One week ago, I was absolutely gutted. I didn’t have a chance to see the news until I went to pick my daughter up from school. Just before she ran out to greet me, excited to start our weekend together, I read about other parents who would never see their little ones again because a mentally unstable man had gunned them down.
Like parents all around the world, that night when I put Riley to bed, I held on to her a bit longer than normal.
“Mom, why are you hugging me so tightly?”
“Because I am so grateful for you.”
“Oh. Go ahead then.”
I was able to squeeze my daughter. But I was also able to hold my husband. Because after I loved on my child, my attention turned to him. You see, the divorce rates for couples who lose a child are notoriously dismal. One study estimated that there was an 80% chance that a couple would split up under these circumstances.
My heart aches for the loss the couples in Newtown are experiencing, but I am also deeply concerned about their marriages. Will the death of their children be compounded by divorce in the years to come?
As I dug deeper on these questions, I took a long, hard look at my own marriage. How would Eric and I do if – God forbid – something happened to our daughter? Because even when it doesn’t make international news, tragedy strikes. Children get cancer. They drown. They are killed in car accidents. They are stillborn.
Friends of ours lost their two-year-old boy when a tornado ripped through their campground. One moment they were enjoying their vacation as a family, and the next minute they were dealing with indescribable loss. Eric and I present with this couple at a marriage conference each year where they openly share their story. Here is their perspective about processing loss without losing each other:
When we lost our son Lucas, people told us about the high rate of separation for couples who had lost a child. Our experience was that EVERYTHING is magnified. So, if you had a bad relationship, then that would be magnified. If you had a good one, then that would be magnified. We found God blessed our good relationship and brought us closer together than ever.”
If the unthinkable happened in your family, how would you and your spouse do? What would be magnified in your relationship? What are you currently doing to invest in activities and choices that would anchor you as a couple in the midst of tragedy? Are you carving out time for “professional development” in your marriage – perhaps through a marriage conference or coaching? Are you booking get-away weekends so that you and your spouse can reconnect? Are you scheduling date nights?
Without a doubt, we want this horrible situation to remind us to appreciate, love and value our children each and every day. But let’s not forget that what we are building into our marriages – right here, right now – predicts how we would navigate the tumultuous waters of grief as a couple.
 Rando, T. (1985.) “Bereaved Parents: Particular Difficulties, Unique Factors, and Treatment Issues,” Social Work, Vol. 30, p. 20.