If I ever wrote a book, which is seemingly impossible just thinking about, I’d have to call it: “Marriage Survival Manual.” A manual, though, is a complete set of instructions, so mine would be more of a “Don’t do this ever. do more of this. good luck.”
How does a marriage survive the loss of a child?
Fact is, a lot don’t.
Why? Rage, man, rage. Some pretty heinous things fly out of your mouth and you can’t take them back. Loathsome behaviors emerge, depression or withdrawal always finds a way into the home, the dining table, the car, the bedroom. Blame, lots and lots of blame.
My therapist told me (oh yeah, you bet your ass I’m in therapy!) that whether a coupleship survives depends on some basic factors:
How strong the relationship was prior to the loss;
The cause and circumstances surrounding the loss;
Coping skills each person had prior to the loss;
How much (and how often) support the couple gets.
We had a strong relationship. On our wedding day, our friend Marty (one of the officiants) said, “Individually you are strong, but together you are mighty.” We have taken that statement to heart, lived it even when we didn’t always believe it. But the fact is, years of combat stress, betrayal, loss, TBI (which just ravages a man’s brain), beat our marriage down with a sledgehammer. Some days our marriage is stronger than ever, others it’s being held by our one child.
This one’s tricky. Cause: cancer. well, not really. We had beaten cancer. She did not have signs of cancer on her scans and I know it wasn’t cancer that killed her. Her brain shut down. They don’t know exactly why or how, but her brain was invaded too much. It was traumatic and horrible. BUT….Amelie died at HOME in my arms, in her bed, we had time. I said after her burial at sea, “please be grateful we lost her in such a way that wasn’t traumatic or terrifying, rather it was beautiful.” because I know. I know that losing a child to an accident or sudden violent act would be absolutely nightmarish. My experience wasn’t a nightmare. It was so lovely. But many parents do get that choice. so ok, #2, could be worse. so the way the actually died was lovely, but the two years leading up to it were filled with torment.
Copying skills. Hmmm, I gotta be totally honest here. Hubbs’ coping skills were ummm, well, they were destructive. the skills ranged from violently angry to simmering annoyance, shutdowns, flooding, selfishness, absent one day, overbearingly brutal the next. Me? “don’t walk away let’s fix this all right now” type of attitude. not always productive, not giving him space. #3, yipes.
Support. Well this might be the thing that keeps us afloat. Getting him to therapy is a struggle—why would he spend $250 in a room hearing me go off when he can surf, feel God and be calm, for free? You see the dilemma. Frankly, I just force him. it’s often an ugly backlash, then we are somehow better for it, but man, it’s exhausting. The people around us seem to have endless patience and 24/7 hotlines to our mental health. The community around Hubbs’ work is generous and genuinely seeks to keep us from signing the dotted divorce line. So as long as I pick up the phone and fight for it, I think this will be our safety net.
He didn’t mention faith, though. Shouldn’t it also depend on a couple’s faith? it’s that put into the “coping skills” box? It’s more than a coping skill bro, it’s a way of life. FAITH isn’t a thing, it’s the thing.
My therapist (I can’t remember which one: the one with the Harvard Ph.D. or the 3 bff’s therapists whom I shamelessly seek free counseling from on the daily. it takes a village, ok.), said: “pain’s gotta go up and out, not in and down.” Problem is pain usually goes “up and out” right at your spouse.
Our marriage lost it’s innocence years ago, but it’s gained a depth I (actually) always wanted. We were pretty tight before, but there was something in me that knew we could always go deeper. I mean, think about it: I don’t even know what Hubbs does on deployments sometimes, not the details of it all—there are too many ops to count or recall—but they’re a part of him, and I don’t know that part fully. And I don’t expect to. It’s a knowing fact I signed up for marrying a special forces man.
But there are levels of a marriage. and the only way we’re going to survive this, is to go all in.
Some days I hate his selfishness, withdrawal, la-la land ideas. Some days I’m in total awe of his tenderness, resiliency, attentiveness. Some days I’m sadly ambivalent. Some days I cannot get enough of his embrace…and I suspect a similar cycle is reciprocated in my direction from him.
Some days I hate his surfing habit. Some days I’m beyond grateful for it.
Today we connected. We held each other. We ate dinner as a family. We decorated the house. We put the phones down and talked. But we don’t sleep at the same time anymore. He crashes early to be up before dawn, to catch the sun’s first daylight beams while on the water. I stay up late. I prefer the quietness of nighttime, where the guilt of errands and “to-do” lists aren’t hanging over me and Netflix, Pinot Noir and I can have a threesome. It’s hard to connect when so much has changed. He hates going out. I love getting the hell out of the house for a funcursion (fun-excursion, in case you didn’t pick up on that rad word I just made up.). I prefer being social. He prefers solitude.
So how does a marriage survive the loss of a child? Grace and forgiveness. a wholllle lotta forgiveness. willingness. selflessness. a sort of relentlessness for the common goals and, at the same time, acquiescence for the bullshit. trust. Faith. and space. space to GRIEVE. space to offend, space to create, space to fill with love, space to be our own fucked-up, beautifully erratic, broken-hearted-selves, free of judgment. space to live fully.
certainly not a manual, but definitely rules to live by every moment of every day.