Nurturing Your Relationships and Helping Yourself
A child’s death sometimes greatly strengthens relationships over time. You can learn and change, finding resources in yourself that have the potential to transform you, your relationship with each other and others in your network.
Facing adversity together, being forced to grow, developing a stronger mutual understanding learning more about each other and finding solace and comfort in each other, can all lead to intimacy that is long lasting.
Many parents say that they developed qualities that strengthened all their relationships, in the long run, such as tolerance of difference, patience, humility and generosity. They learned to become more forgiving of themselves and others, to be less controlling, to value their other children more, to be less materialistic and more spiritual.
“Over the last few years we have been talking more and been having the conversations we should have had years ago. We are now more open and positive and we are both parent supporters and helping others. We have supported each other’s needs for study and I have gone on to study to be a counsellor. Our marriage has been strengthened as we know we have been through so much.” (Lisa)
“We have understood the preciousness of life, of any relationship. This puts everything else into perspective. Other things which used to be important are now not.” (Jo)
“Izak’s death has made me realise what’s important in life. He has helped me find a stronger focus on family and on living life to the fullest. I say we are stronger, better people because of him.” (Mark)
“Brendan is way more family focussed now and wants to be a house-husband and be supportive of my career as a midwife. He’s now more balanced and hasn’t run of to bury himself in work outside the family – a good listener and a great carer to me.”
This strengthening of your relationship won’t happen overnight but will emerge by engaging with grieving, often over many years. It is a journey which requires commitment, patience and courage.
Deciding to stay together and survive
If you are determined and focus on your strengths, not on what you have lost, then you are more likely to stay together. Some parents are committed to live a life their child would have been proud of, to become stronger and closer as a family.
If having a child was crucial in keeping you together, the challenge will be to find or develop new bonds or other ways of ensuring that your child continues to be a major link between you and your partner. With patience, new and stronger ties can develop.
“We can’t let this destroy us! There is no one in the world who understands what we have been through except each other and no one else fully understands and acknowledges how unique and precious our child was.” (Sue)
“Don’t make quick decisions about your relationship.” (Jenny O’N)
“We realised the importance of good communication and supporting each other. We understood that this would be important for our children to have in their family.” (Linda B)
“Paul said the day after Samuel died, ‘We will have to work very hard at keeping us together.’ We were determined to work on staying together and we don’t give up easily. We decided that we would try hard and give it the time but there were no guarantees we would stay together.” (Jenny R)
Developing positive attitudes
Throughout this website, the importance of engaging with change, acknowledging differences and nurturing one another has been regularly emphasised. Let us review some of the positive attitudes that can help you to cope:
- Don’t be afraid of change. It is fundamental to life. Embracing it is essential if you are to heal and grow. It is a powerful transforming force. There are many accounts of how people have come to terms with change.
“Margaret’s legacy is the work I now do in the funeral industry. It has given me passion and strength.” (Michelle)
- Accept that you and your partner will do things differently and that one way is not necessarily better than the other. Respect and understanding, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, are important.
“Accept the differences - acceptance is the key to a supportive and nurturing relationship.” (Jo)
“Respect each other, be patient and give each other space to grieve.” (Lisa)
“Accept differences between you, no matter how difficult – you cannot change your partner. Relationships can become bad before they get better. It is not the end when they do so.” (Jenny R)
“Everyone is different in the way they grieve. Be tolerant and accept differences.” (Eva)
“Early on I discovered a determination to keep living life, and to ensure they my wife and children keep living their lives as best they can, and that keeps us going.” (Bas)
- Share the significance and meaning of the death with each other. Talking is how unreal experiences and devastated emotions can be explored and managed. It helps restore intimacy and provides moral support. However, do so gradually and sensitively, because for some people talking can be a source of discomfort and difficulty.
“Regularly touch base with each other – ‘pillow talk’ at night.” (Fiona)
“The key to surviving this grief is communication and trust, opening up to each other.” (Linda Y)
- Seek help and encourage your partner to do likewise but do not pressure them. This can be counterproductive. People need space and time to themselves. Rather, work on your own issues and meeting your own needs.
“Allow supportive people to support you – people who don’t need to ‘fix it’ for you – a friend or a counsellor.” (Lisa)
“Give each other a certain amount of time each day without interrupting and judging. Also, a counsellor can give you strategies to cope, help identify how each of you is grieving and accept differences.” (Deanne)
- Acknowledge your grief. Don’t mask it, put it on hold or use it as a crutch. Sooner or later it will have to be dealt with. Be kind to yourself.
“This is your time. Give yourself permission to be self-centred. Plan ahead for special days; candle burning or writing a letter on a balloon can be healing.” (Linda Y)
“Don’t put pressure on yourself, particularly at special times such as Christmas and birthdays.” (Jenny R)
“It is good to take time to periodically reflect on your grief journey, what has happened and how you are going.” (Linda B)
“You might need more help three of four years up the track.” (Jane)
Other helpful strategies
Don’t be afraid to try things out. There is much you can do to help yourself including the following:
- Learn more about grief, the many forms it can take and the impact that it could have on your relationships. There is a great deal of valuable literature available within this website or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss
- 24 Hour Bereavement Line 1300 308 307
- Question and answer section
“Reading about the more common differences between men’s and women’s grief can be really helpful and reduce misunderstandings. It’s so important to acknowledge that men and women can grieve differently and to accept that, so you don’t move apart more.” (Tracey)
- Speak with other bereaved people. Find people you feel safe with and who will just listen and be with you, either individually or in a group. It can help to normalise your own experience.
“Talk to someone who has been through a similar situation, someone further up the track to give you hope that you will function again and to know what to expect.” (Fiona)
- Take care of yourself because it is easy to become sick when under huge stress. Eat well. Physical activities can energise you, nurture your spirit and provide a focus outside your grief. Sports, gym meditation, relaxation techniques, yoga, massage and long walks, runs or bike rides can help you deal with stress. If possible, ensure that such activities take place in beautiful, natural environments. You might also need to seek the help of health professionals.
“Jenny liked a lot of time alone, having peace and quiet to relax. I enjoyed lots of sport, cricket, exercise and socialising as a way of coping with stress – time away.” (Robert O’N)
“What helped Wayne was to go on long bike rides on his Harley, IPod in his ears, and ‘time out’ just for him. He said he needed ‘time away from this nightmare when is this ever going to end?’ I encouraged him to go.” (Deanne)
“Exercise to help with the stress, the extra adrenalin grief can cause. You already feel so tired and drained but you will feel so glad you have done it – more energised afterwards.” (Linda B)
“Yoga, meditation, massage and walking are very helpful to de-stress. Also seeing a naturopath and taking particular vitamins, minerals and herbs to assist with stress, sleep and vitality and to improve one’s diet.” (Danielle)
“Learning particular meditation and relaxation techniques, e.g. body scanning helped me enormously. I still do them twice daily, years later.” (Jane)
- Cultivate activities which help maintain the connection with your child in whatever ways are most meaningful for you and your family. For example, make the casket, design a special garden, visit the grave, develop a project together, establish a ritual, create a painting, sculpture, music, song or poetry. Such activities provide focus and become valuable ways of honouring the life of your child.
“Set goals – do something for you and your child such as a personal challenge. I did the ninety mile beach walk and raised funds. I felt so close to Caity as I was walking.” (Linda Y)
“It took me a long time to accept that our ten tries at IVF didn’t work. I channelled a lot of my energy to bring about changes in permanent care legislation. This helped me. “(Ruth)
Counselling, either as an individual or as a couple, provides a safe space where you will be supported to move through your grief and understand its impact. It can help you to learn new strategies for dealing with anger and resentment, such as giving each other time out when things get too tough, texting each other rather than confronting each other when you feel angry. Perhaps you can write down what you are angry about before you try to talk it through.
Counselling takes courage and commitment. You and your partner could have different views about its value; it might be wanted more by one of you than the other. It can be difficult to talk about intimate aspects of a relationship with a professional (or third party).
Sometimes the involvement of one partner draws criticism from the other, either for attending in the first place or listening to the advice of others, which can be threatening. It is important to talk these issues through and support each other’s needs, for participation in counselling can lead to making positive changes.
“Having couple-counselling was the most helpful thing we did to help us to grieve as a couple again, not just as individuals.” (Jessica)
“Geoff didn’t want counselling so I asked the counsellor for particular questions that I could ask Geoff. He has a big public profile so grieving privately is important to him.” (Fiona)
“Embark on appropriate couple counselling sooner rather than later. We only started last year and it has been somewhat soul destroying to discover the things we should have discussed so much earlier. It has caused isolation for both of us in the years since Lexie’s death and perhaps if we had talked to a qualified person earlier, the damage would have been less.” (Joanne)
“It is not a sign of weakness to get professional help. It can help to get you on track with your relationship.” (Leanne)
“There is a limit on how much you can do to help yourself. Get professional help even if you don’t think you need it. Be alert to how the two of you may be drifting apart and focus on communicating well.” (Jenny O’N)
“It wasn’t until about a year after Madeleine’s death that I felt like I was ready to start talking about the experiences I’d had. Once I started seeing a counsellor one-on-one, I started to get a better idea of what I was going through and Jeanette started seeing the same counsellor. It allowed us to gain insight into how each other was grieving. We were able to understand better the things that got us down and those that stopped us functioning. We were able to discuss ways of supporting one another and of avoiding shutting down. It was a challenging time but one of tremendous growth in our relationship.” (Greg)
Red Nose Grief and Loss provide counsellors who can assist with these issues without charge — individually or as a couple. They also provide support groups, contact with a trained Parent Support (a bereaved parent), art therapy, a weekend residential program (Personal Enrichment Program or PEP), a Walk to Remember and other remembrance activities, workshops for bereaved siblings and an internet forum.
These provide a chance to talk, be understood, share and help normalise feelings and experiences; a safety valve for the relationship. For those of you who cannot attend these groups or don’t have people in your network with whom you can talk, the grieving period can be very lonely and isolating. This is especially so for men, whose main support is more likely to be their partner.
“Seek out and utilise support agencies, find support which suits you. This means you will have support when you need it.” (Lisa)
“It helps to meet others in support groups and see how they are coping. This helped us and gave us hope, especially hearing from parent supporters. They showed how you can heal and that you can go on to have other children.” (Jessica)
“Accept that men are more likely to grieve privately and talk only with their partner and more women prefer group support.” (Tracey)
“The support groups were helpful, especially for me, as they were a place where we could both keep talking about Emily – the only place really where we felt comfortable to do so.” (Pam)
“I found it enormously helpful attending support groups. They have helped me to realise that what I have felt and was going through was normal and that it was okay to cry and be sad and to go at my own pace. All blokes in my situation should think about going to some sort of support group. I was hesitant at first but now I go when I can.” (Dion)
“At support groups for men you usually find there are other fathers who can at least understand what you are talking about and some of the things you have been through. It is really important to share your experiences in an environment in which others will listen and understand.” (Bas)
In conclusion … looking towards the future
A child’s death is likely to change some of your relationships, both in the short term as well as into the future. Some will become stronger and deeper, while others will seem less important over time. Facing adversity together, being forced to grow through the shared experience of your child’s death and finding comfort in each other, can lead to a deeper intimacy and a more meaningful life.
The relationships of many parents have been strengthened over time. They have developed such qualities as greater humility, tolerance and generosity. Some have become less materialistic, more spiritual and forgiving, less controlling of others and they value their children more.
The parents and grandparents who contributed to this website have provided many insights into how they negotiated relationships with family, friends, colleagues and others in their networks after the death of their child or grandchild.
In cultivating such qualities, it is important to:
- Remember, to look after yourself, emotionally as well as physically.
- Find people with whom you feel safe, who will just listen and be with you without judging.
- Maintain your connection with your child, in whatever way is most meaningful for you and your family.
- Accept that you will have flashbacks and that grief will well up periodically. Coming to terms with the death could take many years, possibly the rest of your life. This may affect one of you more than the other.
- Try not to make hasty decisions about relationships or anything else.
- Remember to seek out support when you feel you are struggling, whether it is through counselling, support groups, online chat rooms or forums.
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: 28/9/20
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.