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. 

7/22/2013 05:24:06 am

I would question your numbers and would love to see the studies.

The studies I have seen would indicate The figures indicate that the death of a child actually appears to draw bereaved parents together as they travel life’s grief journey.

I would quote the following source: http://www.compassionatefriends.org/pdf/When_a_Child_Dies_-_1999_Survey.pdf
Grief and Divorce
Newly bereaved parents frequently read or hear disturbing statistics about a high divorce rate (often claimed to be 80-90%) among couples following the death of a child; however, TCF has never found reliable statistics concerning divorce rates following the death of a child.
To confirm or refute these claims, the survey included a series of questions regarding marital status. Based on the results, it is clear that the divorce rates quoted so often are erroneous. Overall, 72% of parents who were married at the time of their child’s death are still married to the same person. The remaining 28% of marriages include 16% in which one spouse had died, and only 12% of marriages that ended in divorce.
While this percent may be slightly understated due to sample composition, the undoubted conclusion is that the divorce rate among bereaved parents is significantly below the often-cited numbers, and may in fact be lower than the level in the population in general. Furthermore, even among the 12% of parents whose marriages ended in divorce, only one out of four of them felt that the impact of the death of their child contributed to their divorce

or from: http://www.compassionatefriends.org/CMSFiles/X101206Press_Release_Survey,_Divorce-National.pdf

The survey shows a divorce rate of only 16 percent among bereaved parents, far below the 50 percent divorce rate usually cited for couples in general within the United States.

or http://www.compassionatefriends.org/pdf/When_a_Child_Dies-2006_Final.pdf

In the current study, the survey group members were queried about their marital status at the time of the death of their child, and those who were married were then asked their marital status today. Of 400 participating in the study, 306 were married at the time of the death of their child (of those who had only one child who died) or of any of their children (if they had more than one child who died).
Of the 306 who were married, 57 (18.6%) responded that they were no longer married to the same person. Of that 57, eight were widowed, yielding a divorce rate of 16%, far below the national divorce rate of approximately 50%.5 Of those who divorced, less than half, only 40.8% felt the impact of their child’s death contributed to the divorce. An interesting observation is that of 67 persons surveyed in the 18–34 age-group, 66 were still married to the same person, a 1.5% divorce rate. In the age-groups of 35–49 and 50+, divorce rate incidence
was higher at a combined 20% (76.6% still remain married to their spouse with 3.4% widowed).
This survey and the 1999 TCF survey, which showed a divorce rate among bereaved parents of only 12%, suggests that the 70%, 80%, and 90% divorce rates often quoted as fact by professionals and in the media are completely inaccurate. The figures indicate that the death of a child actually appears to draw bereaved parents together as they travel life’s grief journey.


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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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