The Journey Begins: You and Your Partner
To outlive your child goes against the natural order of things, so that the death of your child is probably the hardest thing that you will ever have to manage. It is the ultimate loss: of hopes and dreams, of a part of you as a parent, of a role and purpose in society, and of an enriched family life. It has the potential to create lifelong changes in you, your family and your networks.
Absorbed in your grief, and confused about what to expect, you could feel out of control, isolated and indecisive, lacking the energy to help either yourself or your partner. The natural resilience which helped you to cope with challenges in the past might seem to have deserted you and the simplest of everyday tasks can feel overwhelming.
“We had both felt so much pain that I thought it would kill us. When I realised that it wasn’t going to, I prayed that it would.” (Jenny R)
“In the beginning it is normal to feel devastated. I constantly had the need to be told that what I was experiencing was normal.” (Glenn)
“I was completely absorbed by my grief, except for looking after my other children. I felt numb; life just passed me by.” (Eva)
Rest assured, it need not always be this way. You can take control of your life and gradually transform it, but this will take time, tax your patience and understanding and confound your expectations.
“It will be like torture, there will be so much pain. You fear that you will never be yourself again but you will return to your essential core – become more yourself again. Give yourself time. It could take years or months…but accept that you will laugh and find meaning in life once again.” (Jo)
“Time does change your grief – it won’t disappear but it won’t dominate your life as it does in the beginning. Be patient, especially in the first six months. Life does go back to [a new?] normal.” (Robert O’N)
“I think Sharyaka’s death has taught me to value people and relationships much more. I was never particularly materialistic, but now I see more than ever the value of people and of life.” (Bas)
“We have a more equal relationship now, we are less controlling, one in which we are more able to pursue our own interests.” (Fiona) (Kerri)
“Be patient! Grief is a long and painful process, perhaps endless, but the way you deal with it and the way it affects your life and relationships, change with time.” (Amy)
You and Your Partner
Rocked by grief, many couples fear that their relationship will be in jeopardy, or even break down permanently. Most individuals have little energy for themselves, let alone their partner, while others become frenetic and self-absorbed. This is hardly surprising, especially if this is the first major loss for either or both partners. However, contrary to this fear, most relationships do not breakdown after the death of a child, nor are they any more likely to do so than in non-bereaved families.
“We have come through one of the biggest tests of any relationship. We have survived the most treacherous terrain and it was damned hard. We shared it together, horrible as it was. It has brought us closer together than perhaps it would otherwise have been.” (Jenny R)
“After many hard days and a lot of hard work, our relationship is stronger, more considerate and more compassionate than it ever has been and even though I would give it up in a flash to have Ines back, I try to look at it as something she taught us.” (Helene)
It will take time for each of you to work out how to grieve, how much space to give each other, and how to express your feeling, communicate your needs and be truly supportive. The following are some of the experiences that you and your partner are likely to have.
The risk of misunderstanding the other person’s responses
You might grieve together and support each other equally in the beginning. However, it is more likely that at times you will be too preoccupied with your own feeling to understand those of your partner. Some people, for example, internalise grief as a way of shielding others from its intensity, a risky practice as it can create the impression of not grieving at all.
“Wayne and I just clung together. I only wanted to talk to him, nobody else.” (Deanne)
“When I was up, he was down and I could help him, and when I was down, he was able to be supportive and soothing.” (Jo)
“I knew Andrew was hurting as much as I was, so I tried to be ‘good’ so as not to upset him. Never did the two of us cry together. I couldn’t bear the thought of us weeping together. I would think, ‘If you’re going to cry, don’t do it in front of me, because I am sick of crying.’ I think it was almost wrong not to have a really good weep together. We were constantly trying to be brave in front of the other.” (Susan)
“It is so hard to be compassionate to your partner’s needs. You might have just gone through hours when you felt so low and you might be coming out of it a bit and then it is your partner’s turn and it is so hard to be dragged back into it. In an ideal world, you would be as open and as responsive to your partner as you possibly could.” (Peter)
“It is important to keep communication going. People grieve differently and you are so consumed with your own grief that you have not much to give to anybody else. It is easy to take exception and misconstrue your partner’s reactions.” (Wendy)
As you struggle to cope with your own feeling and the everyday demands of living, work, other children and various family members, it is easy to feel distant from one another or shut out. Sometimes this leads to extreme of atypical behaviour, causing division and resentment, especially if you seem to be functioning or coping better than your partner.
“One of the hardest things I’ve found out after the death of a child is the pressure to keep managing your life. You have to act as a worker, as a dad, as a husband, and as a person in your own right as well.” (Bas)
“We lived very separate lives, had different interests. I felt shut out by him, feeling he didn’t want to spend time with me. A chasm was developing between us and I feared losing him as well.” (Naomi)
Some parents only allow themselves to grieve when they feel that their partner is ‘okay again’, when there is less fear about being overwhelmed by grief. This can happen years later and be quite a shock.
“It wasn’t until two years after Izak died, when I didn’t know what was happening and didn’t understand how I was feeling…I thought I had dealt with my grief, but the truth was I hadn’t even begun to deal with it and that’s when I realised it might help to know how others had coped with the death of a child…I wanted to talk to other blokes who knew what I was going through.” (Mark)
It is important to understand that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. The grieving process is an extremely personal journey that no two people will undertake in the same way. The intensity of your feelings, your capacity to share them and the ways in which you try to cope can all differ radically. This is particularly true of the early stages of grief, which will test your relationships and capacity for understanding each other’s grief.
Your response is likely to be compounded by powerful and often conflicting emotions, such as guilt, shame, anger and blame, affecting your physical and emotional wellbeing. In these circumstances, it can be difficult to share your feelings with your partner.
The intensity of such feelings, together with sadness about the death, can leave you feeling out of control, leading to panic attacks. You might fear further deaths, as the world now seems to be a frightening, less predictable place. In turn you could feel so unworthy and responsible for the death that you fear that your partner will leave you. Intense flashbacks of the death can recur unexpectedly, increasing your feelings of being out of control and quite fearful.
“He realised he couldn’t help me. I couldn’t fix it and neither could he. We couldn’t control our responses. Samuel’s death threw us against the wall; it was so unexpected and so horrific. We couldn’t plan for it or engineer it or mange it.” (Jenny R)
“I had panic attacks and still do. I don’t cope with that sort of stress. I used to be stoic but now, when I hear a strange noise at night, I react irrationally and full of fear. The emotional response is not now one about Alex’s death, but a lasting response to stress.” (George)
“He saw my grief as like a huge black hole and if he got too close, he too would fall in and be all consumed and be lost. He couldn’t support me.” (Tracey)
“In the beginning your partner can remind you of the grief and it will be tempting to walk away.” (Leanne)
Guilt and shame
Parents often experience guilt, even when they know rationally that there was nothing they could have done to prevent the death. The guilt can be about the genes they gave their child, their inability to protect their child from harm, the times they weren’t there for them, or the medical choices they made. The decision to turn off the life support is particularly traumatic.
Mothers often feel that their bodies let them down, that in some way they are responsible for the death of their baby and should have been more aware and focussed on staying strong and healthy. People often feel they are being punished for past actions, such as abortions or medical terminations for foetal abnormality. They go over and over the events in their head, fearing that they are going mad. Fathers often believe that they let their family down, failing as a provider and protector. These feelings are hard to talk about with others, let alone admit them to yourself.
“My primary feeling was one of shame – that I somehow caused the death because of abortions I had when I was much younger. Was this God’s punishment? I lost all confidence in myself and my self-esteem plummeted. My husband couldn’t understand and become impatient with me.” (Nicolette)
“The thing that I see about a child dying is that you feel more acute guilt as a mother as I was responsible for his wellbeing. I ask myself, ‘What could I have done to change the outcome?’” (Wendy)
“I needed answers as to why Samuel died and my husband, Paul, didn’t. I kept rehashing what I may have done wrong. Did I overheat him? Intellectually I knew there was no point in doing this, but emotionally I had to do it. Paul would get exasperated with me and say, ‘Don’t go there!’ Although I knew too that it couldn’t achieve anything, I still needed to go through the process of trying to understand, or make sense of, Samuel’s death.” (Jenny R)
“Guilt was something we both felt. Michael felt he should have been more in charge and that he had let his family down. I felt guilt that my body had let me down.” (Jessica)
“I felt very guilty that I had let Leanne down, that I had failed as a father. This was a tough pill to swallow.” (George)
“I felt totally overwhelmed; I had failed as a father: I had been brought up to be a provider and protector…now I was haemorrhaging to death. I had no one to talk to and felt under enormous pressure, as if I was going to implode. My wife was a mess and surrounded by family and friends, but what about me?” (Glenn)
“Adam has moved through the stages of grief in a different way, quicker or in a different order or he is to the point where he doesn’t go over thing the way I do. He doesn’t feel the guilt and I think that’s a mother thing with the guilt of my own pregnancy and labour.” (Lyndal)
Anger and blame
Feeling angry is understandable, given the seemingly senseless nature of what has happened. Unfortunately, the more you question the angrier you become, particularly if your partner misunderstand the strength of your emotions or is frightened by them. The intensity of your feeling can be overwhelming.
“Everything seemed to go wrong; the universe didn’t seem to be on my side any more. I kept making mistakes and all of this made me angry even though they were little things.” (Cas)
“Things started unravelling, particularly as we became incredibly angry. One would bring the other down, which caused resentment – ‘why aren’t you down like me?’ Anything could break the camel’s back. We couldn’t easily discuss how we should grieve – you can’t control how you are grieving. Neither of us is violent but we were shocked at the violent anger we felt. We both punched plaster wall, etcetera, but fortunately took our anger out on things, not on each other. Nothing else has ever made us change like this, act in such an extreme manner.” (Jenny R)
Anger sometimes leads to positive outcomes. It can energise people to confront problems such as professional failings, or to lobby for changes in hospital or government policy. Unfortunately, anger can also lead to blame and the transference of guilt or shame onto other people.
“I transferred the blame – the guilt – onto my then husband as he was not there when it happened. He was working part-time to get money for his hobby car. He was not a real partner.” (Josie)
“My husband was very angry and blamed others, especially the ambulance, which took twenty minutes to come to the house. This wasn’t an issue for me. Today he is still likely to blame others for different issues – this probably gives him a feeling of being in control. I blamed me or us directly and questioned myself: what I’d done or didn’t do.” (Ally)
“Paul made me promise not to blame myself – so I kept my thoughts to myself, which probably made it worse. Did I do something wrong during the pregnancy? Should I have done more during labour? Should I have demanded more of my obstetrician?
Most people attempt to control their emotions some of the time, particularly in public, to stop feeling depressed or to concentrate on such tasks as organising the funeral and returning to work. However, when taken to extremes, appearing to be in control can be misleading. It risks leaving you without the support you need from family and friends. Masking grief is dangerous, for it can catch up with you sooner or later, sometimes with devastating effects.
“If you don’t cry or express your emotions everyone around you suffers, your partner, your family and friends, but worst of all your children. You die from within, you wither up, and you are not the person you could have been. You have to share – you gotta listen. It’s that simple. Sharing grief lessens the load. The more you share, the lighter the load.” (Glenn)
“I always put on a façade so people will think you are doing well. I am still trying to ‘find myself’ and feel lonely. I spend time with my nephews and nieces but find it hard to connect with my siblings.” (Tony)
“I never had any help with my grief, generally repressing it, and felt depressed for at least ten years. The tears did come years later when I attended my nephew’s funeral. In retrospect, I was really crying for my daughter.” (Nicolette)
“I returned to study and work after twelve months and buried myself in work. I put on a mask every time I left the house. Home was my refuge, the only place I let myself grieve. Malcolm totally buried his grief. He was brought up not to show feelings and to remain strong and keep the family together. This had huge repercussions on his health as he nearly died of a pulmonary oedema [a life threatening condition] five weeks after Caity died.” (Linda Y)
“He had been brought up in a family which didn’t talk about feelings and he didn’t want to talk. He became angry at everyone after Ines died and he didn’t know what to do with his feelings. His primary response was one of anger while mine was one of shock. He said he should go [leave the relationship] and was never home. He had a heart attack and was consequently diagnosed with depression and anxiety. This explained a lot of his behaviour.” (Helene)
Managing extreme emotions
Here are some suggestions for managing extreme emotions:
- Accept that the intensity of your feelings and your ways of expressing them will differ from those of your partner and that you could experience them at different times.
- Be patient with your partner and other family members, giving them some space. Work towards mutual understanding; be prepared to apologise and make peace.
- Acknowledge that the anger and guilt is actually about your child dying. Don’t take out your frustrations on those closest to you or on those with whom you feel safest. Be aware of other, seemingly unrelated issues (such as being indecisive) which are also causing tensions and conflict. Don’t become side tracked by them.
- Share your feeling without recriminations and seek help if necessary. Blame can drive a wedge between you and your partner.
- Talk through these issues with a counsellor or other bereaved parents. It can be of enormous benefit as feelings of guilt and anger can cause you to withdraw from others, becoming isolated in your grief.
- Try not to repress your grief. This could lead to emotional or physical breakdown and may bring to the fore underlying issues such as depression, anxiety and mental illness.
Less energy to support one another
Rocked by grief, each of you will have less energy to support one another, solve problems, and be able to talk about what has happened or make everyday decisions. This can lead to irritation, frustration and blame.
“We wanted to be there for each other but couldn’t even be there for ourselves. There was no strength in either…We could do this later when each of us had a parent die but with Samuel [dying], we felt chopped off at the knees.” (Jenny R)
“I remember lying in bed with Michelle who was sobbing with her hand pushed into her mouth to muffle the sound. I was an emotional train wreck having to run the business, be a father, a husband, and deal with the death of my son. I just didn’t have the time or the resources to look after someone else…yet I was the prick.” (Glenn)
“I turned off mentally in order to cope. I was robotic and went into survival mode in our relationship. My husband became very needy but I had nothing to give.” (Ally)
Sleep can prove elusive for some people, leading to nights spent going over and over what happened, resulting in exhaustion. For others, sleep is easier and less fitful. Some people become hyperactive, pursuing mind-numbing distractions such as constantly watching TV or playing video games. This can be irritating, especially if one partner has no energy and cannot get off the couch or out of bed.
“I could sleep and sleep but Nathan preferred to be constantly busy so we spent little time together. We lived very separate lives.” (Naomi)
“I had no zest. I didn’t want to do anything. I walked around as if in a dream. I didn’t know what was going on.” (Andrew)
“I hid in the house and went to bed, pulling the doona over me.” (Deanne)
Managing changes in energy levels
Accept that this dislocation of energy is normal and trust that the balance will return eventually. In this way you can reduce anxiety and worry. In particular, you need to:
- Realise that to snap at someone rather than giving them time, understanding and comfort is counter-productive.
- Exercise! It helps to relax the body and generate energy. Grief can produce high levels of adrenalin. Keeping busy and active reduces feelings of helplessness, giving a greater sense of being in control. It can also help in falling asleep.
- Understand that your need for a physical outlet could be the opposite of that of your partner, who may need rest and solitude.
- Take it in turns to be the supported one. Your needs will constantly vary and it is not only women who need support.
Craving some normality
You could be craving relief from the effort of surviving the death and coping with the unrelenting grief, the feeling that life will never be normal again. Establishing some semblance of routine, returning to work, sorting out finances or completing unfinished tasks can help you to feel you have some control.
“Wayne needed to be at work to have some normality, to take back control to restore his faith that life would go on.” (Deanne)
“Work was my saviour and I became very anxious away from it. I felt I couldn’t go home at night.” (Tony)
“You may become a workaholic as you don’t want any time to think.” (Linda Y)
However losing oneself in tasks, while temporarily helpful, can lead to bottling up feelings, thereby delaying the process of dealing with your grief. Should your partner approach things differently, for example, reflecting more on their work and practical needs than on exploring feelings, you could find yourself on ‘a different page.’ This can lead to misunderstanding and resentment.
Making major changes prematurely can generate other problems. For example, some parents who have returned to work quickly say they have little motivation, energy or concentration. This is especially difficult for parents who have returned to work, sometimes within days of the funeral, without receiving support or understanding.
“Going back to work was a nightmare. I could not function properly and I really didn’t care about what I was doing. My boss was one of those guys who reckon it all goes away if you ignore it. That’s bullshit. It doesn’t go away. It comes back and smacks you down. I suggest you take as long as you want off work and don’t worry about what others think. It is happening to you, not them…do what you feel is best for you.” (Dion)
“Phil had no support at work. He worked quite independently at first as his boss didn’t like him taking time off.” (Lisa)
“Colleagues were polite and bought Red Nose Day products but weren’t sensitive about the death. I didn’t expect this from them however.” (Ally)
“Keith has his own plumbing business. He had six weeks off work, three of which he was sick. Know that things can be tough financially. Costs of the funeral and time off work can take their toll.” (Linda B)
You could feel very vulnerable, no knowing how to prepare for your return to work or how colleagues will react. Few of them will know what to say and some may ignore the situation entirely. A lack of empathy and support is disappointing but you need to understand that it will be difficult for them to anticipate your needs. In these circumstances it’s easy to become less assertive and less tolerant of colleagues and work conversations. Don’t be surprised if the experience of getting through the day leaves you exhausted and with little energy for partners and family, let alone yourself.
“After Sharyaka’s death I went back to work within a week. My thinking was I had to keep going and stay in control of my feelings until Gayatri and Harshini were okay…I thought a time would come for me to cry and let go but once I went back to work it was difficult to find the time. As a result I don’t think I’ve ever had my time.” (Bas)
“I would best describe my expression of grief initially as ‘numb and silently painful’. My husband was supportive but also describes himself as numb. We had a seventeen month old daughter at home who we had to focus on. Our relationship struggled immediately and we became distant emotionally. I felt alone while my husband says he felt the same but had to return to work for some sense of normality in order to function for himself, me and our daughter. I see this as a huge downward spiral in our relationship, from which we have probably never recovered fully.” (Joanne)
Managing the craving for normality
The following suggestions might help you:
- Try to understand that if your partner goes back to work quickly, or is preoccupied with keeping busy, this doesn’t mean they are unfeeling or denying reality. They are dealing with it in their own way. The converse can also be true. Someone who stays at home to reflect on their grief is not necessarily wallowing in it.
- If you do return to work, try to do it gradually. Financial concerns may, of course, make this difficult to achieve.
- Take time off work or speak to your manager or counsellor about a transitional return, such as changing job tasks or working part time. Prepare colleagues to deal with the situation – let them know what you feel comfortable with. Returning to work can give you confidence that there is part of life that you can have a measure of control and competence once again.
- Read about grief and explore other resources.
- Create some time away from grief – ‘a grief-free zone.’ Do something enjoyable such as going out with friends or having long walks. This can provide respite from the situation but remember that your partner might not have the same need.
- Be careful of resuming a full social life prematurely, this can be too much to ask of yourselves.
- While you attempt to regain control over your life, don’t forget to focus, from time to time, on keeping the memory of your child alive.
- Be patient with yourselves. It will take many months, possible years, for life to get back to some sort of normality again.
The Red Nose Grief and Loss pamphlet Returning to Work outlines how colleagues and management can support you in returning to work.
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: 25/11/20
1. den Hartog, P.N., Bereaved Parents & SIDS and Kids NSW and Victoria (2014). When Relationships Hurt, Too: The Impact of Grief on Parents’ Relationships after the Sudden Death of their Child. , Malvern, Vic.: SIDS and Kids NSW and Victoria.