My Disabled Daughter Died. My Marriage Should Have Died Along With Her.
How We (Barely) Avoided Becoming Another Sad Statistic
When our landline phone rang at 7.45am on Saturday morning, May 23, 2009, my wife Gabriella sprang out of our bed and ran to the kitchen to answer it. The next thing I knew, she hurled it across the floor, and began to mumble unintelligibly. So I did what I had always done as a Special Needs dad when mom was losing it — I kept calm. This was how we had survived the myriad highs and lows of parenting our first born daughter Michaela, who was born brain injured and had cerebral palsy.
On this date, Gabriella and I not only experienced the greatest loss an individual could bear, the loss of a child, but also, unbeknownst to us at the time, we had also unleashed a ticking time bomb — our marriage.
Unofficially, an estimated 80–90% of all couples divorce after a child dies. The reasons for this are the following:
- Each spouse grieves differently, because each and every person approaches grief differently, thereby creating tremendous friction on what seems like a minute-by-minute basis.
- Even the most basic of life’s decisions are now fraught with meaning; the harder choices are virtually impossible to make.
- Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Or more accurately — no sex, lots of alcohol, and either very loud music, or none at all.
We did have a few things in our favor. At the time, I was working for a large company, which had a generous leave policy, and I had a great relationship with an HR person who helped me navigate the firm bureaucracy. My wife was staying at home, and she had given birth to our 3rd daughter, Maayan, just 12 days earlier, so her maternal instincts were in overdrive.
After the funeral, we immediately entered an intense and utterly exhausting week of visitors for our Shiva (mourning) period. When that ended, and the people left, over the next three months, our daily routine consisted of sleeping as much as possible, sitting on our front porch steps reading condolence cards, and hoping against all odds that we would wake up one day, and this nightmare would be over.
Yet the nightmare continued. Michaela did not come back. The pole and feeding pump, which nourished her nightly, stood idle and silent in her room. As did her orthotics for walking. As did her stander and feeding chair.
The greatest silence of all, however, was the deafening silence between Gabriella and I. Like ships passing in the night, we crisscrossed each other in our house, stopping maybe to share a meal. When we did talk, we fought. She was angry at me for my stoicism, and at herself and me for letting her go so long after her water broke before getting admitted to the hospital. I was just angry — at losing a child, and at losing my one source of unconditional love, my mother, to pancreatic cancer a decade earlier.
So how did we make it to 12 more years of marriage, 21 in total? I’d like to say we have had some special secret weapons — a world class therapist (she was good, but not that good), a forgiving constitution (neither of us has this), the hand of G-d. In reality, we made it because we chose to stick it out, to live our own incredible pain in the company of the one person in the world whose heart was shattered in almost, but not quite, the same way.