Monday, July 22, 2013

How Mothers and Fathers Survive Grief Together, and Apart

“He wondered why I wasn’t feeling better; I wondered why he wasn’t feeling worse.” —Sylvia

Your baby’s death may be the most serious, destabilizing crisis you and your spouse have ever faced. You’ve been tested, your relationship drawn closer, or dismantled. How you communicated with one another prior to the event may have a lot to do with how you endure this trauma. While your friends and family will most likely move on—quickly—and expect you to do likewise, the two of you may feel continuously lost, broken and upended, unable to heal and unable to converse with one another about your baby and your stalled healing. It may feel as though you’re floundering solo, individually grieving on your own, solitary islands, unable to connect, encourage or sympathize. Isolating yourselves from one another becomes the norm.

Often, immediately following the event, you’re drawn closer and grieve productively together. One may be supportive while the other spirals out of control. Then the roles can switch: when one’s up, the other’s down. When a mother withdraws from life and activities, her husband may gently encourage her, or even insist, that she get out, go see a movie, meet with a friend for tea, resume a dance class, or start something new she’s always wanted to do. Notice I said gently encourage or insist, not angrily demand that she engage in activities. It’s tempting to make impatient, high-handed, I-know-what’s-right-for-you-even-if-you-don’t, patronizing demands when you’re ready to move on, have cried yourself dry and don’t see any point in languishing in grief any longer. You want to move, and you expect everyone else—including your spouse—to just get over it and get on with it. (Remember that this event isn’t just all about you.) But one woman, Cecelia, expressed gratefulness when her husband dragged her to a choir rehearsal, even though she begged him not to make her go in. He encouraged her, and she found the two-year involvement therapeutic.

Long after the friends have stopped dropping by to just sit and listen, or calling to see how you’re doing, and the father has returned to work and daily routine, the mother will likely be in continued mourning. She wonders why her husband isn’t supportive; he wonders why she keeps dragging this out, making her life, and his, miserable. If you don’t understand that incongruent grief is common, this will add a burden and toll to your relationship and healing.
            “Deep fears usually lie at the root of this conflict. A bereaved father can
            become convinced that something is seriously wrong with his continually
            grieving wife. She then feels betrayed by the one person she had relied on
            to understand her, comfort her, and share in the loss.”1

Women, try to put yourself in the father’s shoes; men, try to put yourselves in the mother’s shoes. Ask yourself what they might be feeling under these circumstances. Give them the benefit of the doubt, no matter how mad, angry, tired, or confused you, or they, are. And a big one: Ask God to reveal your partner’s heart to you and reveal to you how you can better understand and help them. How you can really love them through their grief, like God loves us, unconditionally, through our self-absorption, crankiness, stubbornness, pain, shortsightedness, ignorance, anger, confusion, disillusionment and stupidity. Often love is not so much a feeling as it is an action. Take that action! Concentrate on nurturing one another.

Displaying Anger~
Some partners can handle angry outbursts of the other person quite well, without taking the eruption personally. Others cannot. They feel guilty, blamed, attacked, walloped, weak and impotent. This is what happened in our case: Chris took my outbursts as direct personal attacks, internalizing all of my spoken or silent communication, assuming I laid blame for Victoria’s death and my pain on him. Since he had effectively shut down his communication about the loss, my actions and words—from my hindsight perspective—were really cries for attention and reaffirmation of his love for me. His avoidance led me to display my anger in other ways, in other areas, and previously mundane issues became problematic. For over a year, it didn’t go well for us. I didn’t ‘get’ him; he didn’t ‘get’ me, and we groped around endlessly in emotional darkness.

Discussing the Loss~
Sometimes—actually, often—men think women don’t want to talk about the loss because talking about it will only keep the pain on the surface. So they avoid the subject. Unfortunately, this avoidance tactic can backfire, because his wife may really need and want to talk about the baby, about all of the new mothers and babies she’s encountering, about the careless comments people make to her. This is how Hilary described how her need to talk and her husband’s need to remain silent about the death of their twins affected them:

            “In the beginning we talked about the babies, the grief, and when to try
            to get pregnant again. But then Bennett said, ‘I want to talk about the loss
            but not all the time.’ I said, ‘If I can’t talk to you, who can I talk to?’ We
            both understood each other but couldn’t help each other.”2

If your partner cannot, or won’t talk about it, find someone or a support group willing to listen, and, (may I be blunt), stop resenting the other person for not grieving the way you are. (Outright insensitivity or negligent, unloving, abusive behavior is another topic.) Dwelling on their shortcomings will only cause resentment to build; and resentment eventually leads to total lack of empathy, anger, misunderstandings, feeling misunderstood, and emotional distancing, all of which can result in the fracturing, or dissolution, of your marriage. You are prone to becoming so entrenched and self-absorbed in your own pain and “justified” feelings that you’re only able to view the other person’s attitude and approach, and everything about them, as “wrong.”

If you do feel you’re pulling away from one another, understand that the feeling of disunion is most often due to fear and hurt, not lack of love for one another or love for your baby.

While in the state of Iowa this past week for my aunt’s memorial/family reunion, I read a story in the local newspaper, The Courier, about a couple, Heather and Drew Collins, who were recognizing the one year anniversary of their eight-year old daughter’s abduction and murder. I found some of their thoughts and words helpful for any parent who has lost a child:

            “…When you are sitting idle, aren’t keeping yourself busy, that’s when
            the monsters come. You have too much time to think,” Drew Collins said.

The article pointed out that the couple also remains focused on nurturing their family because of the toll such tragedies like theirs take on marriages. “The divorce rate is 98 percent, they say,” [Heather] Collins said. She reported that their marriage is still strong. “We also respect each other’s way of how we grieve,” she said. “I understand he grieves differently, and I’m OK with that.”

Her wisdom is solid: Respect. We grieve differently. And we need to be OK with that.

NEXT WEEK: Your grief and sexuality. What about another baby?

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!



1 A Silent Sorrow: Pregnancy Loss; Kohn and Moffitt (Dell Publishing, 1992), page 50

2 Ibid; page 52