The “Dear Sugars” podcast is an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains more letters; submissions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).
I recently married a wonderful man. We’ve been together two years, and we’re more in love than ever. Our first child — a baby boy — was born three months before we got married and he died. He had a heart defect, and there was nothing to be done. We’ve dealt (and are dealing) with our grief beautifully and differently, but together.
Still, I can see why so many couples break up after the death of a child. It’s so hard not to let the immeasurable sadness overshadow the joy of love. I’m wondering how we can overcome that pattern and whether our relationship will ever be the same as it was. Will we be as excited over the birth of our next child? I need reassurance that our love and excitement can exist after this. Right now, I’m working in the U.S. while we wait for his visa. It’s hard for us to have good communication and for me to feel supported while so far apart. I’m so lonely dreaming about my beautiful baby at night and missing my wonderful, sexy husband. When we were living together, “the shoulder to cry on” was always there. Now we’re relying on FaceTime, and it’s not exactly conducive to a good cry or heart-to-heart talks about fear and grief.
Steve Almond: I’m so very sorry about your baby boy. More than any words of condolence, I wish I could give you a hug. You’re asking two essential questions: whether your marriage will survive this, and whether your relationship will ever be the same. In fact, the only way your marriage will survive is for both of you to accept that it will never be the same again. How could it be? Your union was consecrated by this tragic event. It’s not a loss you’re going to “get over.” It’s one you’re going to have to integrate into your lives.
One thing that’s vital to realize is that it’s not the sorrow of a child’s death that tears certain couples apart. It’s a sense of isolation within that sorrow. You and your husband should consider it your central goal to share your feelings with one another, even and especially the difficult feelings: ones of helplessness, confusion, guilt, depression and even rage. You don’t have to feel the same things, or mourn in the same way, just commit to being open and honest. Recognize, too, that you need support as a couple: the love of family and friends, the wisdom of other survivors, the guidance offered by therapists — whatever it takes. No two people, even love-struck honeymooners, can get through such rough seas without all hands on deck.
Cheryl Strayed: My deep condolences to you, Grieving Honeymooner. I understand how you and your husband might struggle with not letting your sorrow overshadow your joy, but I want to challenge your assumption that your son’s death will have a negative impact on your marriage. While it’s true that some research shows that bereaved parents have higher divorce rates than couples that haven’t experienced a loss, other studies contradict those findings. The evidence is inconclusive, and it doesn’t much matter anyway.
I encourage you to forget about overcoming a statistic that may or may not apply to your life and focus instead on what you know: You and your husband are more in love than ever. The best reassurance I can give you that your love and excitement will exist after the death of your son is to point out to you that it already does. You and your husband have come through a terrible loss together and you’ve been supportive companions in your mutual grief, even while enduring the challenges of a long-distance relationship. For every couple ripped apart by hardship, another is more strongly bonded, and it sounds like you and your husband fall into the latter category. Take strength from that.
SA: One thing that might complicate your situation is that this loss came at such a volatile moment in your relationship. The physical distance between you, and even more so the anxiety of waiting for your husband’s visa, must be excruciating. I applaud you for being so kind to each another in the midst of this uncertainty, and so forthright in confronting the emotional risks of your situation.
You’ve had to mourn this loss, and weather this separation, at a moment when most couples are blissfully cataloging wedding gifts and building a future. The very name you’ve chosen (Grieving Honeymooner) speaks to this dissonance, as does the fact that you have to rely on a smartphone app to gaze into the eyes of your beloved. It sounds like FaceTime is inhibiting your emotional connection; I’d suggest writing letters or talking on the phone.
CS: I like Steve’s suggestion of using methods other than FaceTime to communicate, and I also encourage you to be creative about what you do during those exchanges. Instead of relying exclusively on the “how was your day” conversations, perhaps you’d feel more connected to your husband if you consciously expanded the things you share across the distance. How about reading a book out loud to each other or interviewing each other about an era in your lives or listening to a podcast together and then discussing it?
Part of what gets lost when we’re far away from those we love is the sense of connection we feel when we interact with people in a wide variety of ways, rather than exchanging a simple report of the day. I think, too, that talking about the future together is of vital importance — even while you process the painful past. Looking ahead to the time when you’ll live together again and have another child will inevitably bring excitement and joy to your conversations.
SA: You ask whether you’ll be as excited over the birth of your next child. Your fear, I think, is that you’ll never be able to recapture the sense of boundless hope you once had. That may be true. But I suspect you’ll be just as excited, only in different ways. The shadow of your first son’s death can’t be erased. But it might yet cast a light onto the precious opportunity you and your husband have to bring another life into this world.