Grief & Divorce
by Lynda Cheldelin
Many couples divorce after losing a child," offered one well-meaning friend after another in the months following Aly's accident. I can't help but wonder why people feel compelled to share this with newly grieving parents. Meant to be comforting, it is anything but. Yet hear it, we do. And repeatedly.
So why is it that two people who love each other until-death-do-us-part might find themselves, in the aftermath of a tragedy, in divorce court?
In the immediate days and months after losing a child, both parents are in "the fog" of shock. They cling to each other as terror fills their days and nights like a never ending nightmare. The only way to cope with the fog of grief is through autopilot. Our brain no longer functions, but our body continues to instinctively go through the daily motions of making dinner, doing laundry, washing dishes. We have “to go on" for the sake of the family. Although our body seems to automatically manage everyday tasks, our heart and spirit are in the Intensive Care Unit. Our lungs keep breathing, our muscles keep working, but our mind and spirit are frozen in shock.
In the early days of the aftermath, family, friends, and neighbors help care for the bereaved. But, as those of us grieving know all too well, intense pain lasts long after the meals stop coming. Furthermore, whether physical or emotional, intense pain is incredibly distracting, consuming, and exhausting. Our entire focus remains on getting through the worst until the next wave hits. Now imagine living like this day in and day out for months and months. Just getting through the day is exhausting, leaving very little reserves for anything else, including our marriage.
Add to this the biological fact that men and women are just wired different. As young girls, women learn from older female relatives to talk, share, and discuss. In contrast, boys are often taught to hold feelings in, to "toughen up.” So the coping mechanisms we use during great hardship are vastly different. Grieving mothers often seek comfort under the wings of other communicatively nurturing females. Grieving men tend to shut down, preferring instead to find comfort in solitary activities such as working alone in the garage or spending longer hours at work.
These conflicting styles can cause a couple to separate from what started out as parallel paths, sometimes leading to a complete and permanent disconnect. And when grief shatters both of us into unrecognizable versions of our former selves, it can be a challenge to find mutually familiar ground again, if ever.
But grieving parents can find satisfaction, even happiness, in a marriage given time and the right tools. Consider resisting the urge to share baseless divorce statistics and, instead, support the parents as they walk the journey as husband and wife, and encourage them to hang tightly to one another as they ride the waves of pain together. Mark Twain once said, "Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable." In the face of tragedy, ignore public perception and allow patience, compassion, and tenderness to fill your marriage until solid footing once again takes hold.