I was scared when we lost our kids, for a lot of reasons. On top of everything else I was feeling… I was scared for us. For Mike and I. For our marriage and relationship that for so long centered around our children, and then was gone. I was scared because I was so tired. SO tired. And I was mad, and sad, and sucked dry. I had an honest conversation one night with Mike, soon after our world fell apart. I told him I’ve never had to grieve like this before, and I didn’t know what I would need to get me through this. I told him I didn’t know if I’d need space, or alcohol (I’ve never taken a sip in my life), or time away. I told him I was scared about us. He looked at me and said, “Ashley, whatever it is that you need, I will be here, no longer how long it takes you.” And in that moment, I knew that we were going to be okay.
Over 80% of marriages end in divorce after the loss of a child. When I read that, I thought that we were doomed. I felt like 80% might as well have been 100%, because they sounded the same to me. But as I heard the resolve in my husbands voice that night, I also became determined to not let our marriage fall apart, even though it felt like our entire world just had. We’ve worked hard this year… together. There have been some key things that we have done, now looking back, that have brought us closer together during a year that surely should have torn us apart.
If you are going through loss, high stress, trauma, or grief, I want you to know that I am so, so sorry. I hate that you know what this all feels like. But I want you to know that you can get through it. That we all can get through it. And I hope that these 5 things will help strengthen your relationship with the people you love, instead of tearing you away from them:
1- Be Open and Honest With Your Feelings, and Understand that no Two People Grieve The Same. Mike and I have needed completely different things during our process of grief. I have been in therapy, I have needed to express myself daily, I have been openly mad and angry and sad. Mike, on the other hand, internalizes things. I have had to learn how to pay close attention so I can catch the cues that he is having a really hard time, and then I have had to learn what he then needs. It is okay to grieve differently than your spouse or loved one. It doesn’t mean that one of you is grieving wrong, or that one of you cares less, or that one of you is trying to forget about the event. Be open in your understanding. Communicate. Make a list of what it is that you need, and tell your spouse. Then, ask them how you can best help them, too. Do not assume that they need what you need, because very often, you will need different things, and frustration comes when a spouse thinks they are helping, but the recipient of the help is wishing they were responding to their cry for help in a different way. Be patient with each other. There is no life book on how to grieve and feel pain the right way, so understand that you both are going through something new, hard as hell, and give each other grace and love through it.
2- Go Away Together. One of the first things that Mike and I did was go to Europe. It was a place we had talked about visiting for years. We actually had always said that before we had kids we’d go there… but our situation turned out differently. Then, we would say that when the adoption was finalized we’d all go there together. The trip was painful, but it was full of beauty and growth that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It brought us closer together. It allowed us to see the world in a new, expansive way, and it was a memory that just the two of us had together. We were gone for 3 weeks. Going from being parents to two active kids, to suddenly having no kids and way too much time to spend together, was incredibly hard. We relearned how to live, just the two of us. We needed each other more than we needed anything else, so it was important to go and escape and seclude ourselves from other driving forces so that we could take time to just collapse together. We were collapsing, and we needed to feel it together.
3- Create new Memories and Traditions. This year, we’re going through all of the firsts. First birthdays without the kids, first Christmas without them is coming up. Our first Halloween not having our family costume and trick or treat tradition is coming up tomorrow. It stings. It makes me throw up. But I also don’t want to loose the happy pieces of life because they’re too hard to live through. So, we’re holding on to important family traditions and honoring our children in that way, all while creating new memories with just the two of us. We go new places and try new things that don’t constantly trigger us. This Christmas, because we know how painful it will all be, just the two of us are going to spend it together in Germany. A new place, a new memory. For Mother’s Day, Mike was very thoughtful about what our new tradition on that very hard day would look like. Create new memories and traditions together… this does not mean to forget the old… but it means to cling on with hope to the new.
4- Start Fresh, Together. Our starting fresh has been very drastic, but its been what we’ve needed. I’m by no means telling you to sell your entire life belongings and move across the country, but I’m telling you that you are going to need some fresh things in your life. We sold everything. We moved from Phoenix to Nashville. Mike switched jobs, I started a new company, and we did it together. The reason this is so important, is because it helps you find the good in life. It helps you remember that although you are currently in the depths of despair, that there is still life to live, there are still things to learn, and there is still beauty to see. If you stay in your old routine, it can very easily start loosing its flavor, and depression becomes a constant companion. I’m not saying that adding in new things to your life cures your depression. I battle it often still. I am saying that it will help you find excitement and joy in new areas of life. And when you both can get excited about something new together, that, my friends, is a win. Starting fresh also means that you get to be careful with what you allow back into your life. Take your time to rebuild. It’s new. The newness is beautiful and feels like hell all at the same time. Be careful to make decisions out of thought, and not out of trying to bandage your life. Your life can’t be bandaged, but it can be rebuilt.
5- Ask Your Spouse This Question, “How are you doing, TODAY?” When you are able to figure out how they are doing in exact moments, then you know what they need in that moment. Help each other, hour by hour. Understand that the grief cycle can play out in your life multiple times a day. Love each other well enough that you allow understanding and compassion even when you feel confused as to why your spouse is or isn’t feeling a certain way. If both of you are committed to knowing how your spouse is, today, then you will know how to better meet their needs in the moments that they need you the most.
I believe that marriage can be strengthened through the darkest trials of our lives. It’s not easy, oh my friends it is not. Collapse into life together. Break down, and then build up your lives again, only allowing the best things to be invited back inside.