The Truth About Marriage After Child Loss
It is not debated that the hardest thing a couple can go through is the death of a child. You’re never prepared to bury your child after any manner of death, but child death by suicide is more difficult and complex to manage. The death of our son has changed us indefinitely. We are learning how to live again and writing our survival story of losing our firstborn child and only son to suicide when he was 17 years old. We did not foresee this tragedy in any way, shape or form. When the unthinkable happened the life we had been building since November 20, 1998, came crashing down and took a devastating turn.
As parents we built a safe and happy home for our children. Both of us came from broken families and promised each other that divorce would never be an option. I met and married my husband when he was serving active duty in the Army and I realized very quickly that I had no idea what I was in for. That being said, our life together was very challenging at times and we spent a lot of time apart, but nothing could have prepared us for what happened on August 12, 2019.
Caleb didn’t come with a handbook on what to do or how we were to survive when he died. We relied heavily on the help and support of many people during those very early days. I was nothing but mush and could barley breathe, but my husband stepped in and handled all the difficult details and his military-trained-mind was very helpful. He was able to focus on the important tasks, answer the hard questions and do the painful things a parent never wants to do, like pick out clothes for our son to be buried in. I’m grateful for the amazing family and friends that walked through those difficult responsibilities with my husband, because I was not able to.
The day after Caleb’s funeral hit us both very hard. We woke up and thought, did we really bury our son yesterday?! We began to navigate parental bereavement blindly. Even up to this point, which hadn’t even been a full week yet, his and my experience of Caleb’s death were unique and different and they have continued to be so.
The saying “No two people grieve the same” is painfully true. Grieving a child is intense and puts a heavy strain on a marriage and family. We have a shared trauma, but the grief process is very individual. Not only that, it is very isolating. Time does not heal parental bereavement…the grief never stops! It’s been 2 years and 3+ months since Caleb died and we are still reeling from it, still trying to figure out our new normal and still trying to connect as husband and wife and a family of four.
There are many complex layers of grief from child death by suicide that it forced us away from each other and cornered us into our own painful and personal grief. The first and hardest hurdle we had to overcome was to not blame ourselves or each other for what happened to Caleb. It would have been easy to point the finger at my husband and tell him it was his fault for having a gun in the house and he could have blamed me for leaving Caleb alone at home after punishing him. Instead we understood and had compassion for one another that we did the best with what we knew at the time, which was nothing. We’ve had guns in the house since Caleb was born and he was raised and taught with gun safety. Never, NEVER, could we have imagined he would turn one on himself in a moment of weakness or it wouldn’t have been there! Had I punished Caleb and left him home alone before? Yes, many times! I never thought that he would die before we had a chance to completely talk and work through the reason for his punishment. Is the guilt haunting for both of us? Absolutely, but we leave the guilt with God and he has helped us let it go. When we were ushered into the room where our 17 year old’s beautiful body lied in a casket, we stood beside him and cried uncontrollably. I had a vision of Caleb standing between us with one arm around me and one arm around his dad saying, “I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt you and I would take it back if I could.” I thank God for allowing me that vision because at that moment I had a clear understanding. Caleb did not want to die and he would never hurt us, his sisters or anyone on purpose.
It is hard to grieve individually while grieving as two parents at the same time. We each have our own experience that drags us away from each other and into our own journey. We started individual counseling within two weeks. My husband went for a few months and I am still going. I have severe PTSD and my husband does not. I need medication to manage my anxiety and help me sleep, my husband does not. I am constantly in my emotional brain, my husband is not. I have needed EMDR and Brain Spotting Therapy to manage PTSD, my husband has not needed these therapies. I need to journal, write, read and process my grief out loud, my husband does the same quietly and internally in his own time. Just as we both had a different parental relationship with Caleb in life, that remains the same in his death. I share all this to give a picture of how different our grief journey has been. Tolerating each other’s grieving style is hard, but we are devoted to each other and promised Caleb we would honor him by healing. For the most part, we have been very understanding, patient and have allowed each other to grieve however necessary. We have open communication and share with each other when we’re struggling, if we need help, if we’re angry, if we’re sad, need comfort or just need to be held. About 11 months ago we went to our first counseling session as a married couple. We see an amazing trauma therapist who has helped us tremendously and given us some great tools and resources to help us walk through this valley of grief together. We are the only two people in the world who knows how it feels to lose Caleb as a child…we need each other now more than ever.
Another important thing to note is how crucial it is to have a support system outside of each other. There are definitely times we need to talk and process grief together, but we cannot “dump our grief” on each other every day. Thankfully, we both have safe people we can trust and depend on when we need that outside support.
We are achingly aware of the boy is who is no longer here, but our hearts are healing and we are rebuilding our life. The tragedy has brought about some positive changes because we see the world with different eyes. We are easy to forgive, more courageous, more loving, more present and more compassionate. God’s grace is sufficient and he has sustained us 100% of the days following Caleb’s tragic suicide.
As I was writing this post, talking with my husband about it and remembering all the painful feelings from the early days, he reminded me of a conversation we had just a few days after Caleb died. We were sitting across from each other at a table talking through our devastation when he looked at me with tear stained cheeks and said, “It’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to make it.” Here we are, making it. It’s painful beyond words, but Caleb would be devastated if he knew a choice he made destroyed the family he loved. Walking this walk is far from easy, but we’re going to keep processing, keep grieving, keep supporting and keep loving one another until God reunites us with our son.
If you’re not having conversations with your children about suicide prevention, please use my story as a reason for you start now. Suicide is preventable #talklistenprevent
As always your thoughts poignant, raw and beautiful. It helps us remember to slow down, don’t sweat the small stuff, and love fiercely. Love you ❤️❤️❤️
I’m reading your story and I see myself and my husband in both you and your husband. We lost our firstborn, only son, Joe on May 28, 2018. A year before you suffered your loss of Caleb. Joe died from a drug overdose (the death certificate states self-inflicted). what does that mean? He did it on purpose? I ask myself that question a lot. Every day I’m trying, but I’m dying inside too. It’s been 4 years, it’s still not my reality. My heart goes out to you. My husband and I are hanging on, you give us hope. Thank you.
Thank you for sharing, Elaine. Grieving a child can is so confusing, isolating and devastating. I’m so sorry for the loss of your sweet son, Joe. Thank your for following my journey and for reaching out.