SHARED BY JEN G.
Fighting the Odds
Some statistic out there says 80% of couples divorce after suffering child loss. I have no idea if this is actually true, but it became my truth. It was the truth I would push against every time our marriage hit a pothole, lost its footing, and especially when we hit rock bottom. Even at rock bottom, that statistic hung in the air and had me swearing I would not be part of it. Besides the odds against me, my daughters suffered through too much—too much out of their control—to then suffer through a divorce.
At the time Eli passed away, Tim and I had just celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary. As you can imagine, a child passing away is an extreme, world-changing kind of loss. You cannot prepare for it, let alone prepare your marriage for it. There is no "Brace for impact!" warning. I liken it to an explosion—an explosion I spent years navigating my way through, with the dust cloud continuously settled around me and around my marriage.
Eli’s five months on this earth were a complete upheaval for us. We spent weeks apart: I was at the hospital constantly juggling chaos with all my attention on Eli’s care and doctors, while Tim’s focus was our daughters and his job (our only source of income). When Eli was home, our nights were interrupted by nurses or needing to take night shifts when nurses canceled. There was little alone time—only survival. Everything revolved around Eli. I felt there were years left with Tim as my spouse but very limited, very precious time left with my only son.
A Deafening Silence
I think we went on one official date in those five months. Tim got us tickets to an outdoor theater to see my favorite female artist, Sarah McLachlan. While I was relieved to have some time away, I still spent the night clinging to my phone in case a nurse called. When at the hospital, we often slipped away for dinner, but we always hurried back to be with Eli for the evening doctors’ rounds.
Did you see the episode of This Is Us when Randall was trying to juggle his career, his marriage, his children, his brother, and his dying father? The story is wrought with tension and made me extremely uncomfortable because I knew that feeling all too well. The episode ends with Randall on his office floor having a mental breakdown, and that precisely reflected life for me after Eli died.
All the tension, all the chaos was gone, and then there was deafening silence. So much of my identity was wrapped up in Eli. I was his nurse, his caretaker, and his advocate. I didn’t forget to be a wife; it just wasn’t the main priority while Eli was alive. After he died, there was silence on one side, and on the other side was my living family, waiting for my attention.
The Road of Grief
My sweet, patient husband waited for me as the dust began to settle, but now the road of grief was ahead of us, and we didn’t have any choice but to drive down it.
When Eli passed away, our relationship was strained. We were pushed to maximum capacity just managing the chaos. We were exhausted mentally and physically, and in many ways we were strangers to each other. Eli changed both of us, but it was difficult to share how we truly felt inside when this vicious force of grief pressed upon us.
Tim and I were already exhausted, already fractured, and now we faced the hard part—learning to live without our son while finding our way back to each other. I thought the task was impossible. We never stopped loving each other, but the beginning of my grief wasn’t about love. It was about fighting the darkness—a darkness that wanted to consume, divide, and conquer. So much energy was spent on fighting the darkness and being present for my daughters; I didn’t have much left to give to our marriage.
The First Year
The first year after burying Eli, I was on autopilot when it came to my marriage. After nine years together, I knew our dance by heart, and it was just enough to maintain our relationship—but not enough to move it forward and definitely not enough to make it thrive. I was so numb that the thought of thriving again seemed like a fairy-tale wish, a wish that could only be granted by Tinker Bell or my fairy godmother.
We started going to a grief support group and intense marriage counseling. However, both forms of support only helped us focus on ourselves, shedding light in our personal darkness but not bringing us closer. We had moments of connection after those sessions—brief moments in which we opened our hearts to one another again. But those moments were fleeting. They seemed to vanish as soon as we stepped inside our home, the home where he died. His ghost could be felt in every shadow, every corner.
Our identities became “the couple whose son died.” At the same time, I battled the negative, cruel, deceitful voice inside my head that identified me as “the woman who couldn’t save her son.”
We both suffered in our pain and grief. Reaching for each other in the middle of the night was all we could give as a signal to not give up on one another.
Finding Rock Bottom
As awful as the first year was, heading into year two was worse. Year two was rock bottom.
Two months before Eli’s one-year angelversary, Tim came to me with a huge financial mess. The kind of financial mess that could bankrupt us, force us to sell our home, and force me to go to work full-time. While I had been on emotional autopilot, Tim tried playing magic acts with our debt from Eli, and whatever he tried didn’t work.
My grief fog exploded into anger, and I hit back hard. I deflated him, screamed at him, and threatened him with divorce. Then I dragged him back into the counselor’s office, where I screamed some more. Luckily for Tim, we have an amazing counselor who can talk me off the ledge. Unluckily for Tim was what happened next. Our counselor is so good at reading us that he knew Tim was hiding more than just a financial mess, and he pressed him hard. Finally, all Tim’s truth came tumbling out, and it was shocking and devastating. The foundation of our marriage cracked wide open. All I remember thinking was, "This is what rock bottom must feel like. What the hell do I do now?"
The next six months were our biggest marriage roller coaster. I was forgiving one minute, screaming the next—from “yes, we will make this work” to “GET OUT NOW!” I staggered between being intent on fixing it one day to being on the brink of insanity the next. It was the craziest all-out war for me, and I was simultaneously covering it up to protect my girls. I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing back and forth into absolute craziness.
I was resentful that Tim was making me focus on him and not on Eli. I had a lot of heart healing to do if we were going to stay married. Plus, I still had that damn 80% statistic that came up whenever I was so close to walking away completely; a small voice always reminded me not to be a statistic. Deep down, I knew beyond all the anger: I truly loved this man, and I certainly did not want to devastate our girls any more.
Working to Thrive Again
Tim was 100% all-in to restoring our marriage. He was committed, even when I was not. Not many men would go through the hoops I made him jump through. He never wavered in his apologies or his humility. He graciously went to counseling every week, whether with me or by himself. He sought help from peers, read books, and worked with me to have a plan for our finances. We attended a marriage conference and spent weeks focusing on how our marriage and parenting was directly affected by the ways our parents raised us.
Tim worked really hard to take my hits of anger and respond with love. For forty days straight, he wrote me a letter on why he loves me and left it on the kitchen counter for me to find every morning. Those letters slowly chipped away at my wall, and I ever so slowly turned to him again. The breaking of trust takes time to rebuild. By no means was everything restored at once. It took me months to stop being triggered every day, months to get our finances on a path to recovering, and at least a full year before trust was even remotely restored.
But it was his grounded, committed, fighting stance that kept us together.
With him shedding the weight of the lies he was keeping, he could finally see the amount of pain I was in. He decided we needed a three-part plan for my mental, spiritual and physical health. (I shared about this path last year in Eli’s Story, Part 3: Grief.) I went back to individual grief counseling and back to grief support for my mental stability. At the advice of the pastor who married us, I spent three months at another church to learn to worship again and to find God in the midst of my storm. This is when we also started to look into gastric bypass. Tim knew we couldn’t be restored in our marriage if I wasn’t getting healthier.
Truly, these measures helped in ways I could not imagine. By the fourth month of these changes, I felt like I could breathe again for the first time since Eli died, and I liked breathing. We slowly made other changes to keep me breathing. The road was not smooth, and it took another year to figure out what we all really needed. As the light crept back into my life, it began to shine again in our marriage.
Entering a New Life
Two years after rock bottom, we made huge changes for the four of us. Tim left his job as technical director of a local church and took a job in corporate America. Until this point in his career, he was never able to solely provide for our family on his income, but now he could! His career move was a game-changer for his self-esteem, his confidence, and his overall love for what he does. The joy and spark for his career returned, which became contagious in our home.
We changed churches for the first time in our girls’ lives. I found a perfect part-time job that accommodated Tim’s new work schedule. I had gastric bypass surgery and shed layers of weight both physically and emotionally. We made new friends and decided to strengthen old friendships. There were lots of changes all at once, but it was all for the good. We entered a new world where we didn’t have to be "the couple with the dead baby" or "the couple who almost gave up on their marriage." We worked so hard in therapy to be okay with our brokenness and also okay with the idea that we didn’t have to advertise our pain. Entering this new life—where we could be our authentic, broken, messed-up selves with no prejudice, no preconceived notions—felt like an enormous weight dropped off our shoulders. We all felt freer, lighter. This is what fully restored us.
Today, thirteen years into marriage and four years after Eli left us, our marriage is not perfect, but we are definitely thriving and restored. Year two’s rock bottom is far behind us, although the lessons we learned will always be beside us. We know how to communicate better; we know we need to schedule regular date nights; we know when we are both triggered; and we know we are a team, not enemies.
I love my husband more today than ever before because of the trench we got out of together. Although to be honest, he was the one lifting me out of the trench and believing in us, even when I didn’t.