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The Bereaved Couple

Forces that act on a Marriage after a SIDS Death

Reprinted with permission from the National SIDS Clearinghouse Information Exchange.
The full reference to any of the articles mentioned may be obtained by contacting the National SIDS Clearinghouse.

The powerful jolt of a SIDS death is a major crisis for a mother and a father-- the team naturally delegated to care for an infant. Nothing can prepare the parents for the shock of discovering a lifeless infant, the chaos of the emergency personnel crowding into what is normally a quiet nursery, and the feeling of being powerless to do anything for their infant. The details of that moment in time-- the hour, the day, the week-- surrounding their infant's death are frozen in the minds of the parents. Suddenly these parents are grieving the loss of their infant instead of caring for him or her. Each parent repeatedly faces this loss from the perspective of the roles of a man, a mother, a father, unique individual, and as part of a couple.

The bonds of any marital relationship are severely tested with the sudden death of an infant to SIDS. The statistics are not well defined, but some sources estimate a divorce rate among bereaved parents to be 40% to 70%. The marriages of these parents are not destined to end in divorce. In fact, some couples grow stronger as individuals and closer in their relationship with each other. Undoubtedly, 100% of bereaved marriages face certain readjustments and reorganization of their priorities.

The intensity of an often lengthy bereavement interferes with the bonds of communication, intimacy, sexual behavior and social relationships, all of which couples work to develop and maintain. Some couples who lose an infant to SIDS have not been married long enough to have fully explored and developed these bonds. Just as some marriages are torn apart, other marriages find ways to cope and become stronger.

There are unique characteristics of a SIDS death that make the grieving process exceptionally difficult for parents. As noted in the book entitled, Parental Loss Of A Child, some of these characteristics include the fact that parents must cope with the suddenness of the loss; the absence of a definitive cause blocks resolution of the death; it may be the first such severe loss of the married couple; siblings must struggle with their own ambivalence toward their deceased sibling as well as the disruption of the family unit; and the medical and legal aspects created by a SIDS death force the family to deal suddenly with police, medical examiners, and hospital personnel. These aspects of SIDS instill tremendous guilt in the parents and they often are convinced that they are to blame for the infant's death. Each parent repeatedly thinks through the "checklist" of his or her responsibilities for the infant, and wherever there are the smallest gaps, the parent may search for a place to put the blame. Sometimes blame is placed outside the marriage, but often it is aimed toward a spouse.

Bereavement is intensified by misconceptions which society holds about the way couples are expected to grieve. Example of these misconceptions are that all bereaved parents grieve in the same way; family members will always help grievers; bereaved parents only need to ventilate their feelings and they will resolve their grief; expressing feelings that are intense is the same as losing control; and only unhealthy individuals have physical problems in grieving. It is extremely important to remember that these statements are misconceptions and, in many instances, the opposite is true. All bereaved parents grieve in their own individual manner. It would be nice to think that family members always help grieving people but this is not the case. While it is their infant, it takes much more to resolve such intense feelings. Showing intense feelings does not necessarily equate to losing control. Many individuals have physical illness and pain during their grief but this does not mean that they are unhealthy.

There are, however, aspects of a lengthy bereavement that are damaging to the survival of a marriage, and couples should seek help if problems develop and persist. The most obvious problems are family violence, alcohol and drug dependency, eating disorders, extended problems on the job, financial crisis, and extended problems with surviving siblings. Other aspects of bereavement for which couples may consider seeking counseling include coping with an extended lack of communication between parents, making major family decisions, trying to overcome an extended physical illness, having more children, and breaking out of a vicious cycle of emotional traumas.

While a marriage symbolizes the ultimate partnership and source of mutual support, mourning the death of an infant is an intense, introspective process for each person. A grieving husband and wife may find that their reactions to the death, their emotional needs, and their ways of expressing themselves are extremely individual and self-absorbing. The grieving responses of the individual are more readily recognized as "normal" grief response, whereas the inevitable emotional strains of a grieving couple might be misinterpreted as marital problems.

There are several ways to confirm that many of the hurdles which grieving couples face are real, common to other bereaved parents, and possible to overcome. Parents supporting parents through bereavement support groups provide an atmosphere for sharing and empathy from others who know firsthand of the intensity of such grief. Parents also might find comfort by reading some of the many sensitive articles and books that help to soothe the pain and the difficulty of grief. A couple might be helped by the reflection of their lives in community projects or their church, taking a vacation, moving go a new house, or helping other grieving parents by serving as parent counsellors.

Parents do cope and their marriages survive the loss of an infant to SIDS. In addition to parents joining a support group, Garriet Sarnoff Schiff, author of the book Living Through Mourning, also suggests finding new activities that can be shared and scheduling time to talk about the hurts and share personal thoughts. There are not easy cures to the pain of the loss, but there are options to ease the very difficult "grief work" which couples must bear.

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1995-2017, SIDS Network, Inc. <http://sids-network.org>
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bullet Return to Grief Information Page

Help ensure that the Global Internet services
of the SIDS Network continue to grow!

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new.gif (112 bytes) Now you can translate SIDS Network Web Site pages to/from English, Spanish, French, German, Italian & Portuguese

1995-2006, SIDS Network, Inc. <http://sids-network.org>
All rights reserved. Permission to use, copy, and distribute this document, in whole or in part, for non-commercial use and without fee,
is hereby granted, provided that this copyright, permission notice, and appropriate credit to the SIDS Network, Inc. be included in all copies.

The opinions and information provided here are not necessarily those of the author and are presented for educational purposes only.
The author accepts no responsibility for content, accuracy or use.

Please report any web site problems to sidsnet1@sids-network.org
Web Design and maintenance by
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