Individual Differences Challenge Relationships

The distinctive ways in which people express grief can be profoundly influenced by different experiences and beliefs. Given the circumstances of your child’s death these differences are likely to create unique challenges for you and your partner.

Family background

Different family, cultural and religious backgrounds can all influence the ways in which you confront personal challenges and deal with relationship issues. Each culture defines relationships in unique ways and has norms governing the expression of grief. Common backgrounds and beliefs can enhance mutual understanding but radical differences could alienate, leaving one shocked by the other person’s grieving and mourning customs.

Religious and spiritual issues can arise and create tension between family members. You could come up against different ways of responding, for example, to medical decisions or to religious rituals around death. Some people become angry at God and lose faith; for others, belief can be awakened. In order to avoid serious conflict, sensitivity and tolerance are essential.

The state of your relationship

While most relationships survive the death of a child, not all do. A well-established and supportive one, marked by respect and intimacy, provides a strong base for moving forward. It certainly can help you to cope more effectively.

“We gave each other time out to grieve. I felt bonded to Tim due to Romi’s death. We experienced it together so I felt closer to him – we did it together. If the relationship could cope with the death of a child, it could survive almost anything. This still gives me strength today.” (Jo)

“Keith was very supportive and I discovered a lot about him at this time. Neither of us had any tragedies in our lives but we realised the importance of good communication and of supporting each other. We became closer and bonded more. We learned to not sweat the small stuff – don’t focus on the mundane, prioritise what you need to do.” (Linda B)

If the death occurred during the early stages of your relationship or before a strong bond has developed, your resilience can be sorely tested, especially if this is the first big loss for either of you. Unacknowledged problems, relating to control, chronic anxiety, anger and restlessness are likely to be compounded potentially endangering the relationship.

“I feel that the only thing that keeps us together is a dead baby. It isn’t enough.” (Anon)

“We had little in common and couldn’t talk together or help each other. Today we both agree that we just had no energy to work on our marriage once we got into trouble with that. We both felt emotionally dead inside. Both he and I felt nothing and had no energy for each other or anyone else for a long time. I think grief makes you incredibly self-centred. However, after a necessary separation, we are now back together again.” (Jane)

“I needed to tell him that my world had stopped and that he was contributing to me not coping by not talking to me about the death. I felt I was on a tightrope and he was treading on my fingers.” (Janelle)

“In hindsight we were bound to break up anyway. The death made me realise how different we were – that we had very different values, different ideas about what we wanted in life. It helped me to move on, create new relationships and I am better off for it. I don’t think my husband has ever grieved our daughter’s death.” (Nicolette)

It requires more than the shared experience of losing a baby or child to keep a relationship together, irrespective of its existing quality. Your capacity to communicate with one another clearly, honestly and with sensitivity can be sorely tested. Some couples find that too much talk can be intimidating, especially if one partner appears to be disinterested or unsupportive. In other cases, people are afraid of burdening their partner and don’t talk enough.

“It was easy not to talk about our grief earlier on. I didn’t want to break down. Communication apart from this was good but we couldn’t talk about the ‘elephant in the room’ until much later.” (Lisa)

Differences in attachment

People sometimes differ as to how attached they are to their child at the time of birth, especially if he or she died well before the due date. Some parents, especially mothers, bond early, even from the first moment of realising they are pregnant or seeing the first ultrasound. Others do so later when the pregnancy is well developed, at birth or even later.

It can be hard to grieve when your baby is very premature and not yet a reality to you, your partner or your community. Different responses, one feeling the loss more intensely than the other, can generate resentment. You could feel that your grief is stronger and more long-lasting. One partner might be grieving for their baby while the other could be grieving for the lost future they envisaged as a parent.

Should the mother’s life be at risk during the birth, her partner might have had stronger feelings for her welfare than for the baby, and need help to cope with the traumatic experience of nearly losing their partner as well. It can be hard for each person to understand why they are grieving so differently.

“Often there are other issues in a relationship which can be magnified after the death of a child. I discovered (after counselling) that my husband had never seen himself as a father. Knowing this made his (unsupportive) behaviour more understandable and knowing how he thought made our relationship easier.” (Ruth)

“My first baby was born at twenty weeks’ gestation. My husband went back to work and carried on as if nothing serious had happened. I felt pressure to return to work and resumed three weeks later. The baby was never seen or officially named and a service was not held. Not naming the baby made it difficult to grieve for him in any meaningful way. For my husband, it was more a loss of a pregnancy than a loss of a baby.” (Nicolette)

Previous experience of death and loss

Our parents are our first teachers and how they have taught us to deal with death and loss will impact on us now. Often unresolved losses in our past, such as other pregnancy losses or the death of a parent or friend, are brought to the fore when a child dies, making our current grieving even more intense.

The experience can be harder if you and your partner have never dealt with a major death before. On the other hand, previous experiences could have given you knowledge and emotional resources to use in dealing with your child’s death. One of you might cope relatively well and the other needs lots of support.

“My father’s death compounded my grief and I shelved my grief again as I had to help my mother cope. She couldn’t always ‘hear’ me but gave practical support for my other children.” (Lisa)

“When Madeleine died, the experiences of loss I’d encountered and the two earlier miscarriages were magnified. I thought it was important for me to maintain other elements of my life because so much of my personal life was falling apart.” (Greg)

This article was prepared using extracts from When Relationships Hurt, Too.1 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.

Last reviewed: 20/6/24