On the first Friday of the new millennium, the phone rang just as we were leaving for dinner. Since our three kids were grown and gone, this was the new normal: work hard all week, then dinner on Friday night to get back in touch. “I’ll get that,” Becky said, and picked up the phone in the den. It was Mark Schneider, who had been sworn in that morning as the Clinton administration’s new Director of the Peace Corps. “Mrs. Thyne, is Mr. Thyne home?” Becky said later that evening that as soon as Mark identified himself she knew it was about Jesse, our twenty-four year old son who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea, West Africa; and she knew the news would not be good. I picked up the cordless phone in the bedroom and walked toward the den. “We’re both here, Mr. Schneider.”
Mark told us that Jesse had been killed that afternoon in a collision between the bush-taxi he was riding in and a stake-bed truck full of farm laborers heading home at the end of the day. In those few minutes, our “new normal” exploded in the horror of death and the destruction of what we assumed, until that moment, was our future.
Becky and I got back to work in a week or two. She is a lawyer and I’m a psychotherapist, so we threw ourselves into routines that brought us comfort and stability simply by their familiarity. My practice soon included a new dimension: friends and professional colleagues began referring to me families who lost children to sudden death or to the long agony of some childhood illness. So I’ve spent over a decade dealing with the impact of death on our marriage and helping other couples navigate the terror and destruction when their child dies. I’ve learned a great deal in these difficult conversations, and I want to share with you three crucial factors that will help define the future of your marriage should you face the loss of a child.
First, whatever strengths and weaknesses are in your relationship, the death of your child will expose them. If your marriage is in pretty good shape – if you communicate well, if you have broad-based compatibility with one another, if each of you is emotionally healthy – these essential strengths will emerge and give you solid ground to stand on as you deal, first, with the shock of the moment of death, then with those awful weeks when you try to get your balance back, and finally with the long process of recovery as you learn to metabolize your loss into its permanent place in your marriage. If your marriage is not in very good shape, these seams will be exposed and pressed upon by your child’s death. If you’ve neglected the honest conversation that is the core of every successful marriage, if your years together have laid bare painful incompatibilities in your marriage, if either of you has neglected your emotional health, then your child’s death will threaten to break you apart.
Becky and I had been married for nearly forty years when Jesse died. We’d already made our way through two earlier crises – the loss of my career as a minister in 1981 because of inappropriate extra-marital relationships, and a long separation through the 1990s during which each of us faced up to our personal unfinished business. Miraculously, after seven and a half years apart, we found our way back to one another. We knew ourselves well by then, and stitched together a marriage with deep personal integrity and constant, honest conversation. When Jesse’s death crashed in on us, our marriage held; the work we’d done individually and as a couple had made us strong enough, resilient enough to find our way to yet another “new normal.”
Make no mistake: the death of a child will expose and test the strengths and weaknesses in your marriage.
Second, your marriage is more likely to survive the death of your child if you have a purpose in life that continues even after the tragedy. If your purpose in life is wrapped up exclusively in your relationship with your child, her death may well crush you.
Each of us still had work that challenged and rewarded us. Becky plunged back into her law practice and took on a new project: helping families with aging, ailing parents or disabled children find solid financial and social footing. I added to my practice that special attention to families whose children die or who face the tragic death of a spouse or sibling. And I wrote a book. Three years after he died, I began jotting notes for poems about Jesse. Over a decade, these notes became a memoir, THE AWFUL GRACE OF GOD: Faith, Death, and the Survival of Hope. It was a way to give shape to my grief and permanently inscribe our memories of our son.
We still had Shannon and Brendan, who were eight and six years older than Jesse. We hurled ourselves toward one another when we first heard the news, staggered together through the planning of a service – a complicated task since our children no longer believe or worship as we do – and talked every day for months. Three or four years after Jesse died, Shannon married Chris, and they now have two boys, Jesse and Joe, who are nine and seven. Brendan and Diana have been together for nearly a decade and are parents of the amazing Iris, our nearly-three-year-old granddaughter. Jesse’s death has driven us deep into one another’s lives, and our family now gives us a sense of purpose every day.
When Jesse died, both Becky and I were still firmly rooted in the Christian faith we grew up in. We were, and still are, active and grateful members of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, a thriving, socially active parish we share with many of our friends. But what has happened between us and God in the years since Jesse died is a more complicated story. It has been difficult for both of us to trust God’s love for us when Jesse’s death seems so capricious. Becky still sings in the choir and thrives in committee work (Yikes!), but can barely voice anything like a creed or a profession of faith. I have shifted my devotion from some kind of heavenly Father to the stories by and about Jesus of Nazareth, this charismatic Jewish rabbi whose intellect, compassion, and courage model for me what it means to be human. He grounds me in a way God no longer does. Now each of us leans forward and finds our sacred purpose in language and practices we could not have anticipated before Jesse’s death.
So the death of a child will expose the strengths and weaknesses of your marriage and challenge whatever gives your life purpose.
Third, we could not have made it without our community of friends and extended family, and if you lose a child I don’t think you will either. Jesse died on a Friday night. By late morning on Saturday our home was crowded with my sisters and their families, members of our church community, and friends whose love and loyalty were much deeper than we knew. Sam was on the fourteenth green on Saturday morning waiting to putt when his wife Sharon called. He walked off the green, drove straight to our home and was there every day and evening for ten days. He’s still in our lives, as loyal as a sunrise. Mimi and Phyllis, Becky’s friends from church, took over the kitchen, monitored the phone, ran to the market – whatever needed doing. I had learned early in my life as a minister what I now came to know at a cellular level: it’s after about six weeks, when the memorial service is long over, when the extended family is back in its routine, when something new has grabbed the community’s attention – it’s then that we most need our friends. We were grateful every day that Sam, Mimi, Phyllis and a dozen others kept showing up, as did Shannon and Brendan’s beloveds. As much as the four of us needed one another, we also needed our closest friends to find a way to breathe again, to believe once again that life could make sense, to dare to be happy again once the worst of the pain subsided.
We know we will never be the same since that January night in 2000 when Mark Schneider phoned us. As full and happy as we are now, we can still touch the empty space where Jesse used to live in us, still remember the laugh we’ll never hear again, still wonder whom he might have married and what their children would be like. But we’ve made our way from that tragic night to these years of steady love, meaningful work, and a community of family and friends who sustain us.
And you will too, if you nurture the strengths and diminish the weaknesses in your marriage, find purpose in life beyond the deep meaning you get from each child, and nurture friendships that are so faithful that when you’re driven into the abyss, your friends will be there with you.
Patrick Thyne is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Pasadena, California. His memoir, THE AWFUL GRACE OF GOD: Faith, Death, and the Survival of Hope, is available on Amazon.com in a Kindle edition or paperback. Patrick also runs the websiteWhenLifeGetsDifficult.com, where he invites anyone struggling with any life issue to comment and receive an insightful response.