When A Relationship Ends While Grieving the Loss of a Child
One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with the loss of my daughter to stillbirth was also experiencing the ending of my relationship with her father. Though my friends and family assured me that a majority of relationships end after the loss of a child, that wasn’t what I saw. When I attended support groups for baby loss, it seemed everyone was part of a couple except me. I was more often than not the only one grieving as a single parent. Husbands would hold their wife’s hand as they told their stories. Wives would talk about how strong their husbands were, returning to work after a short – if any – bereavement leave. These couples seemed to be surviving their loss together. They were supporting each other, even growing stronger through it in many instances.
When it came time to tell my story, I felt like the odd one out. My daughter’s father and I had separated shortly before my due date under difficult circumstances and had hardly spoken since her birth. Despite my hope that we could reconcile, the possibility seemed unlikely now that we had lost her. I struggled with the loss of my daughter and of the person I felt should be grieving her with me. I was experiencing cumulative grief, more than one loss on top of the other. When I talked about all of this, though, I became painfully aware that even other baby loss parents felt sorry for me. I know this because people would often hesitate, or follow me with “well, I can’t really compare to that…”
Loss is loss and pain is pain no matter what age, gestation or circumstance led to the loss of our children. I never felt I had it better or worse than anyone else. Still, it seemed I often gave couples a sense of “thank goodness we still have each other.” I know I did not make grieving as a single parent look any easier than the challenges they faced in sticking it out together.
The statistics on surviving as a couple after a loss are mostly misunderstood. I remember reading that 80-90% of marriages end after the loss of a child. As it turns out, the actual statistics are likely much, much lower. A 2006 Compassionate Friends study puts the divorce rate after a loss at 16% while another study from 2008 found it to be around 30%. Most of these were attributed to preexisting problems, and not specifically the loss of a child. These lower numbers seem more accurate to me.
Grieving as a single parent isn’t as common as we think, but it comes with its own challenges and struggles. Parents grieving a loss together share some of these, while others are unique.
Challenges of Grieving as a Single Parent
Sleeping alone was torture for me in the beginning. I lay awake many sleepless nights, trying hard and failing not to relive every painful moment surrounding my daughter’s stillbirth. I agonized over decisions I thought might have saved her and blamed myself. When I could sleep, I woke up from dreams that her father and I were back together, and she was alive. Crying myself awake, I remembered the reality that my psyche just couldn’t seem to accept.
Every birthday and anniversary, I’ve celebrated her without her other parent. It’s likely to be this way for the rest of my life.
No one ever said it to me directly, but I was aware that many people believed it just “wasn’t meant to be.” Her father and I weren’t together, so they thought maybe it was “for the best.” This saved me from the “at least you can have another,” or “you’ll get pregnant again, soon” comments, but it was still unbearably painful since every fiber of my being knew that she was supposed to be here. She was an incredibly loved and wanted child. Inevitably, people assured me that “you’ll meet someone else,” “you’ll have another someday,” or “you just need to get back out there.”
Dating After Neonatal or Child Loss
I did not “get back out there” very quickly, though. I couldn’t imagine how to go about dating while I was postpartum and grieving as a single parent. How would I answer the question, “do you have any children?” for starters. Writing about neonatal loss, scrapbooking for my stillborn daughter, and going to baby loss support groups were my “hobbies.” Not exactly the kind of thing that reads well in an online dating profile. Not to mention the thought of subjecting myself to the “swipe right” culture of Tinder made me want to stay single forever.
It took me several years, actually, to be ready to brave the dating world. I hadn’t closed myself off to the idea of meeting someone before then, I just wasn’t actively seeking it out. It took me several awkward attempts at revealing my loss to realize it was best to get that out of the way straight off. If a person couldn’t deal with it early on, chances were they would never be able to deal with it. Not surprisingly, it scared some guys off. Others braved on ahead but ended up not being the right person for other reasons.
Healing and New Relationships After Loss
When I did finally meet someone, it came with a new set of joys and challenges. Finding love again after loss went a long way towards healing my broken heart. Being able to love, and feel loved again healed me in ways that nothing else could.
My daughter is still my daughter from a previous relationship, though. Unlike a blended family situation, my new partner will never have the opportunity to meet her. He won’t get to know her, or come to love her for the amazing soul that she is. He has compassion for my loss, which I am so grateful for, and makes space for acknowledgment of it. Still, there is only so much he can understand of a little girl he has only heard about. Despite his open heart and understanding, I am still grieving as a single parent.
Support While Grieving as a Single Parent
When a relationship ends along with pregnancy, infant or child loss, parents have a unique set of challenges before them. The loss of a child is devastating. The additional ending of a relationship or marriage means dealing with cumulative loss and grief. It’s especially important to make sure you have good support. Friends, family, a support group and/or a therapist experienced in bereavement are all important resources. I relied on all of these at different times for support and healing. It can often feel like you are the only one in your situation, but please know, you are not alone.
If you experienced the end of a marriage or relationship after neonatal or child loss, what challenges have you faced? What have you found most helpful or supportive while grieving as a single parent?