Today is the first day of school and it should be my daughter’s first day in third grade. Instead she is dead. Today many of my Facebook friends are posting pictures of their children starting school. But for my wife and me, there are no pictures, no smiles — just a deep, lingering ache that affects every part of our lives.
Those words were entered in the private journal of a father whose daughter had died a few months earlier, the result of an auto accident. Often described as the “worst loss,” the death of a child can strain even the healthiest and most robust of marriages. While some couples do end up separating and divorcing, many remain united. Those couples learn how to manage loss, deal with grief, rise to the various challenges and not only remain together but grow a stronger relationship after their child’s death.
Here are suggestions which priests and other spiritual leaders can offer to help couples can navigate their way through the death of a child.
• Don’t believe the divorce statistics. Over the last few decades some writers of bereavement books have stated that the divorce rate after the death of a child is 80 percent or more. Don’t believe that dismal statistic; it does not come close to the reality.
The Compassionate Friends, a worldwide organization supporting families who have lost a child, recently commissioned two major studies in order to investigate parental grief and divorce. Their research revealed a much more optimistic picture, that the divorce rate among couples who lose a child is 16 percent, far less than America’s national divorce rate of 50.5 percent. Furthermore, among grieving parents who did divorce, only 40.8 percent felt that the impact of their child’s death had contributed to the divorce.
As you deal with the loss of your child begin with a sense of hope and optimism.
• Accept one another’s emotions. Anytime we experience the death of someone we love, a variety of emotions erupt. Don’t run from them. Don’t hide them. Do expect them. Rabbi Earl Grollman, a grief authority says:
Death hurts. It’s so difficult to say goodbye — to realize that in your lifetime you will never see or touch your loved one again. Why pretend that you are not experiencing terrible inner turmoil? Your emotions are a natural response to the death of a loved one.
Among the range of emotions you and your partner may experience are: shock, sadness, guilt, regret, anger, frustration, resentment. Feel them, talk about them and be assured that the intensity of those feelings will ease up. In the meantime, be patient with yourself and with each other. Live out the instructions of St. Paul who wrote: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity” (Eph 4:2).
• Commit to getting through grief together. Marriage, in general, requires an abundance of love, understanding, effort and teamwork. When a couple experience the death of a child, the same qualities must be utilized: love for one another, mutual understanding, effort at working through grief and, perhaps most important, teamwork. Commit yourselves to getting through the crisis of your child’s death together.
Verbalize it by periodically reminding each other, “We’re going to do this together and find our way through it.” After the death of their son, one woman says it was important in her relationship with her husband that they told each other, “This is going to be hard, but I am committed to staying with you.”
Shortly after their son’s death, she says, “we made a decision that we were going to continue to be married and that we were going to have to work at it for the sake of our other two children. I can remember us making a vow to each other that the death of our son would not tear us apart. We held on tight and decided that we can’t let this destroy us.”
• Support each other. Some couples who experience a tragedy turn on each other; other couples turn to each other. “Shared suffering can draw a couple together,” says Harold Ivan Smith, a noted grief authority. He cites the example of President John Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. “On August 9, 1963, two-day old Patrick Bouvier Kennedy died. The nation’s heart went out to the grieving First Family.
Although he was president, John F. Kennedy rearranged his schedule to spend 23 days in isolation with Jackie, Caroline and John. Aides and friends witnessed a new closeness between the couple. . . Patrick’s death brought them together.”
• Learn about grief together. Healing from grief can be greatly facilitated by understanding what it is and how it can be managed. Become students of grief as a couple. Read books and magazine articles. Register for bereavement workshops. Attend lectures on grief recovery. Watch programs about loss. Then, discuss together what you are learning, what is helping you, what inspires you and brings you hope.
The knowledge you gain will give you power over the impact of grief.
• Rally the troops. “In times of crisis, silence is not golden,” says Rabbi Grollman. Reach out for support from extended family, friends, colleagues, neighbors. Seek out helpers and comforters, people with whom you can freely share your feelings without being corrected or scolded. Rabbi Grollman says, “We all need the support of others, particularly when we have been devastated by an agonizing loss. A good friend can be a lifeline, someone you can talk to honestly, someone who will not judge you but accept you as you are.”
• Participate in a support group. While the majority of people who grieve do not need to see a professional counselor or therapist, most do benefit greatly by participating in a grief support group. After Jacqueline’s son died from cancer, she and her partner joined a local chapter of The Compassionate Friends. “The group was a lifeline for both of us,” she says. “From our first meeting we instantly felt understood because everyone else there had been through a similar loss. We also gained not only practical information about dealing with loss, but also inspiration from seeing others who had successfully coped with and survived the devastating loss of a child. Our support group made all the difference in the world.”
• Be a grateful griever. Of course, when a child dies it’s challenging to find ways of expressing gratitude. Yet, the Bible does say to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thes 5:18) Here’s an inspiring example on one who applied this biblical principle. In the 19th century, Archibald Campbell Tait (1811-1882) was an Archbishop of Canterbury. Between March 11 and April 18, 1856, Rev. Tait and his wife lost five of their six daughters to an epidemic of scarlet fever.
After burying the last sick child, Rev. Tait penned this prayer:
O God, you have dealt very mysteriously with us. We have been passing through deep waters. . . .they (the children) are gone from us. Yet . . . I thank you not only for the children you have left to us, but those you have reclaimed. I thank you for the blessing of the last 10 years, and for all the sweet memories of these lives. . . . O, Lord, comfort our hearts.
• Stay connected. Though you may have different grieving styles, be sure that you nurture your connection as a couple. Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair, authors of I Wasn’t Ready To Say Goodbye, offer this wisdom for couples:
Make time to spend with each other. Don’t shut each other out or you will be strangers when you get to the other side of grief. Schedule at least 30 minutes a day to sit together. Try and talk to each other about your feelings and the challenges of the day. If talking is too difficult right now, just hold hands or hold each other.
This kind of daily connection, whether physical or verbal, allows each partner know that the relationship is important and that both of you continue to desire a close connection.
• Remain hopeful. No matter how drained you feel, no matter how little progress you may be experiencing, remain hopeful that the steps you are taking and the work you are doing will eventually bring you to a better place. “Bear in mind that the pain of grief is usually worst right before we make progress in our grief work,” says Dr. Bill Flatt, a marriage counselor and author of Growing Through Grief.
As the old saying goes, ‘It’s always darkest just before the dawn.’
So, if you find yourself in a particularly dark time right now, perhaps it means that some real progress is just around the corner. Keep looking for that light! The future is bright in spite of the present gloom: hang on to that truth.
As you and your partner make the journey through grief, continue reminding yourselves that the pain of grief will ease and end. Let this wisdom from Rabbi Harold Kushner bring you inspiration to keep moving forward:
We can endure much more than we think we can; all human experience testifies to that. All we need to do is learn not to be afraid of pain. Grit your teeth and let it hurt. Don’t deny it, don’t be overwhelmed by it. It will not last forever. One day, the pain will be gone, and you will still be there.
REV. PARACHIN writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
|Four Ways to Help Parents Who Are Grieving
Be an effective helper by adhering to these four simple ways of supporting a parent in grief:
1. Listen, listen, listen. Parents in grief need to tell and re-tell the story of their loss. With each telling a layer of pain is removed. It’s much like the peeling of an onion, layer by layer. Say very little yourself but allow the parents to do most of the talking.
2. Avoid cliches and trite responses. Too often grieving parents hear insensitive comments such as, “Your child is in a better place.” or “You can have other children.” or “You need to get over this.” Such comments are hurtful, not helpful. Instead, respond to grief with supportive statements such as “I’m sorry.” or “I care about you.” or “I want to be helpful.”
3. Be patient. Grief takes time, longer than most people assume. Don’t rush a grieving parent through grief. It ends when it ends.
4. Keep checking in. Be there for the long haul. The majority of people drop away shortly after the funeral. Yet, the weeks and months following are when a grieving parent is in most need of a supportive friend.