A prevailing myth in our society says that during times of extreme crisis, many (if not most) marriages falter and fail. Certainly it was something we were told time and time again when we faced our own tragedies. Grief counsellors and social workers cautioned us about this danger after the stillbirths of both our sons Noah and Simon, and even the birth of our beautiful daughter Rebecca, who has Down Syndrome. In all three cases, we were told that 75% couples in our situation divorce within the next few years.
At first we accepted this information without question. Certainly we were under heavy strain at these times, and we knew we needed to work extra hard to protect our marriage through it. But through these experiences we discovered just the opposite: times of great pain and stress can actually strengthen, rather than destroy, your relationship.
It’s a phenomenon known as crisis intimacy, and – contrary to what we were told by so many well meaning people – it is actually an experience shared by many couples. In fact, far from the 75% divorce rate that we were warned about, recent studies have shown that the divorce rate after the death of a child is in the 7-11% range. The numbers are similar for other traumatic events.
That’s not to say it’s easy by any means. When tragedy strikes it’s not a fun or happy time, and we wouldn’t choose to go through it again. But we now share a bond that can only be forged through tears and trials, and we wouldn’t trade that for anything.
Is your “happily ever after” at risk? We want to encourage you that, whatever the nature of your loss or stress, it can make and not break your relationship – if you’ll allow it to. Here are some of the things that we have learned in our journey.
- She said: I come from a background that didn’t always place a huge value on the grieving process. So when my first son was stillborn, I was caught off-guard not only by the depth of my pain, but by the length of the process. Grief is a long journey. Don’t put a timeline on it or expect it to be over quickly.Remember too that grief is a very normal part of life. Everyone goes through it at one time or another, but everyone handles it differently. There is no use comparing yourself to others or creating a hierarchy of pain (“my loss is bigger than yours”). Just give yourself the freedom to take as much time as you need to work through your feelings.
- He said: I think it’s also important to be patient in your approach to decision making when you are facing crisis. Traumatic events can cause sudden shifts in your moods, perspectives and priorities, and that’s not a good time to be making major life decisions. I remember after we lost Noah, Christie suddenly just had to learn to dance and to play the guitar – two things she’d never shown any interest in before. She took up both hobbies, but as the grief faded and life returned to normal, those interests faded (we recently sold the guitar). That’s a silly example, but it shows how quickly our feelings can change during those tough times. If one of us had had a sudden urge to quit our job, or move to a new city, or purchase something far beyond our means, it likely would have been something we’d have regretted when things settled down. It’s best to save those types of decisions for later, when you can evaluate them more objectively.
Allow for differences in coping styles
- She said: Everybody grieves differently. Some people try hard not to think about it, and others can think of nothing but. Some hold their emotions inside, while others need to talk…and talk…and talk. Some throw themselves into other activities to distract themselves, and others have a hard time just getting out of bed.One thing I had to learn was that, just because Glen was handling his grief in a different way did not mean he wasn’t grieving. There were days when I felt very alone in my feelings, because it didn’t seem like he was feeling it as deeply as me. I came to understand that it wasn’t that he didn’t care; he was just responding in a different way. It’s not right or wrong. So give your spouse room to do what they need to do to get through it.
- He said: I definitely had to learn to be patient with the amount of time Christie needed for the grieving process. I was surprised by the intensity of emotion that she still felt months, even years after the events. Even though I was still sad and disappointed by our losses, there were times when I wondered why she couldn’t just get over it already. But it’s not that easy.Also, not only do people grieve differently from one another, but we’ve found that the same person can grieve very differently at different times. When our first son was stillborn, we had no other kids, which gave us the luxury of crashing for extended periods of time. We could both be down at the same time, and that was okay. But when we lost our second son, we had two young daughters with us. Christie crashed again, understandably, but I responded differently. I felt that my role was to give more effort to the kids, since Christie wasn’t able to. So I sort of threw myself into that and spent less time on the emotional stuff. I think that contributed to Christie’s feelings of being alone in her grief.
- He said: I never knew I could be so needy. As men we like to solve things, and we want to be able to stand on our own two feet. There’s definitely pride issues – we don’t people to think we can’t handle it. But as we’ve faced these trials over the past 7 years, we’ve needed people so badly. The first stillbirth occurred the week we were supposed to move into our new home. All of our belongings were packed and moved, and both houses cleaned from top to bottom, by supportive friends and family. We couldn’t have made it through without them.
- She said: Crisis definitely helps you learn to lean on other people. I was used to leaning on Glen, but when something impacts you both so deeply, you can’t be one another’s entire support system. Sometimes you just don’t have it in you to be the support your spouse needs.It is hard to be “the needy one,” but friends really do want to help. When you see someone you love hurting deeply, you feel kind of helpless. It actually makes them feel better to be able to do something to make things a little easier on you. But you do need to be willing to be vulnerable enough to share what you need. That can be hard to do, but people can’t read your mind. Tell them what you need, and be specific about it.I’d also encourage you to get professional help if necessary. There is no shame on it. In fact, 80% of people do get counselling after this kind of trauma, and I think that has something to do with the lower-than-expected divorce rates. There may even be a time when medication can be helpful in getting you over the hump, into the next stage of your journey. I never thought of myself as someone who would ever need to see a professional counsellor, but it sure helped me work through my emotions.
Have fun together
- She said: When you’re in the middle of difficulty, it can seem frivolous to do something fun. But it’s crucial to your relationship and health. It is easy to become consumed by sadness to the point where it seems like nothing else matters. I’m a big believer in being honest about where you’re at and allowing yourself to feel it deeply. But you don’t want to let this event define you. It’s important to keep looking for the good in life. You don’t want to get stuck in depression forever.
- He said: About a month after we lost Noah, we went out with some friends. We actually had a great time, really laughing for the first time since everything had happened. When we got in the car I said, “Well, that was fun!” and Christie promptly burst into tears. In fact, she did have fun, but now she was feeling like she had somehow betrayed Noah by having a good night. How could we laugh so soon after he died?As we talked through it, we realized that nights like this were good for us. If you are coping with the loss of a loved one, realize that having happy times does not devalue them or minimize their loss. In fact, if they were here they would be glad that you had a good night. Having fun as a couple strengthens your bond and helps you face the hard days as a team.
Choose to love
- She said: Nobody’s perfect. No matter how hard you try to support one another, there will be times when your husband or wife will say or do something that causes you pain instead of making things easier. This is especially true when you’re at your most vulnerable.When it happens, assume the best about your spouse. Interpret their words and actions in the best possible light, and assume their hurtful actions are unintentional. Don’t allow your pain over the situation you are facing to create a barrier between you. Forgive quickly and remember that your spouse is hurting too.
- He said: You have to keep putting love into action whether the feelings are there or not. Even when you don’t have energy, make yourself do something everyday to make your wife or husband feel loved and cherished. Write it on your to do list if necessary, but do it. Don’t just put it off until you feel better, because you still want to have a good marriage when that day comes. If you neglect it in the meantime, you’ll be in trouble.
Turn to God
- He said: I probably actually felt closer to God in the aftermath of our crises than I normally did. It caused me to pray more, search the Bible for answers, and read good books. Truth comforts me. I found solace in theological arguments about why God allows bad things to happen. That really didn’t help Christie at all, but it’s what I needed at the time. It helped me to believe that God did have a plan that would be turned for good in the long run.Praying together as a couple also helped. It was a good reminder that we were in this together, and God was with us to.
- She said: Theology was no comfort to me. But I spent a lot of time in the book of Job, seeing how he handled his disappointment and confusion. What I learned is that God can handle our emotions, no matter how raw they may be. I took long walks where I just unloaded to God, even shouting at times. I empathized with Habakkuk when He asked, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Hab. 1:2); and with David, who wrote, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? Look on me and answer, O Lord my God” (Ps. 13:1-3).Be honest with God. Lean on Him. He is close to the broken hearted. Don’t feel like you have to understand why this trial has come. There are some things that we won’t ever understand this side of Heaven. But press into God, and He will carry you through.
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