Thursday, April 21, 2016

Does grief always end in divorce?

"Many couples divorce after losing a child," offered one well-meaning friend after another in the months following our daughter's death in a car 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?  Is it possible for a marriage to survive such devastation? If so, how?

In the immediate days and months after losing a child, both parents are in "the fog." They cling to each other as shock fills their days, and terror fills their nights like a never ending nightmare. The only way to cope with the fog is by relying upon autopilot: our brain is frozen in shock and horror, 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 is busy managing everyday tasks, our heart and spirit are in the intensive care unit of Grief United General. Physically, our body keeps functioning. But the simple truth is that on the inside, we're hanging by a thread. And some are very close to needing life support.

In the early days of a loss, 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. Further, whether physical or emotional, intense pain is all-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 solitary comfort in the garage or escaping in long hours at work. 

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. 

These conflicting styles can cause a couple to separate from what started out as parallel paths, sometimes leading to a complete and permanent disconnect. 

But grieving parents can find satisfaction, even happiness, in a marriage given time and the right tools. My husband and I are living proof. Since losing our daughter, and through my husband's disabling stroke, a neuropsychologist helped us piece our life back together, and our marriage is stronger than ever. 

I feel that if we can not only survive, but thrive, so can other couples. Is it easy? No. There is nothing easy about losing a child. But with hard work, dedication, and determination, the storm eventually calms down enough to allow the sun to break through.

Bill & Julie Downs
Consider Bill and Julie Downs, who lost their son Brad, their daughter-in-law Samantha, and their son's best friend Chris to a drunk/drugged driver in 2007. Bill and Julie lost not just one loved one, but three in a single moment. 

As many men do, Bill wanted to be strong for Julie. But, in trying to do so, he denied himself the right to process his own emotions until he snapped. One day out of the blue, he told Julie he didn't love her anymore. 

How did they find common ground to repair their once strong marriage? Where are they today? Check out this video of Julie sharing their story on YouTube. Julie's Story

Next week we'll interview Bill to hear his side of the journey. 

Once upon a time, it was public perception that a high rate of marriages crumble in the aftermath of losing a child. But this is simply not true. 

Marriage can not only survive in the wake of losing a child, it can thrive. True story.

So next time someone shares baseless divorce statistics with you, ignore the well-meaning comment. Walk the journey together as husband and wife, seek support for you both, and hang tightly to one another as you 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.

Bill & Julie Downs are founders of AVIDD, and co-authors of Grief Diaries: Loss at the Hands of an Impaired Driver, coming out May 30, 2016.

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