now.
  17. I would rate our marriage a ___ on a 10-point scale right now, with 1 being the weakest and 10 being the strongest.
  18. I would eventually like to have more children, if possible. 
  19. I feel a need to be more protective with regard to our surviving children.
  20. I feel somewhat distant or removed from parenting at the moment, as if I am just going through the motions right now.

If you feel your marriage is in trouble….

You have a few options. One is to focus on the marriage and actively work on it with a partner who is also actively working on it. If that isn’t an option, hopefully you do have the option of working on your own issues and giving your partner space to grieve in their own way. Try not to make important decisions the first year because everything will be magnified as you make your way through the first milestones, or the second or even third years. There is no timetable for healing or coping, and this is the most significant grief work you will ever do.

There is no playbook for grief or a “right way” or “wrong way” to do it (though some ways are healthier and less self-destructive than others). My best advice is to be kind to one another, and patient, and present. My second best advice is to seek professional grief counseling, individually or as a couple, because it’s kind of like going to the dentist; you can prevent a lot of cavities with preventive visits for checkups.

I hope you find a little help here. Thanks for stopping by the watering hole and please, share your comments, stories about your children, or suggest topics you’d like me to consider writing about. This is, after all, your site. 



  1. We lost our 16 year old son to brain cancer 4 years ago. He fought for 3.5 years. He has one sibling, a brother who will soon graduate high school, and we will be empty nesters on top of being grieving parents. Depression has set in for my husband, and I fight up out of it, but with him so down, I can’t hold on to what progress I make to feel better. It’s a pretty unhappy place to be right now.

    • Wow. That was me two years ago. Now I remember why this site would be coming back to me. Now there is no husband at all, except that I keep seeing him walking with someone else from time to time. This year is six years since John McKay left, and since I am alone, the pain is becoming unbearable. We’re smothered in snow where I am as of yesterday, and right now that’s making it hard to breathe kind of. My other son did graduate high school and has been serving an LDS mission in CA. He’s doing well and seems quite happy. I don’t know how this week will affect him, and I can’t contact him except our weekly emails. I’m glad he has this work to focus on. It seems to help him immensely. I have a dog, named Charlie now, so I’ll be trying to find places where he can relieve himself that’s not complete piles of snow. I might just have to eat out, though I’ve already put on more weight than I want. I binge on sweet treats at night while I watch some show on Netflix. My belly grows and grows. I feel trapped and quite unhappy. Therapist today, though I will be saying good bye to her after 18 years of working together. Another good bye.

      • reading your post , is me at the moment, I lost my daughter to brain cancer, she only lived 11 months , in my heart it was longer , but its been a year since I lost her , I buried all my feelings for my husband the day I paid my daughter to rest. I truly sympathize with you , im here if you ever want to chat .

  2. i lost my son 2 years ago, and still can’t accept or say the words. My x-husband buried him without myself, his brother or sister. I believe it was quilt for never being around. I didn’t have the emotional strength to fight him with how my son was buried, although I consulted an attorney. I have another son, daughter, and remarried several years before he died, but my life isn’t the same. Things that matter once, don’t matter anymore. I don’f find joy in anything, although I try to pretend I’m ok, when inside I just want to die. I still haven’t been able to visit where my x-husband buried my son, because every time I think I going, I have panic attacks, afraid I will never survive. My daughter is having problems in her marriage, and I’m trying hard to help her and my grandchildren, but inside I feel it would be much better if I wasn’t here. My x-husband would be happy, because the AF wont pay a percentage of his retirement to me. In fact, I can almost see him beyond joy, if I was gone. I don’t really know how my husband would feel, although I know it would hurt both my daughter and son tremendously. How could I have loved so much, and tried so hard, to now wish I could just go to sleep and not wake up?

    • Dear Hope, I know this post was left over a year ago but you sound so down so I hope you read this. How are you faring? I lost a child to miscarriage but have never been in your situation and can’t imagine the pain but I have felt like going to sleep and not waking up. Please find a counselor to talk to. It does help and things can get better. It wouldn’t be better for anyone for you not to be around, least of all you.

  3. I took your quiz but no way to grade it!

    • Bob, this is correct. It’s a quiz without a grade as every relationship is different; if you got a 90% “great marriage” score, for example, you still could be in divorce court next week because your marriage couldn’t survive a 10% disconnect following the death of a child. Too much stress. Another couple could have a 50% “marriage in trouble” rating and weather it. The importance of the quiz is to raise questions to consider privately and also with your spouse, to help both of you can communicate and respect one another’s feelings. Even when love fails, as it sometimes does in the aftermath of a crisis when there isn’t enough emotional energy to fuel positivity, communication and respect can carry a marriage forward until the positive feelings have time to make it through the scar tissue.

  4. I have turned to drugs and my husband alcohol. We grieved separator I music have shut out all my family and feel no emotion as I fear ever ever feeling that pain those sounds that filled my body mind and soul ever again. Loving someone then losing them is to painful. And yes I’m aware that’s life. Rage has consumed me as I’m misunderstood and by people and there lack of compassion. I know time is wasted by closing myself off and that if something happens I will then go into another downward spiral because I did not love them or show appreciation when u had the chance. We (my husband our only child age 22 and myself where closer than any family I had ever known or seen the three amigos ) my husband adopted our son and has been there since he was four. The best man husband and father ever. My best friend Now we can’t even hold a conversation without going into full argument. M resentful that everything I say or do hurts him and I can’t fix it. I lost all benefits after returning to work and was demoted barley have the means to survive let slone get counseling I had to give it up when my benifits where taken. He deserves so much more he has been patient and I have been unable to find s way to love or even like for that matter. I want to dissapesr do that I can’t be the cause of anger or pain or disappointment for those I love although my reality is that would not fix anything just make them worse. If I where not such s coward I would of taken a long walk off a short pier awhile ago. I’m also aware that drugs are an illusion and make things worse. But yet I can’t or do I want to stop. Maybe hoping that it will do the job for me it get the ones I live to leave willingly because they can no longer tolerate it. So there’s just a tiny bit off reality

  5. It has been said that “things can’t get any worse,” well, in my case, things have gotten worse. My only remaining son, home from his LDS mission, has chosen to estrange himself from me. He is attending college about an hour and a half north of where I live, and where his father lives. I don’t even know how to express what this is doing to me. My self worth is in the toilet, and I am resolved that I failed as a wife and mother. I’m seeing a good therapist, and she is helping in some degree. I often wish I could die.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: