Bereaved Parents and Divorce
by Dr Mark Hardt Ph.D. & Dannette Carroll
Note: Finally, we have a statistically responsible study that shows accurate data for bereaved parents. This article is a summary of the recent study done by Dr. Mark Hardt and Dannette Carroll of Billing, MT. Their full report including percentages and tables can be obtained by calling Dr. Hardt at Montana State University-Billings at (406) 657-2991 or fax him at (406) 657-2187.
The death of a child is such an unusual and unexpected event that the consequences of such a loss will be particularly severe. This is especially the case when the death involves youngsters who are normally expected to under the protective care of their parents. Child mortality can come at any age, and given the expectation that children should outlive their parents, the impact of child death at any age can be especially severe. Once one assumes the role of parent, she/he is, for all intents and purposes, always a parent.
In any case, the death of a child can eventually lead to emotional estrangement, apathy, and indifference toward the marriage. In 1977 a bereaved parent wishing to illustrate the need for a formal examination of the risk of parental divorce subsequent to the death of a child guess-timated that 75% of such parents eventually divorce within months of the death (Schiff, 1977). The figure is not derived from any empirical evidence; it was meant to illustrate a need for analysis.
Unfortunately, many marriage counselors, bereavement therapists and scholars came to accept that statistic as fact. Others attempted to measure the incidence of divorce. Unfortunately their statistics are based on anecdotal evidence or a small number of focused interviews. A regrettable practical outcome of these statistics is that family counselors are left in a position of not knowing the kinds of problems that couples potentially face or how to advise adequately advise them.
There is a paucity of evidence to either support or refute the widely accepted contention that a strong relationship exists between the death of a child and divorce. This study thus represents the first attempt to empirically examine the likelihood of divorce being an outcome of the death of a child
To assess the commonality of divorce as an outcome, a survey was administered to parents who had lost a child. Respondents were asked if they had divorced subsequent to their child’s death. Parents who had not divorced were asked whether they had considered divorce following their child’s death. If they responded yes to either question, parents were asked how long after the death they had done so.
Questions were also asked concerning the bereavement experience. The first of these questions asked whether the respondents grieved alone or together, the expectation being divorce considerations are more likely when the bereavement experience is less shared with the marital partner.
The final questions examined in this study concern perceptions of blame and guilt. Using a four-point scale, respondents were asked whether they frequently (1) or never (4) blamed their spouses for their child’s death. A follow-upquestion asked whether respondents felt their spouses blamed them for the death.
The same scale was used to assess feelings of guilt by the respondents. The expectation with these questions is that attributions of blame or guilt have an adverse impact on marital stability, and are thus more likely to lead to divorce considerations.
Finally, since research subjects in this study are individuals who have read a grief support publication, or who have attended grief support conferences, it is assumed that most respondents are parents who have sought counseling following their child’s death. It is expected that counseling is a mitigating factor in divorce considerations.
Research subjects were obtained from two sources. First included are volunteers who responded to a call for participation posted in Bereavement Magazine, a national grief support publication. Other subjects are volunteers who attended chapter meetings and/or conferences of various national grief support organizations, including The Compassionate FrIends, Parents of Murdered Children, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and Share, a pregnancy and infant-loss support group. Since the sample is comprised of volunteers to a call for participation, interpretation of the results must include the recognition of self selection bias.
Description of the Sample
In general, the sample population is female, more educated, of higher income and older, with an average age of forty-five. Of the 253 completed surveys, 37% were returned by fathers. The relative absence of fathers in the sample may be an indication of a social proscription which restrains males from overt displays of emotion. They are less likely to seek assistance for emotional stress.
The more highly educated are also more likely to be represented, with more than half of the sample reporting to have a college degree or post graduate education. Finally the sample population is decidedly high income, with somewhat more than half (51%) of respondents reporting household income at the time of their child’s death of more than $50,000.
In a similar fashion individuals with lower incomes and education generally lack the resources to acquire assistance for emotional stress, even if they are inclined to seek it. This is unfortunate, because there is no difference in the manner in which individuals of different social classes grieve (Rando, 1984:69), only in how they are able to deal with it.
Frequency of Divorce
Only 9% of respondents divorced following their child’s death. 24% of the remaining respondents had considered divorce but had not actually done so. Instead of serving as a catalyst to separate, it would seem that a child’s death can actually serve to draw couples together.
The majority of respondents reported that both they and their spouses had sought counseling after their child’s death.
Notably, respondents who have not considered divorce are less likely to have sought counseling than those who had considered divorce. This may indicate that couples whose relationships is strong are somewhat less in need of outside counseling than couples whose relationship is more vulnerable.
Perhaps because parents were asked to assess their prior relationship with a child whose death has evoked some measure of grief, no association, is found between perceptions of the parent-child relationship and divorce considerations. Notable as well are the changes in perceptions of the marital relationship subsequent to the child’s death. Examining the shift in each parent’s perception prior to and subsequent to the death provides a clearer image the impact of that death on marital relations. Almost one third of parents who have considered divorce sustained negative relationships with their spouses following the deaths of their children, while nearly half had positive relationships that worsened following the child’s death.
Beyond family relationships, there are social psychological dimensions to the bereavement experience that shape the experience and affect subsequent outcomes. For example, if expressions of grief are suppressed, the grief process itself may lead to estrangement. In a similar fashion, the loss of a child may precipitate a sense of blame by one or both parents, that can create a fissure that threatens the marriage. No one in either category reported that they and their spouses had always grieved together. This suggests that during the grieving process, it is important for couples to be supportive and responsive to their partner’s grief, but also allow them emotional space to experience their grief on their own terms.
Blame and Guilt
Perhaps because blame has an accusatorial tone to it, most respondents report they never blamed their spouse for their child’s death, nor did they perceive attributions of blame from their spouses. Feelings of guilt, on the other hand, can more readily and acceptably be expected to result from the trauma of the loss of a loved one. Guilt, more than blame, influences divorce considerations.
Parents who have considered divorce are far more likely to express guilt feelings. Those who have not considered divorce are more likely to have rarely or never felt guilt. The small number of cases for those who have considered divorce, however, makes any conclusive interpretation difficult to make.
Feelings of guilt may not be overtly expressed. This is perhaps why respondents are less likely to report expressions of guilt on the part of their spouse. For those who have not considered divorce, in particular, are much less likely to perceive expressions of guilt from their spouse. By contrast more than half of parents who considered divorce frequently or sometimes perceived spousal expressions of guilt.
This study provides the first empirically derived insights into divorce outcomes resulting from the death of a child. While the number of respondents from this national sample is thus far small and self selected, the results nevertheless are an improvement on the unsubstantiated assertions which currently inform the understanding of post mortem spousal relationships.
It is unfortunate that while coping with their grief, parents are all too often presented with the stressful omen that divorce is a fait accompli. For couples who lose a child, it is important that divorce does not appear to be the inevitable outcome that has long been assumed. The consideration of divorce is a far more common outcome, but relatively few couples act on these sentiments. It is important, too, that even divorce considerations are nowhere near the magnitude of the common assumption of a 75% divorce rate among couples who lose a child.
It is also important for parents to recognize that feelings and attributions of guilt— more than expressions of blame—will increase the likelihood that their marriage is adversely affected. Couples need to be supportive of their partner’s grief, without being so overwhelming that the partner finds it difficult to experience the unique dimensions of the grief that both otherwise share. Couples also need to recognize that in a society where parents assume that their protective role will result in their children surviving, expressions of guilt by either parent may also jeopardize the spousal relationship.
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