- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

One left turn was the difference between normal and “new normal” for Patricia Loder.

She was almost home in the Milford area of Michigan on the first day of spring 1991, turning left on a road like any other, when a speeding motorcyclist sideswiped her car and killed her two children.

They were Stephanie, 8, and Stephen, 5.

“I was one of those people who would wake up screaming because that videotape went off in my head all the time, playing over and over again,” Mrs. Loder says. “That’s a horrid weight you carry around all the time because no matter what, whether you’re right there or a thousand miles away, you’re always supposed to protect your children. Always.”

When her grief threatened to overpower her, Mrs. Loder reluctantly attended a bereavement support group with her husband, Wayne.

“There were people there who had lost their mothers, their fathers, their grandparents,” she says. “They all had grief, and I respected that, but no one there had lost a child.”

The pain, she says, is like no other. It eats at marriages. It eats at siblings through its relentless guilt and hopelessness. The weight of it, as Mrs. Loder and other parents describe, sometimes tears families apart, but it more often draws them closer together, researchers say.

Buried in the news of Jaycee Dugard’s release after 18 years in captivity was her mother’s divorce, but the Loders — like many families — found their way through with help from other survivors who know what it feels like to get up each morning and attempt to live their lives after a child’s murder, accident or illness.

While reports of startlingly high divorce rates under the circumstances stretch back more than 30 years and once ranged from 70 percent to 90 percent, a 2006 survey for the bereaved families organization that helped the Loders showed a significantly lower incidence, far lower than the national average of roughly 50 percent.

The 2006 survey for the Compassionate Friends, of which Mrs. Loder is now executive director, showed 306 of 400 respondents were married at the time of a child’s death. Of those, there was a divorce rate of 16 percent, less than half of whom cited the death’s impact as a contributing factor.

“While the death of one’s child definitely places stress on a marriage, we believe the divorce rate is so low because of the commitment parents have to survive their tragedy as a shared experience,” Mrs. Loder says.

After her car crash, which also killed the motorcyclist, a hospital nurse warned Mrs. Loder about the high risk of divorce.

“First, I was told my children had died. Then I was told my marriage would die. There are no words that can describe how that warning compounded the grief I already felt,” she says.

A range of factors are at play when it comes to the toll on marriages of fatal tragedy involving children, including a couple’s level of education and their ability to pay for outside help. Also on the list are whether a marriage was already at risk.

There’s no right way or acceptable span of time to grieve a dead child, yet friends, family and co-workers often urge parents to “get on with it,” compounding the pain and squandering a chance for loved ones to offer more meaningful assistance, Mrs. Loder says.

“Oftentimes, your family and your friends just want you to be better,” she says. “We hear that a lot, that families don’t understand. They want them to be their old selves.”

Christine Frisbee and her husband, Rick, were living in New Canaan, Conn., when they lost their second-oldest child, 15-year-old Rich, to a virulent form of leukemia in 1989, just 15 months after he was diagnosed. The couple, with four other children, lost their savings eight weeks after their son died when the company Rick worked for went under.

“My husband and I are still married, but I admit we almost didn’t make it. We were so angry with each other on how we were reacting differently,” says Mrs. Frisbee. “One evening at home, I asked Rick to hug me. He said, ‘I can’t. I hurt too much.’ He would never have said that before.”

On Sept. 7, 2001, Sherry Nolan’s 24-year-old daughter, Shannon, was beaten to death with a baseball bat. She was five months pregnant with her first child. Her husband led authorities to her body, buried in a wooded area in Cincinnati. A jury convicted him of two counts of aggravated murder and he remains in prison on consecutive life sentences.

“At the very beginning, anyone who’s had a family member murdered, you feel as if you’ve died that day,” says Mrs. Nolan, who with her husband, L.C., and two surviving children sought the assistance of the support group Parents of Murdered Children.

“We went through the stages of what could we have done to prevent this, me saying to myself what did I do in my lifetime that my child is paying for. My husband saying the same thing,” she says. “Then when you realize you haven’t done anything, you turn to one another and say what did you do in your lifetime?”

Susan and Gary Chan of Topeka, Kan., lost their 18-year-old daughter, Rachael, in 1992, when a motorcycle driven by her boyfriend hit a deer at dusk.

“I don’t know how many times people said, ‘Oh, God made another angel singing in the choir,’ and I was thinking, ‘I need Rachael singing off-key in the shower,’” she says. “Part of the work is redefining who you are in this new reality you didn’t choose.”

Therese A. Rando, a Warwick, R.I., psychologist who specializes in the study and treatment of loss, says flawed research is to blame for the notion that a child’s death leads to divorce more often than not.

“In no way, shape or form is the divorce rate even near the national average,” Miss Rando says. “I’m amazed there aren’t more divorces. The dynamics of losing a child are so different. If you’re a wife, you’re a widower. If you lose your parents, you’re an orphan, but we don’t even have a word for losing a child. It represents the very worst fear in all of us.”

The Chans were also helped by the Compassionate Friends, which offers support groups through 615 chapters in every state, plus Puerto Rico and the District. The nonprofit organization also has chapters in more than 30 countries.

Talking with others grieving the loss of a child helped pull her husband closer after it seemed he was drifting away, Mrs. Chan says.

“Early on, my husband kind of went into a workaholic mode. It’s the only place he felt like he had some control, but he realized that he was putting off what he needed to do,” she said. “We made a commitment early on that this was going to be hard work, that it wasn’t going to tear us apart. We always came back to the fact that we both loved Rachael.”

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