In a marriage two people come together to form a unit called a family. In the formation of that family and in the relationship with one another they are still individuals and will react to stress in their own individual way. Their individual grief will also vary according to how they were raised, previous losses that they experienced, and how they related to the child who has died. That relationship may be quite different for each partner.

John Smith may have been raised to take things in stride and get on with life. He may have had a stormy relationship with his now deceased son Tim. Because of that background he may feel very guilty about the loss but he is unable or unwilling to talk about it. His reaction may be to work harder and attempt to forget. At the same time he tries to forget he may deny any pain and in fact bury the pain and himself in his work. Nevertheless there may be a mood change, where he becomes sullen and quiet to the dismay of his wife and friends.

On the other hand Nancy Smith has had many losses in her life and the death of her son is more than she can take at this moment. Tim was very special for her and she also believed that her husband was too harsh on Tim. While she does not blame John for the death she does feel that life for Tim would have been better if John had not been so harsh. She needs to reach out, talk and be held by her husband.

In this example we can see on a small scale the different stresses that are placed on a couple just because of the feelings of grief. Each will face and manage the pain in their own manner. If their expectations of one another or their perceptions of the child are substantially different there is potential for strain on the marriage. John needs to be alone, Nancy needs to be reached out to, John feels guilty about his relationship with Tim, Nancy feels some resentment of him. These differences in the way this couple grieves can cause them to feel very isolated from one another as they grieve.


There is a need for married couples to understand that each will grieve in his or her own personal way. Prior to marriage they were individuals and their individual feelings will continue. With this understanding there can be a dispelling of any notion that their individual feelings are inappropriate. Feelings are always appropriate. All feelings need and deserve to be recognized and  examined. Consequently the bereaved individuals in a couple must accept their individual feelings just as any other bereaved individuals do.

But that is not enough. Since this couple is also married it is important that each partner accept the other partner's feelings. Sometimes this is most difficult because the feelings may be a threat to the partner. In this example Nancy's feelings of resentment about the manner in which John treated Tim could be a raw nerve that could lead to great upset if brought up. But it must be brought up, examined, and dealt with. If it is not it will create more difficulty. Once accepted the feelings need to be worked out among the partners so that the feelings become a part of the past.

In summary it is important to realize that:

a.  grief affects both partners individually.

b.  grief affects the entire marriage.

c.  each partner requires support from the other.

d.   when we are grieving it is sometimes difficult to reach out, especially to someone who is also grieving.

There is more to come in this series, so please stay tuned. And, keep in mind that couples who are grieving can work through these feelings and can get help from qualified support groups, therapists or clergy.

When a sailing ship is caught in a storm on the ocean it is subject to many forces from the strong winds and waves tugging at it. The crew must work together to keep the sails and masts from being torn away. They have to prevent the ship from taking on too much water. They must secure the contents of the ship so the least damage is done to the contents or to the ship itself. When the storm subsides the ship is either completely destroyed, moderately damaged or it continues its journey unscathed. The crew who worked so hard together is often bonded closer than ever before -- if they survive -- as the result of their efforts. In the event of damage however the crew may not be so bonded but rather blame and fight among themselves.

Similarly the marriage that struggles with the terrible grief of the death of a child must wrestle with many enormous forces to survive. If the marriage is a strong one and if the partners work together they may survive and prosper, even stronger in their commitment to one another. If their marriage is not so strong they will have a great deal of work to do to repair the damage. If their marriage is in trouble from the start much of their effort will be wasted, though it is not impossible that strength will be gathered to repair the marriage.

It has been said that 75% of marriages where a death of a child has occurred terminate or at least have a period of separation as a result of the loss (*see author's note on statistics). It is hard to verify this particular statistic however, it can be said with some assurance that such marriages do have some serious and stormy weather ahead. In the next several articles we will look at the stresses the marriages face and discuss some ways that bereaved parents can work together to steer their marriage through the terrible forces that will be exerted on them.

The four areas that we will examine are:

a. Grief's individual and collective effect.

b. Communication between partners.

c. Disruption of the family system.

d. Death's uncovering of other serious problems.


Before examining each of these areas it is important to say that the stresses on a marriage can be so great that I categorically recommend to each and every grieving family that they seek counseling for the twofold purpose of learning exactly how difficult things may be and to learn how to begin coping. Such counseling should be done by a trained person who understands loss in general and specifically how the death of a child can affect the marriage. We will develop this theme throughout this series. 

* Author's Note: I would like to thank Glen Lord for his comment (see the comments section) which provides links to reputable studies with updated and far less dismal numbers. 

Maybe... Maybe not! Everyone grieves in their own way and it is most unfair to decide how another should or will grieve.
While psychologists do feel that many people who have had a long time to prepare for a loss may have an easier psychological adjustment than those dealing with a sudden loss. 

But we are told also that people who have been through a long illness with a loved one are frequently physically and emotionally drained. They may even be more susceptible to illness themselves. Having been through weeks or months of stress they may have eaten and slept poorly. They may feel guilty for feeling relief from their heavy burden. Those desirous of helping the grieving in these circumstances should be willing to assist with feelings. They also could help the bereaved to reorganize their life without the deceased, to get needed rest and, when necessary, to become active again.

However, it is important not to push the bereaved to "get back to normal" too quickly.  The death of someone we love can change our lives drastically. There are often major decisions to be made following a death. The house may be too large, we may have a sudden loss of income, we may have to raise the children alone. Adjustment to these changes may force us to make major decisions at a time when we are already distressed emotionally and least able to make good decisions. We may feel rushed to make decisions simply to avoid memories. 

Good decision making requires that you take time, have all the facts before you and be rational not emotional. Anyone who is faced with major decisions because of a death in the family should take time, get rest and get good information and wait until your emotions have subsided.

Be sure to ask for help from qualified professionals before making any major decisions, especially while you are grieving. Your lawyer, accountant and therapist can all help you make good decisions, while you work towards "normal".

Children who have lost a parent may have a lot of questions about death. In addition they may feel insecure about life. They may wonder if death will strike again.

It is helpful to provide children with direct and honest answers. At the time of the funeral and visitation they should be allowed to participate in ceremonies if they wish. After the funeral children need to be given reassurance and love while the family adjusts to the loss.

It is not helpful to tell children that Daddy or Mommy went away or went to sleep. Such comments can be misinterpreted and the child might react by fearing sleep or being angry at the parent for leaving.

Often a child will ask something like, "Daddy, when will you get me a new Mommy?"

It is not unusual for a child to worry about a new mommy or daddy when his real concern is, "who will take care of me?" Security is vitally important to a child and the death of a parent shakes the core of that security. A child who loses a parent or other loved person needs lots of reassurance. They need to be told that they will receive love and care. A child may also need reassurance that others whom he counts on will not go away or die. There are, of course, other ways to reassure a child. 

Dependability, a reasonably stable routine, spending time together and support during feelings of loss are important. Children may not always communicate exactly what they mean but you will rarely fail them by giving them security and reassurance.

As in all other aspects of life, honesty is the best policy! Children can quickly see through adult uneasiness or deceit. Telling a child that the person died and giving a specific reason for the death is most honest and definitely the most helpful. Don't beat around the bush, they will know. If children raise further questions, these too should be answered honestly and patiently. 2 of the most common questions children ask are:

What happens when someone dies?

Children experience death in many ways. When a pet dies, or perhaps a relative dies it's important to answer the child's questions directly and honestly, and not to say that the person went away or went to sleep. An indirect answer may cause children to become angry at the deceased for having gone away, or angry at God, or they may even be afraid of sleep. Hiding death from children is not helpful. Direct and honest answers mean saying that the person or pet has died and will no longer be part of our lives. It's helpful to tell the child that death is natural and that when we die our bodies don't feel anything. 

You won't leave me, too, will you?

The death of a parent can be very upsetting to a child. Besides feeling sad and lonely, many children feel very insecure. The safe environment that the family unit provides has been destroyed and often children don't know what to expect next. Children need a lot of reassurance and love when a parent dies. They should be allowed to cry and to express their feelings, never berated or told to "suck it up". Children should be allowed to share in wakes, memorials and funerals for anyone who was an important part of their life, if they wish. While the gap created by death won't ever completely close, love and understanding will help bring a family closer together.

Death is not a common occurrence in the lives of most families. It is very important to reassure children that they will be cared for in spite of the fact that things will be different without the deceased. It is helpful to include children in all ceremonies and as much as possible in decisions that will affect them but only if they wish to participate. A child's loss is real and will not go away by being ignored.

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    As part of my doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, when information on grief, bereavement, death and dying was scarce, some colleagues and I began group work with the bereaved. Out of that work grew interviews with widowers, training with funeral workers, clergy, social workers, hospice and medical personnel. 

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    Copyright 2013, Dr. Donald Steele, Ph.D.
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