“How are you doing? How is Rick? How are the two of you managing?”
“We’re okay,” I’d answer, and it was the truth. I began to realize people were watching the two of us. Would our marriage survive this tragedy, or would we, as sometimes happens, be torn apart?
Years later I was able to look back and put this period into better perspective, but at the time, it made me uncomfortable. People thought we were amazing. Conversations went this way. “Rick and Bobbi were there for each other the whole time. Tragic as it was, it brought them closer together.”
Often, a story about some other couple would follow, going something like this. “He just couldn’t handle it. It drove them apart.” (Usually the blame landed on the father. I mean, how can you judge a mother who’s just lost her baby? Anything is forgivable for her.)
But were we really so virtuous? To be honest, we weren’t. The simple fact was that our grieving was compatible, a matter of personality, not effort.
Rick and I are quiet as a rule. Both of us. Quiet and private.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed our baby’s death, both of us had to find our own way of processing what had happened. We had no choice but to handle our sorrow according to our personalities, our individual history, and our experiences before, during and after Wendy’s death.
And we survived, marriage intact.
Were we doing something right where others had done something wrong?
Or were our individual grieving experiences able to exist side by side without conflict?
Rick worked full time. I ran a small home day-care along with caring for Andrea.
On a typical evening, Rick might come home from work to find me standing at the sink, washing dishes as tears streamed down my face. I’d acknowledge him and maybe comment, “It’s one of those days.” Rick would nod and carry on to the bedroom to change from his coveralls.
I was okay with that. Rick coming home at the expected time, being in proximity to my sorrow met my need. But what if that hadn’t been enough? What if I had craved physical contact, needed him to hold me, drop everything and sit by me while I sobbed? Would I have become bitter at his apparent lack of compassion?
What if I’d needed to talk and talk and talk? Would I have condemned him for not providing that listening ear?
What if he’d needed to drown himself in work, coming home at late hours? Would I have been justified in accusing him of abandoning me in my hour of need?
What if… what if… But for us, there was no ‘what if’. We each needed space with proximity. I didn’t need to talk with him about my grief. I had many around me who were willing and able to listen. Rick didn’t need to escape the intensity of my sorrow to be able to cope with his own.
We did need to know we were walking the same path. We needed to honour each other’s sorrow. And Rick, thank God, was able to stay close to me in my pain, even when he felt he had nothing to offer. For me, it was enough.
For another Mom, would it have been?
I expect that for some couples, the grieving of the mother isn’t compatible with the grieving of the father. In such situations, observers might translate this to mean the death of their child drove them apart.
My opinion is experiential at best. Still, I think there are ways to help. When friends and family see what might appear to be an incompatibility in the grieving of a momma and poppa, they can step in and try to fill the gap. Because of the extreme vulnerability, women for the momma, men for the poppa, would be wise.
Be the listening ear for the one who needs to talk.
Be the arms to hold for the one who needs a shoulder.
Be the companion at the gym, or on the jogging trail for the one who needs distraction.
Be the beer-drinking buddy who carries the car keys and brings everyone home a little buzzed, but not inebriated.
Be the one, when the spouse cannot.
Maybe that would help.