This Q&A was an experiment. We endeavored to answer the question: What are the different ways men and women—and all people—grieve after the loss of someone they love? We quickly realized that was too ambitious a goal, and scaled back. Now, we hope to shed light on how we, us two specifically, grieved our shared loss of our son. Here’s a little background on us:
ALEXIS: My name is Alexis, obviously! I am an artist and author of Expecting Sunshine. Aaron and I have four children; Hannah is seven, Eden is four, and Luca is one. Our son Zachary would have been six, but he died at birth from a cardiac tumor.
AARON: I’m Aaron and I am the vice principal of a kindergarten to grade nine school. We learned Zachary would not live when we were about halfway through the pregnancy after having a routine ultrasound.
ALEXIS: The loss was devastating and encompassing. Marriage, too, was rough after Zach died, I’m not going to lie. We did, however, survive and are still married today—and are probably closer than ever. The stats say that around 80% of couples separate after the death of a child, which includes miscarriage, stillbirth, and early infant loss. In this experiment, we are hoping our experience can help other couples as they grieve side-by-side after a loss.
AARON: Our experience in grieving and moving through this process was wildly different from each other and there were days in which I did not think our relationship would survive. But here we are on the other side and now we are always willing and able to talk about our experience with anyone who wants to talk about it!
ALEXIS: We answered the following questions with just a few sentence answers and did not share our responses with each other until after. Let’s do this!
Experiment: He Said, She Said
Q: When you found out the news that your second child would not live beyond the womb, how did you respond?
AARON: I was shocked and was in disbelief. I couldn’t comprehend that our pregnancy would not go as we had planned. I think I had a significant amount of denial about it initially.
ALEXIS: My first reaction was shock and then desperation to find a way to save our baby. When all the ways were ruled out, I was depressed and heartbroken. I couldn’t understand why this was happening—and to us.
Q: When the moment came to say goodbye to Zachary, what was going through your head?
AARON: I was obviously upset and sad. I didn’t want it to happen. I was arguing with some greater being for “5 more minutes” or whatever I could get. I couldn’t get over how it was all happening so quickly—I needed more time.
ALEXIS: I was mad at the injustice of it all; I felt so much love for my child but was powerless to save him. I was totally in the moment, rocking Zach and trying to memorize as much of him as I could. It was heartbreaking that we had to give him over to a funeral home worker.
Q: How did you cope in the early days after your loss?
AARON: I think the early days were the easiest. I was numb and there was too much to do. We had to plan the memorial, and take care of Alexis’ health. It wasn’t until after the first couple weeks that it started to hit me hard.
ALEXIS: I don’t know if I coped—I just ate and cried and took care of Hannah, who was one at that time.
Q: Describe your grief journey.
AARON: I don’t know how to summarize this in such a small place! It was such a significant journey that included self-reflection, questioning my purpose and plan for life, plus how I would ever move forward. I dealt with denial, and not understanding how I could ever rebound from the trauma that we experienced. The (painfully) slow process of understanding how Alexis was grieving differently than me did lead to our relationship being much stronger, which I will forever be grateful for.
ALEXIS: It was—is—a long road and I came out of the raw, dark season slowly and in the process discovered who I am and what I am passionate about. I believe those things are Zachary’s gifts to me. Now I’m an advocate for healthy grief and the use of creativity in healing.
Q: What did you observe about your partner’s grief?
AARON: That it was completely different than mine. When she needed me to be there for her, all I wanted was to be alone. Alexis was hurting and confused. She needed answers but didn’t want to pursue anything. She was a deflated balloon.
ALEXIS: From the outside, it didn’t look like Aaron was grieving; he just went about his life and his job. He was much slower to work things out that I was and he did it in a more internalized way.
Q: Describe your marriage pre-loss. What changed post-loss?
AARON: Pre-loss we were naïve about so much more. We had a plan for life and everything was going to line up exactly how we planned it. Post-loss we were much more objective and pragmatic about decisions and planning for our life. We now also have a much deeper understanding and love for each other based on us coming through this all together.
ALEXIS: I think we were blissfully naive before—and after, it felt like we couldn’t understand where the other person was coming from. It was like we were speaking different languages. I think that’s what happens when two people come from families that deal with hard times in opposite ways. We hadn’t yet learned how to form our own way of working through things together.
Q: What did your partner do that drove you crazy during that time?
AARON: She would often argue that I needed to grieve in the same way that she was. If I was not responding in the way that she thought I should, I would be accused of not treating the situation as seriously as she was.
ALEXIS: It felt like he prioritized work over me, which hurt a lot.
Q: What did your partner do that was helpful?
AARON: At times, she gave me the space and the chance to distract myself that I needed. She also encouraged me to meet up with friends to talk and vent about life. She understood that other people would be able to be a support for me—even when I wanted to be alone.
ALEXIS: Aaron tried very hard to be a listening ear. I also really appreciate how he came to baby loss groups and remembrance events with me.
Q: How did you try to help your marriage in that challenging season of life?
AARON: I worked incredibly hard (at times) at trying to see things from her perspective. Also, being a guy, I would often inquire into how I could ‘fix’ things—which was frequently not wanted. As a couple, we started to focus on other positive tasks and activities together. This was not to distract, but rather to help us looking forward and so we would try to ‘take control’ of our lives again.
ALEXIS: When things were clearly not clicking with us, I found a couple’s counselor, which we went to for a while. That got us talking—and the communication was what our marriage desperately needed. I also wrote a chapter of my book from Aaron’s perspective for a school assignment, thanks to the insistence of one of my teacher during my masters. That was a breakthrough moment for us, I believe, because we had to talk it all out so I could write it authentically.
Q: What did you learn about your partner from living through this tragedy together?
AARON: I learned about how important empathy was. I learned that I needed to be able to just listen some days and not try to solve everything. I recognized how important quality time was to the healing process for Alexis.
ALEXIS: I learned that Aaron processes life differently from me. And that his way is not wrong. He is internal, introspective, and protective of his feelings—but he does feel things deeply, so in that way we are similar.
Q: What was the most helpful thing someone, other than your spouse, did for you after your loss?
AARON: I had friends that when they were with me, didn’t focus on what had happened. For example, if a group of friends was together playing a game, we didn’t talk about our loss unless I brought it up, otherwise, they would almost try to keep the conversation away from it. They really let me dictate how much or how little we would talk about my tragedy.
ALEXIS: I appreciate all the friends that gave us meals; without them, we would have ordered pizza every day. I am thankful for my mom who watched Hannah so I could spend time writing and figuring out who I was as a person after the loss.
Q: What advice do you have for other couples who are struggling with the death of a child?
AARON: Patience and understanding are vital. Everyone deals with grief differently and we need to understand and remind ourselves of that. There are no easy fixes and that we cannot rush through the grieving process. Even though you may not want to, reach out to others and do not feel bad about asking for help.
ALEXIS: Be patient with yourself, and each other. There is no timeline—or right or wrong way—to grieve. Work on your communication as a couple. Look for the things that bring you together, the shared interests and passions, and cultivate those. Spend time together, make love, cry, laugh, and be determined to battle through the hard times on each other’s side, instead of in opposition.
Photo: Getty Images