Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Close Enough to Forget: 8 Ways to Support your Spouse after Loss

About this series:  We all need encouragement, to be reminded we matter. Sometimes the nearest and dearest to us get the least of that needed encouragement. We've all spread ourselves too thin at times leaving little reserved for the ones we've committed to give to most, our spouse. So we're going to do something about it. We're going to focus on the ones living right under our own roof, sleeping in our own bed. But no worries if you're spouse-free. You can apply the encouragement to someone in your life who needs it: children, co-workers, friends, family members. Any soul will do because we all long to know we are seen and heard. Wherever you see "spouse," substitute someone else's name.  So grab a cup of coffee or whatever it is you're drinking today, and get ready to give a little. You'll be glad you did.
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even with loss, we can still grow roots
On June 30, 1998, I sat at the edge of a tiny hospital bed with my husband and watched our 9-month-old son, Noah, die.  The loss of my first and only child (at the time) rocked my world worse than anything I endured before or since.  It has become for me a defining moment in everything that matters—my faith, my perspective, my hope, and my relationships—especially, my marriage.

I realize very few of you have experienced the loss of a child.  But I know most of you have experienced other devastating trials that shook the very foundation of your marriage covenant.  Maybe it was infidelity.  Pornography.  Job-loss.  Depression.  Chronic illness. Bankruptcy.  A wayward child.  An aging or dying parent.

All those things involve loss.  Whether it’s loss of a dream or an ideal, of health or security, it’s still loss.  And all loss involves grief.  And all grief involves terrible stress on a marriage. In our nineteen years of marriage, Jon and I have experienced four of those things I listed, plus the death of our son.  Our marriage has been attacked repeatedly—sometimes by poor choices we made, and sometimes by life circumstances neither of us expected.  Statistically speaking, we should have divorced years ago.

But, instead of allowing our bad choices or unexpected circumstances to destroy us, we chose to fiercely protect and defend our marriage.  Because of this, we have grown in depth and commitment to each other in a way neither of us could have anticipated.

It was not easy.  And it won’t be for you, either.  Significant trials wear you down, leaving you vulnerable and depleted.  Depending on the nature of your situation, one (or both) of you may feel tired,  irritable, angry, sad, helpless, or hopeless.  Maybe you are pushing each other away rather than running towards each other for support.  Maybe you can’t fully articulate your feelings or your needs, let alone try to recognize and meet your spouse’s needs.  Maybe you truly cannot see how your marriage will survive. 

All of that is normal.  You don’t have to deny the toughness of your situation.  But the toughness of the situation shouldn’t be the final word in your relationship with your husband.  I am no marriage expert.  I am simply living proof that a marriage can survive and thrive after repeated losses—including the loss of a child.

Now, here’s the part of the post where I wish I could introduce all the eloquent things I said and self-sacrificial things I did to save our marriage after Noah’s death.
  
I can’t.
 
I was a complete mess for about a year after we buried him.  Basically, I cried a lot.  So, if you wondered how I supported Jon…I’m pretty sure I didn’t.  (Unless by “support” you mean “cry a lot.”) 

Jon, on the other hand, was a rock.  That’s not to say Jon is not perfect.  He is not.  Jon would be the first to tell you he has made many horrible mistakes in our marriage—some of which greatly contributed to our marital troubles through the years.  But with God’s help, Jon was able to support me after Noah’s death in ways I didn’t even know I needed—ways that far surpassed any expectations I had of him.  So, my forthcoming suggestions of how to support your spouse during a loss come solely from the way Jon supported me.

·      Validate.  After Noah’s death, no matter what I said and no matter how crazy, mean or angry I felt, Jon responded with, “you have every right to feel the way you do,” or “I understand why you feel this way,” or “I understand why you would say that.”  He probably did not understand everything anything I said, but he never judged or corrected my feelings.  This made me feel safe.  It caused me to run to Jon before or instead of anyone else.
 
·      Touch.  No matter where we were, if I would start crying, Jon would simply open up his arms and say, “Come here.” Then he’d embrace me until I stopped.  Jon doesn’t always know what to say to me when I’m grieving, but that’s okay, because I don’t always want him to say anything.  The human touch can be more powerful than the right words, especially between a husband and a wife.

·      Liberate.  Jon let me take the lead through my stages of grief.  He never made me feel like I cried too much or withdrew too long.  He never questioned me when I didn’t want to move Noah’s things from his room, and he never questioned me when I was finally ready. He gave me permission to grieve freely, which liberated me to heal completely (a critical step in repairing a damaged marital relationship.)

·      Encourage.  If I had a dime for every time Jon said to me, “It’s going to be fine.” I am not kidding when I tell you, he said this every. single. time. I expressed fear or anxiety about the future.  “What if our next baby dies?  What if I never stop crying?  What if I never feel real joy again?”  No matter what I asked, Jon would say, “It’s going to be fine.”  I would often ask in response, “How do you know it is going to be fine?” and he’d say, “I don’t know, I just do.”  Of course, he had no way of knowing whether or not it was going to be “fine.” But it always made me feel more secure that my husband had hope for me—hope for our future. 

·      Pray.  Two weeks after Noah’s death, I became pregnant with our second child.  Along with the obvious joy, I felt devastating fear.  My prayers for this new baby seemed so inadequate—I wasn’t even sure I knew how to ask God for healthy babies, since my prayers for Noah resulted in death. Sometimes I was afraid to pray at all—that if I prayed for my new baby, she would die, too.  Jon never questioned or challenged that fear.  He would simply say, “I understand why you’d feel that way,” then put his hands right on my growing belly and pray. Every day.  Out loud.  And I’m not talking a trite prayer, either.  I mean a full-blown, faith-filled, spirit-led, I-don’t-care-what-anyone-thinks prayer.

·      Stand in.  When I couldn’t answer the phone, answer the door or answer another question, Jon would take over.  He never pressured me to respond, and often protected me from overly zealous people.  I recall hearing him field phone calls or visitors saying, “She’s a real trooper…she’s so strong.”  Not only was he helping in a practical way by talking to the person so I didn’t have to but also in an emotional way, by expressing to others that he believed in me even when I felt like I was falling apart.  He always made me feel like I could still be strong and grieve at the same time—that grief was not a sign of weakness. (It’s not, by the way.)


·      Ask.  I know the dynamics of your marriage are completely different from mine.  If you can’t see how any of these suggestions will translate into your relationship, the best thing you can do is ask your spouse what he needs.  Just come right out and humbly say, “What do you need from me right now?”  Listen to what he tells you.  And then do it.

·      Get help. It is unwise for you and your spouse to rely solely upon each other for emotional support.  You are quite simply ill equipped to be everything he needs.  This is always true, but it is especially so after a loss. Therefore, I highly recommend that you seek the love and support of your family, friends and church.  If you do not have a stable support system outside of yourselves, seek professional counseling, either together or separately. 


The enemy of your soul is always looking for an opportunity to destroy you and your marriage. If you are not vigilant in protecting it and your spouse, who will? God knit your hearts together—divinely, eternally.  You may not understand your spouse’s needs, but you can trust God to direct you so you can become a safe-haven for him through any loss and its aftermath.  And then your marriage will become a testimony and an inspiration, not a statistic.


Sandy Cooper is a freelance writer, Bible study teacher and author of her personal blog, The Scoop on Balance (www.thescooponbalance.com). Her passion is to encourage women to live a life of balance through intimacy with God and hearing His voice in everyday life. Her greatest accomplishments include surviving the death of her 9-month-old son (Noah), surviving a seven-year battle with clinical depression, and finding a laundry system that actually works (the search for which may or may not have contributed to the depression). She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with Jon (her husband of 19 years) and her three living children Rebekah (13), Elijah (11) and Elliana (6). But she longs for her eternal home where laundry piles will cease, life’s battles will make perfect sense, she will be reunited with Noah and stand face-to-face with the God who sustained her through it all.

Linking today with Jennifer, Tracy,  and Emily.

29 comments :

  1. wow great advice here that could be used in any loss situation. Thank you for sharing. I have a friend who is experiencing a great deal of loss right now and you have affirmed how I should reach out to her. Thanks

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    1. Jean, I am so sorry your friend is suffering loss. Yes, please support her. She needs you. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. My husband lost his dad last December, suddenly. He wasn't there when he died but was able to be there for the funeral, and Christmas and New Year. I wasn't there - I was home looking after the kids and keeping 'life' together. We are going to (across the ocean) to be there just after the anniversary and spend Christmas with his mum.
    Thanks for the advice

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  3. Oh, Rebekah--I pray you are able to find some meaningful ways to support her after her loss. :)

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  4. What a wonderful post. Thank you. The strength of our husbands is just amazing sometimes, such a blessing. We are on the verge of losing my mother-in-law, and I have been at such a loss at how to help my husband. This is so helpful.

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    1. Losing a parent is so difficult. I lost my mother 6 months after my son died. It was terrible. I pray God helps you comfort your husband in his grief.

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  5. Awesome advice! thank you! I have lost two by miscarriage and the loss I felt was very real. We both leaned on each other for support and got through but sadly many do not. So glad to hear you were able to make it through and emerge still intact and together! blessings..Nicole

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    1. Nicole, I am so sorry for your losses. Miscarriages are devastating to expectant parents...especially moms. I started bonding with my babies from the moment I received the positive pregnancy test. Losing them at any point would be terrible. I am happy to hear you and your husband supported one another and weathered that storm. God bless you.

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  6. Wow. This was so beautiful and, you're right--loss comes in so very many forms in this broken, fallen world. And, it can either tear a marriage apart or cause husband and wife to cling to Christ like he's all they've got left. Because, you know, he really is what I so desperately need.

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    1. Major life storms either make you or break you, for sure.

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  7. Thank you for being brave enough to share such intimate times of darkness with us. I think you are right that we all have a dark time of some sort. These steps are relevant to more than one situation. As far as the loss of a child? That sort of darkness seems insurmountable. I believe you've given hope today for those who mourn.

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    1. After Noah died and the initial wave of heavy grief subsided, I begged God, "Please do not waste this pain. Use it, somehow, for your kingdom." I wasn't even sure what I was asking, but I knew I didn't want darkness to win and get any satisfaction at the loss of my son. So, if I can encourage someone, give them hope that they will be okay, I believe God is using it for His glory. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Lori.

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  8. Just ....

    No words.

    This is a gift. A very beautiful gift.

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  9. I'll just say this is an extremely relevant post. For now, I have to leave it at that. But it is thought-provoking, and not in an entirely comfortable way.
    I'm so sorry for the loss that you have experienced, but am inspired by the way you have chosen to let God use it (as you said,"Please do not waste this pain."). Thank you for sharing and encouraging.

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    1. Thanks Christina. I appreciate you sharing with me that the post was relevant to you. I'm sorry if you are suffering any loss. :(

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    2. Super relevant for me, too. Thank you, Sandy. (And Jen, for hosting.)

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  10. "Please do not waste this pain."
    I can't imagine the depth of your loss or even being of a mind to ask God for that. My heart breaks for the pain you've been through, yet I am so very grateful for your story. I pray that when and if the day comes when I or a loved one is deep in a similarly dark valley, that your words and suggestions will be there to help me help them. Thank you so much for sharing.

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    1. I remember the very day I prayed it--where I was and what I was thinking. I just felt like darkness (Satan, evil, death) was getting some kind of satisfaction at the death of my son. I wanted God, good and life and win. Thank you for your comment. I hope you NEVER need any of my advice. :)

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  11. God bless you both, now and in the future, for fighting these battles and staying married. So many wouldn't. Some of the things you mentioned I've experienced but the worst...ever...was the death of Dave, my husband, last year. I'm still reeling and the stinking pain is unrelenting. If it weren't for God telling me, "But if you kill yourself, you'll never know my plans for you", I'd have done it months ago.
    He is faithful, among the pain, the loss, the aloneness (not loneliness), the work...GOD IS FAITHFUL.

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    1. I am so very sorry for your loss. Thank you so much for your candor in this comment. I completely understand the depth of your grief, and have felt the exact same way--wanting to die. I remember telling God through anger and tears, "I will serve you, but not because I love you. Only because I love Noah and want to see him again in Heaven." I think it is SOOOO important for you to keep that dialogue open with Jesus. I applaud you for telling Him exactly how you feel (He already knows!) and being sensitive enough to hear Him speak to you. It is dark and hard and extremely exhausting walking through grief, but I promise, it gets better. I really, really does.

      Feel free to e-mail me directly if you need to chat about anything. thescooponbalance at gmail dot com.

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  12. Just beautiful.
    But really, Really hard to read.

    My husband was not so supportive or encouraging during & after the years of trauma with our little boy. He was often angry, impatient, and irritated with my tears & fears. He grew up in a home where negative (sad or angry) emotion was not accepted...and thus had little ability to handle my sorrows.

    In the past several years, we've started to dig into this area - and he's learning to embrace the reality of inevitable sorrow, anger, fear. I pray we can someday experience the unity described in your precious blog.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

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    1. Teri: I hesitated to write this post for the very reason you described. I realize our situation is not like other situations. I know many couples who experienced loss of one kind or another, and the husband was a complete idiot. I pray you are seeking wise counsel (I would highly recommend professional) so you can work through these issues. I doubt you will be able to move past it and fully forgive him if you do not. Plus, you just need him to understand how to support and comfort you--and he probably needs a 3rd party to help him get it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I'm so sorry you had rough years with your child. :(

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  13. Sandy, I am SO blessed to know you and I am honored that you posted here today for us. Your heart has helped so many and I love to see how He works through your words. Thank you!

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    1. And I am blessed to know YOU. Thank you for having me. :)

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  14. oh sandy. how i ache with you. oh, what a loss to have to endure. thank you for having the courage to share with all of us today. bless you.

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  15. Our Sarah was 9 months when she went to Heaven. The statistics are alarming for divorce rates after the death of a child. We promised each other the first night that we'd grow closer, not apart. For us that meant allowing each other to grieve in our own way. It also meant many of the things on your list. Beautifully honest and needed writing.

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    1. Pamela, I am so sorry for the loss of your little Sarah. You were so wise to commit to be close to each other in your journey through grief. It's not easy, as you know, to drag yourself through the darkest, most painful days of your life, let alone keep a marriage together. I applaud you and your husband for making it. And thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here.

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