The impact on your marriage or relationship

No matter the shape of your relationship, grief is a personal experience and everyone is different. Going through this experience has the potential to bring you closer together or drive you apart. The reality is that the strain of a child dying can cause some partnerships to break. It takes effort on both sides to make sure you get through this together.

How the whole experience can take its toll

Every couple’s experience is different. You and your partner may have formed a strong and more unified bond through your child’s illness but the shock of their death has sent you into unknown territory. There may have already been cracks in your relationship before your child’s diagnosis and cancer can widen these gaps. Often parents are physically separated through their child’s treatment and the financial pressure can add strain. It’s a huge amount of pressure to take before you even begin grieving.

Experiencing that grief and resentment when you’re both feeling fragile and exhausted… you wonder is this happening because they’ve died or would it have happened anyway? It’s very confusing.

Individual grief

Lots of people believe there are well-established differences between men and women when it comes to grief. Traditional gender roles, although changing, do still exist in our society and this means that some men can feel more restricted in expressing their grief. This can lead them to bottle up and become withdrawn. Women often feel more freedom to discuss their feelings and it helps to make sense of their loss.

I often hear of mums and dads dealing with their grief completely differently which can cause tensions. In my Facebook group, I’ve often seen comments from mums who are upset or frustrated at their husband/partner as they don’t seem to care, which can be upsetting for them. Men and women do seem to deal with grief differently, often the mums being much more open and emotional while the dads often hide their emotions, I think partly because we, as men, think we have to be strong and, whether rightly or wrongly, not wanting to add to the upset of their partner. This could be perceived as not caring by not showing much emotion or appearing to just ‘get on with it’.

Simon, dad of Hannah

Your partnership might reflect this, or it might be entirely different.

Either way, your grief is unique and it’s important that you have time to grieve in whatever way is right for you. And you must allow your partner to do the same. However, it’s vital for you to carry on communicating with each other.

Talking openly as a couple, while also supporting yourselves as individuals, can feel like a balancing act. Make sure to tell your partner how you’re feeling and say when you need some space. By checking in with each other, you’ll gain a better understanding of what support the other one needs.

Grief changes you

This kind of loss can rock the foundations of what you thought you knew about each other. Many people talk about being changed after the death of a child. This might mean taking a step back and rediscovering each other.

It’s important to not make assumptions about how the other might be feeling – and to recognise your differences as individuals. Tread gently with one another and make it a safe space to talk honestly with each other.

Losing a child has an enormously profound effect on you and it takes a long time to weave the experience into your life. You have a very different perspective on what is important – it is life changing. Because you change as a person, either these two new people can find a way forward or not.

Enjoying life and each other

Physical contact might be something you find solace in, or you might find it difficult right now. It becomes problematic when you have different needs. For one of you, sex can be a way of expressing love and being close to your partner. The other might find this insensitive or wrong right now, and because of this, might shy away from any form of contact in case it leads to sex. This can make the other partner feel rejected and both of you become more isolated from each other.

You can apply the same principle – respect each other’s individual needs but make sure you continue to communicate as a couple. Talking about it can be incredibly tough but it’s crucial to find a way through. There are no quick fixes. It will take time and you might need support but many couples come through it together. They will start to find enjoyment in life again. This doesn’t mean that their grief has become smaller, it’s just that they have built around it.

Some parents who have lost a young child say that having another baby has helped to bring something positive into their lives to focus on. Of course, this isn’t right for everyone and you need to make sure that you’re emotionally ready.

Stepparents and blended families

The role of a stepparent can be complicated and challenging, but this can be even truer when it comes to grief. A stepparent’s experience of loss is often overlooked as the focus and support is directed towards the child’s birth parents. A stepparent may feel that they have to perform a fine balancing act between supporting their partner and the needs of other family members, and tactfully managing with their own grief. This can lead to them feeling as though their own experience of bereavement is overshadowed, and this can be lonely and isolating.

If the birth parents are spending more time together as they plan the funeral or organise belongings, this can be a complicated time for everyone. Future plans for the relationship, like having more children, can also be impacted. For further support, we would suggest contacting The Compassionate Friends.

The leaflets below should provide more information:

Further reading

Specialist support for you and your partner

Groups and events

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