Can Marriage Survive When Your Child Dies Under Your Watch?
Loss will stretch you but divorce is not inevitable.
Posted Jun 22, 2017
I was heartbroken to hear that a 10-year-old boy was killed by Tropical Storm Cindy.
Of course, any loss of life is tragic, but the way this happened was also traumatic.
The boy's father witnessed the entire scene and had just moments earlier tried to get the boy to come inside before the large wave pushing a log came crashing down on his son's head.
This dad then attempted to revive his son, but to no avail. The boy could not be brought back to life.
When a child is injured or killed under the care of one of the parents, the reflex to assign blame is strong. The supervising parent blames themselves—"Why wasn't I watching more closely?" "How could I not have seen this?", "Why didn't I do more to try to save my baby?"
The other parent—feeling utterly impotent—might ask these same questions of the supervising parent with an even more accusatory tone. Rage is common. Grief, pervasive. And there is a heaviness that comes with the knowledge that life will never, ever be the same.
I know because I experienced this—albeit with a pet, not a child. One morning in 2010, I was out on the daily bike ride with my dogs along our neighborhood walking path. My husband was in the hospital awaiting surgery to see if he had indeed had a second heart attack.
There were only two places where we had to cross the road that day. We were at the second crossing. I sat next to the curb with Yogi and Bijoux and waited for the grey Honda to pass. One minute, I looked down and they were sniffing the grass; the next, I heard some of the most horrific noises I've ever heard in my life.
I looked to my right and saw that not only one, but both of my dogs had just been run over by this car I had just watched pass by.
I didn't know how this happened. They were just right there next to me! They must have darted out after a cat or squirrel. She wasn't going too fast but it they must've run right in front of her car. The perfect confluence of events.
Both dogs managed to get to their feet and I picked up Bijoux who only weighed about 25 pounds. She moaned briefly and then flopped over in my arms. "Of course she passed out," I thought, "a car just mowed her over!"
I didn't know it at the time but she had died. In my arms. My baby (I wasn't able to have children so the dogs were my substitute) was killed by a car and it was my fault. I should have been paying attention. I should have had them on leash. I should have tried CPR on her. The shoulds go on forever. They still haunt me today at times.
Although Yogi survived (and came away relatively unscathed physically), we never saw him wag his tail again. His grief was palpable until the day he died in 2015.
Although my marriage survived, our relationship was never the same. Early on, angry words were exchanged as well as some pretty loathsome emotions. Bijoux's absence cut us like a knife every day for what seemed like an eternity.
All normal reactions to what happened.
When I think of the poor parents of this ten-year-old boy and what they will have to endure, I ache deeply for them. This is one of those losses that nothing can ever make right. The passing of time will help the pain fade but there's just no way around the fact that they are in for some really tough times.
If you've never experienced something like this, you can't begin to know this level of grief.
Is Divorce Inevitable?
In a word, no.
In 2012, the Center for Disease Control reported that a child dies from an unintentional injury every hour in this country.
The Compassionate Friends, an organization that supports bereaved parents, conducted a study in 2006 showing that the divorce rate among couples that suffered the loss of a child is about 16%.
Whether a coupleship survives depends on several factors:
1. How strong the relationship was prior to the loss; 2. The cause and circumstances surrounding the loss; 3. Coping skills each person had prior to the loss; 4. How much support the couple gets.
Obviously, if the relationship was weak prior to the tragedy, the loss could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. One or both partners may have been looking for a reason to leave and this paves the way to exit.
If the non-supervising parent feels the supervising parent had been irresponsible, the ability to forgive will be much more challenging than if it's clear that the cause of the death was truly beyond anyone's control.
Those who have the ability to process difficult emotions or circumstances are more likely to get on the other side of them. These skills can be taught, so even if parents didn't have good coping skills prior to the loss, they can learn them. However, the choice to numb out or self-destruct is always there whether you have the skills or not.
Getting the right support (and enough support) can be crucial in determining whether the path toweling the grief goes up and out (healthy) or down and in (unhealthy).
I'm a huge fan of support groups as a way to stop the sense of isolation that comes from feeling like no one understands the intense emotions you have while you're coming to terms with the loss. No one understands your exact pain, but others have had intense pain too and it helps to hear that you're not alone.
Writing is a no-cost, ever-available tool that has a powerful impact because it literally moves the emotion through the brain. James Pennebaker, author of Writing to Heal, outlines the recently discovered neuroscience behind why writing works so well. In short, writing helps move the activity our of the primitive brain (amygdala), into the higher functioning brain (the prefrontal cortex). If emotion gets stuck in the amygdala, we stay in fight, flight or freeze thinking, and that's not a healthy place to live from for an extended length of time.
Talking to a therapist, clergy person, rabbi or spiritual leader can facilitate processing the emotions. These professionals can provide guidance and teach skills specifically designed to process the grief.
The Only Way Out is Through
The bad news is that you have to deal with what life throws your way. That means feeling the feelings you don't want to feel and dealing with crappy things sometimes.
The good news is that there is another side to the ordeal and getting through the difficulty can actually enrich your life.
1. Get help and support; 2. Keep a journal and write out all your heavy emotions; 3. Read inspirational literature; 4.Expect to feel emotions at levels you may never have felt before (intense anger and sadness in particular); 5. Expect the grief to take much longer than you think it will or should; 6. Surround yourself with people who won't judge you. Grief takes a long time and well-meaning people who say, "Aren't you over your grief yet?" are not going to help you.
My husband and I had a strong relationship prior to the accident but Bijoux's tragic death certainly tested it. We both had some solid coping skills in place which helped and we got the support we needed from professionals and from our community.
The pain does fade, but it can reappear in an instant if one of us is feeling especially vulnerable or during challenging times. As you can imagine, when we had to put Yogi down, our sadness about losing Bijoux was right on the surface.
Our marriage lost an innocence on August 2, 2010, but it also acquired a depth that comes with enduring hardship. If I could choose the hand I was dealt, I'd take Bijoux back in an instant. But, I don't get to choose.