My husband Russ and I are the parents of 12 kids through birth and adoption and sometimes more through foster care. While having a big family brings lots of joy, it also means there is a lot of work just to keep everyone functioning. Some of our children experienced trauma in their early lives which added many needs to our family.
The strain of parenting placed a heavy load on our marriage, and we were not always each other’s best supporters. To care for so many children, we often had to divide and conquer. Two of our children had medical needs requiring us to travel 300 miles each way to a children’s hospital. Often, I would take a few children with me while Russ held down the fort. On one trip, our daughter was unexpectedly hospitalized, and I was stuck in a big city with four other children to care for.
It was difficult to support each other and feel connected from a distance. I found myself snapping at Russ over the phone. I was overwhelmed and scared, but my fear looked and sounded a whole lot like anger. I remember the moment he walked into that hospital room though. All of my resolve failed, and I fell into his arms sobbing. I had been strong for days and now he could be strong for me.
Our marriage could have buckled under the pressure of parenting kids from “hard places,” but we held on to Jesus, and for the most part, we held on to each other. Little did we know that these years were preparing us for the hardest year of our marriage yet.
On an icy highway in a tangle of metal, crushing pain and the loudest shattering sound you can imagine, our lives changed forever. We lost our 13-year-old daughter, Kalkidan, in a tragic car accident. We were in shock, injured and devastated.
Our initial instinct was to do what we’ve done in every other crisis of our lives: to wrap around each other, hold on, protect each other and walk together every step of the way.
And we did — until we didn’t.
Months passed, the shock wore off and grief set in.
While we wanted to grieve losing a child together, grief has its own rhythm. And it’s not the same for everyone, not even husbands and wives who love each other.
Russ went back to work (far too soon, we agree). I stayed home.
Russ talked to friends and even strangers. I was often silent.
Russ wanted to be with people. I couldn’t bear to be in public.
Russ wanted to visit Kalkidan’s burial site. Going there terrified me.
Russ wanted to choose a statue for her garden. I couldn’t think about it because nothing seemed right.
The easy flow of our marriage disappeared in this complex maze of loss, pain and grief.
A friend who lost his young daughter to cancer told us that 85% of couples who lose a child end up divorcing. I find that statistic sad, yet I understand how it happens.
While walking through this dark valley, my husband and I found the following helped keep us connected, and I’d love to share them in hopes of helping others.
Turn to the Lord
When the storm rages around you, He is solid. Pray for each other and for your marriage. Remind yourselves of all the times He has been faithful to you and trust Him to carry you through.
Turn to the Word
There was a period after losing our child when my brain couldn’t focus enough to read. Grief can do that to you. But we can immerse ourselves in the Word in simple ways. Try listening to an audio version of a familiar book of the Bible.
I asked friends to email me their most comforting verses and then wrote the verses on index cards that I tucked in my Bible, put on the kitchen windowsill or taped to my bathroom mirror.
Listen to music that is filled with the truth of Scripture.
Turn to your people
This is not a time to hold it all together. Ask your most trustworthy friends and family to faithfully pray for you and your spouse.
In times of crisis, people want to help but don’t know how. Giving them a specific task will help them as they grieve alongside you.
See a counselor or spiritual advisor who can guide you through the grief of losing a child. Your world may feel as if it has shattered. Let a wise person help you find your way through it.
Turn toward each other
I found myself withdrawing from nearly everyone after we lost our daughter. For months I only left our house for weekly physical therapy. I found it hard to be around people and wished I could wrap myself in a blanket and never leave home again. This feeling of being removed from life made it harder for me to connect with Russ. A few simple things helped us turn toward each other.
Hold each other. Physical touch and affection are like glue for a marriage. Hold hands. Hug. Make love. Kiss when you greet each other and say goodbye.
Go to bed together each night. It’s easy to get off schedule when your entire world has fallen apart. If you can’t sleep, you can get up again, but the simple act of getting ready for bed and lying close are important for connection.
Create simple touch points during the day. Words may be too difficult, but you can find emojis that mean something to you and text them back and forth.
Spend time side by side. Take a walk, drive or bike ride together. Or sit together and watch a movie. Spend time physically close to each other.
So here we are, over 36 years from the day we promised our lives to each other. And it’s been five years since our precious daughter Kalkidan went to be with Jesus.
I love Russ more than I can say. We’ve weathered so many challenges. Through it all, our faith in Jesus, love for each other, the vows we made and the rings we wear keep us clinging to each other.