marriage: an investigation

How a Marriage Survives the Death of a Child

They say you can never understand someone else’s marriage. But this week, New York Magazine and the Cut decided to try. We interrogated dozens of couples (and a throuple) to see what makes their marriages work — or not.

Joe and Lynn, Married 25 Years

Joe: I remember after my daughter was born, a friend said, “You have a king’s family,” because we had a son and a daughter. I felt on top of the world. The following winter is when Mason had his accident.

Lynn: Losing a child, it’s worse than anything you can imagine. He was 2 years old. He died at a Christmas party, eating cashews. He didn’t choke on them; he aspirated. We went to a party and came home without a child.

Joe: From the time I started dating my wife, I couldn’t fathom what my life would be like if she was not in the picture. So the thought of somehow allowing my marriage to be torn apart by something — I don’t think that ever crossed my mind. We were reading, getting advice; perhaps we were on the lookout for the possibility that this could cause a disruption. We got through everything together. We kind of were functioning like one person.

Lynn: My husband and I talk about this all the time: Why are we still together? We’d only been married about three years when this happened, and it definitely made us feel like we are a strong unit. We didn’t know what we were doing, but it shaped us as parents, as people, and as a married couple. I think it shaped everything.

Joe: We weren’t really grieving together. We didn’t sit around the table crying to each other much. But I would have an episode at work or while I was driving, and I would bring it up. To this day, if something reminds me of my son, I’ll tell my wife about it, and my kids, too.

Lynn: I give my husband a lot of credit. He’s super-flexible and easygoing, so he defers most decisions to me unless he cares about it. He’s an atheist, and I’m Jewish. We had to make a decision quickly about the funeral. My grandparents had died a few years before and there was a space open for Mason in a Jewish cemetery. So I said, “How about we bury him next to my grandparents?” If he’d resisted, I think things would have been harder. All the things that came up — like donating organs, burial — we didn’t have a conflict.

Joe: So you have a recording of my wife saying that I’m flexible?! I have to have a copy of that.

Lynn: For a good six months, you’re in denial. I honestly thought I could resurrect him. My husband was going through his own grief. He wasn’t thinking about resurrection — not that we talked about it. A lot of our time was spent crying, either together or in isolation. We probably cried for a good two years, and we didn’t have to explain it to each other. It was just understood. Also we had an 8-month-old, and then we had another child one year after Mason died. That was a snap decision we made after his death. It’s funny, when Joe’s asked to give advice to other people, he always says, “Don’t make any major decisions in the first year,” and I’m like, Joe … ahem … we kinda made a huge decision. I was sad, and I thought, I just can’t prevent pregnancy when I’m so sad and want another child. We discussed it, and he was like, Okay! He might not even remember that he made a big decision.

Joe: My family has always been very open to talking about Mason. If my wife was not okay with that, if she grieved differently than I did or said, “Don’t talk about him,” then I really don’t know what I would have done. I liked her so much and certainly can’t imagine trying to get through my son’s death without her. Whether she feels she helped me, her response to my grief was very helpful.

Lynn: The only thing we didn’t do together was his anniversary day, the day he died. My husband really likes to go to the cemetery on that day, and I don’t really want to share my time with him then. It’s a grief moment, where I want my grief to be mine and I don’t want to see his grief. He’s such a touchy-feely person, so he wants to share everything, hug it out. We never fought about it, but he goes every year without fail and I often don’t go.

Joe: If you were to ask me why this destroys some marriages, I would probably say that some marriages are ripe for being destroyed. I have found that a lot of guys I talk to genuinely don’t like their wives! Lump on some serious stressful times, something’s gotta give. As it happens, around the time of Mason’s accident, I was really into being around my wife; it was one of my favorite hobbies. And Lynn was pretty receptive when I would talk about my feelings.

*This article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

How a Marriage Survives the Death of a Child