Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Grieving as a Couple

"We are not getting a divorce, no matter what," this is one of the things I remember saying to Nathan as we rode home from that awful doctors visit on April 14th after being told our son had died just 10 days before his due date. I felt compelled to fight for our marriage right away, not knowing what that would even look like.

Since that day I have come to learn that the divorce rate for couples who lose a child is 80%. And the thing is- I totally get it. Marriage is hard enough, now pile on the unnatural death of your child and it becomes nearly impossible. On the upside- it seems that the 20% of people who do not get divorced after their child dies have a bond that is unshakable. I would like to say this is the case with Nathan and I. We are stronger now than we ever have been and I can't imagine going through this with anyone else.

 I'd like to share some of the things that have helped us during this journey.

1. Make your needs known. We are not mind readers. As soon as we got home from delivering Caleb, we sat down and had a talk. We both agreed that if one of us was upset and crying then we would leave that person alone, unless they verbally said "I need you to come comfort me." This helped because I was such a wreck that I was crying all the time. I didn't necessarily need Nathan right there next to me all the time. It took the pressure off of him to know when I needed what.

We also made our needs known in other ways. Nathan is an introvert, I am an extrovert. Once he went back to work after Caleb died, when the weekends came, he was spent. However, I had been inside all week mourning our son and trying to just survive that when the weekend came, I needed to get out. So, again we made our needs known. We often say things like "what do you want this weekend or night to look like?" That way we get a feel for what the other is thinking the day will look like. It really is a delicate balance of learning the other's needs then deciding who's need comes first. This sounds easy, but during grief when you feel like you are bleeding to death on a battle field, taking care of someone else's needs is hard to do.

2. Don't compare yourselves, your grief, or your abilities. I struggled so much with thinking there was something wrong with me because I wasn't reacting the way Nathan was. About a month after Caleb died, Nathan's family came back in town to stay with us and help put up a fence in the back yard. I was totally unprepared for how hard having people in the house for the weekend would be. I made it through breakfast Saturday morning and had to go back to the bedroom. I barley emerged all weekend and I felt terrible about it. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't act "normal" and host and help with yard work and act like things were fine. I felt so guilty that Nathan was able to. It was humbling for sure.

Men and women are so different and the grief affects us all differently. Mine has been intense and sudden. Nathan's comes in waves and is spread out over time. I heard somewhere that it takes men about a year after the initial loss of a child to even really start grieving. This makes sense. Right away it would have been bad for us to both be acting like I was. I could not function, but he could. I had to let go of my pride and be humble about letting him take care of me.

Nathan says he feels like we are both in a battle and right now even though we are both wounded, he has to make sure to get me to safety before he can take care of his wounds. So, he does. This summer and into the fall he was the one working, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, paying bills. I basically just tried to stay alive and live through the fog that had become life.

If you are  a grieving wife, I would say let your husband take care of you. It is an opportunity for him to serve you and it won't last forever. Realize that you both were made different. He will be able to go to work and function while you might not be able to. We call this the waffle vs. spaghetti effect. Men are like waffles, they can take something and "waffle it" or file it away in their brains until they need it or have time to deal with it. Women are like spaghetti, the things in their life touch everything else just like spaghetti on a plate- its very messy. Do not think you husband did not love your child as much as you just because he is not crying like you are or doesn't bring them up all the time. Men are not emotional and they deal with things differently. I have seen most of Nathan's grief come out in other ways like little annoyances around the house and dealing with cars and things like that. Little things that need to be fixed seem to throw him over the edge and I know that it is the grief speaking a lot of the time.

We even went away for our anniversary in June and somehow managed to have fun.

I would recommend this for couples grieving. The truth is you cannot talk about your loss all the time- it will make you crazy. You need some "fluff" to get through life. So we tried new things and were able to have something to talk about other than how bad life seemed to be. We both took up new hobbies and tried to continue to drink deeply from life even though all we wanted to do was sleep and stop living. We treated ourselves. During the summer I think we had drinks on our porch almost 2-3 times a week. We just needed to pamper ourselves in a way that we hadn't before. So try new things and be nice to yourselves.

3. Find ways to properly memorialize your child. This is a work in progress and when I say "properly" I don't really even know what that means. All I know is that it's been good for us to memorialize Caleb. We tend to his grave and change the decorations with each season. We set up a memorial table for him this Christmas. We also had a memorial tree of ornaments remembering all the babies we have known who have died since Caleb. This helped us direct our energy and was a good way to still parent Caleb. We got a dog and call her Caleb's puppy. We are currently working on a wall in our bedroom with some mementos of the funeral and pictures to make it a memorial wall. We planted a garden out back in his honor. All of these are little things, but they help. They give us something positive to talk about in regards to Caleb. We can only re-tell the sad story to each other so many times. These memorials give us a way to make his memory live on.

4. Women- find others to talk to. Naturally women are more talkative. While my husband is great and will talk about Caleb any time, I know that my need to bring it up far outweighs his. Especially in those first months, I felt the need to tell and retell and then retell his story over and over again. It was so healing to just be able to say his name. You spend your whole pregnancy talking about your baby and plan to do so the rest of your life. Then after a loss, people are silent and everyone acts like nothing happened. I couldn't handle not talking. Finding good support groups or grief counseling helped so much. Currently I attend a weekly grief support group, a monthly pregnancy loss group, lead a monthly pregnancy loss group myself, and go to bi-weekly counseling. And it all helps-  so much. It gives me air to breath and an outlet. Otherwise I think I might suffocate my husband with my need to talk it out. I have had to battle the feeling of weakness because I need all of this and Nathan doesn't. But again, we are different and by me getting the help I need, it makes me a better wife and allows me to serve and love Nathan more.

5. This is another one for the wives. Learn to say no. I have noticed in the 9 months of grieving that it is important to say no ( and as my counselor says- no is a complete sentence). There have been many times when I have been invited to a certain place or situation that I know will be hard for me and painful. At first, I would just go and grit my teeth. What then followed was awful. I would come home, cry, and be down in the pit for 2-3 days. It took a lot of effort on Nathan's part to help get me out of these dark times. Then I began to realize that this wasn't fair to him. Yes, I know there are times that I will breakdown and have whole days where I don't get out of bed. But, if I can try to control or manage those then it is less taxing on him.

So, this has required a lot of giving up things on my part (even those things that would appear "good"). I know certain situations, people, or events that will leave me spent and drag me into the dark pit. I now try to avoid those in order to give Nathan some rest. His time off to rest each week is limited and I don't want him to spend those precious hours tending to a hysterical wife. Now, this doesn't mean it will be that way forever. But for now, I have to stay away from others with babies, avoid situations that I know will be hurtful to me.

It is actually a lot harder than it sounds because me having to say "no" tends to make me look pathetic (at least I feel like it does). Sometimes I feel that people really don't understand why something as simple as bringing a new mom a meal (when I have nothing to do all day) or going to a baby shower is out of the question for me right now. I know if I tried to enter into that it would leave me crying on the bathroom floor for at least a day or two and that's not fair to my husband. When I took my vows I vowed to love him first and get him to Heaven, so really he is my main concern. Putting your husband first by saying no to certain "land minds" can feel weak and be hard, but again it is the greatest thing you could do for your marriage.

6. Put God first. Wow, this is a big one and I left it until the end! Jesus has to be your number one. I believe Nathan and I have been able to heal so much because we don't look to each other to do the healing. Only God can heal us. We both have very different relationships with God and we need Him in different ways. I cannot look to Nathan to give me the answers I need as to why Caleb is gone. I have had to take so many of my questions and heart ache to God. And God can handle it! He can handle my anger, my hurt, my bitterness, jealousy, sadness, all of those emotions. Nathan would collapse if I put that pressure on him to "fix" all of me. Making time to pray (or really just cry to God) is important. I try to give Nathan one night during the week where he can come home and I am gone. This way there is no pressure for him to be "on," as a husband that night. He is free to pray and have alone time which he desperately needs (remember-introvert). He feels refreshed from this and I am happy that I was able to do something productive for him. I also have to make sure to carve out time for prayer. I journal, listen to music, anything to keep coming back to the source of life. I can't say I always want to go to God, but its important for our marriage that I don't lay all of my burdens over the death of our son on my husband.

7.Last but not least- Just try to stay alive. I read this phrase in a grief book shortly after Caleb died and we clung to it! It has been out motto for the past 9 months. It sounds easy, but after a loss living is really the last thing you want to do. "Just trying to stay alive" has meant us lowering the bar on our standards of how our home is run. In the beginning we simply could not keep up with the housework. So, we decided to have only 2 nights a week we would do the dishes, instead of feeling pressured to clean them every night. I must say some days we looked like a frat house, but who cares? We certainly weren't entertaining anyone.

We give each other a lot of grace in regards to the old "normal." We try not  to get upset when the grass isn't cut on time or the garbage is missed for the week. We didn't even put up a Christmas tree this year because we both felt we lacked the energy or motivation. Overall, everything is little when you are just trying to stay alive. So don't be afraid to lower your standards for the time being. It won't last forever and in the present moment you need to direct your energy to just trying to stay alive.

These are all just a few things that have helped us as a grieving couple. There is such a temptation to withdraw into yourself during times of grief. Putting work and effort into your marriage during the hard times seems next to impossible, but it is worth it and will make you stronger in the end.

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