- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Surely one of the darkest hours in any family’s life is when a child dies.

Now comes new information that shows that losing an unborn child can be so grievous that it can break up a marriage or cohabiting relationship.

Certainly, “many parents find that a [fetal] loss brings them closer together,” but the data also show that the event can place a “huge stress for their relationship,” wrote Dr. Katherine Gold, assistant professor of family medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan Medical School and lead author of the study in the April 5 edition of Pediatrics.

However, there is good advice about how to cope with such sad situations. The first thing to understand is that men and women “grieve differently,” said Cathi Lammert, executive director of Share, a pregnancy-loss support organization.

The Pediatrics study is the largest to date to show that women who experience miscarriages or a stillbirths have greater risks of relationship dissolution, compared with women who had live births. (Stillbirth is defined as a pregnancy loss after 20 weeks of gestation but before birth; miscarriage is 20 weeks or less of gestation.)

Over a 15-year period, couples who miscarried had a 22 percent higher risk of breakup compared with couples with live births, while couples with stillbirths had a 40 percent higher risk of breaking up compared with couples with live births.

A surprising finding was that while most breakups occurred relatively quickly after a miscarriage — within three years — the risk for separation or divorce after a stillbirth lingered for almost a decade.

The study, which was based on the National Survey of Family Growth, further found that if a couple was cohabiting (rather than married) and lost their unborn child, their risk for separating rose even higher.

This could be because cohabiting couples begin their relationships with more “risks,” Dr. Gold wrote. “Couples with an unstable relationship before the pregnancy and those with other risk factors for breaking up may find themselves unable to sustain their relationship after a miscarriage or stillbirth.”

With 15 percent of pregnancies lost to miscarriage and 1 percent lost to stillbirth, these traumas happen to a substantial number of parents.

Ms. Lammert of Share said her organization has 100 support groups to assist parents who have lost children to miscarriage or stillbirth or in early infancy.

Accepting each other’s way of grieving is important, she said. Women may want to talk or be reassured frequently. Men may want to be silent or throw themselves into work or hide their tears. “Many men have told me they grieve in the shower and in the car,” Ms. Lammert said.

She has certainly seen couples break up, but she’s also seen that “couples who truly work on their relationship do stick together.” Couples usually stay with support groups about 12 to 18 months, she added, because by then there are new challenges, or even a new baby to change their focus.

Because cohabiting is a growing phenomenon in the United States, and the Pediatrics study says its findings “present new information about risks to cohabiting couples,” I would like to reference the book “The Power of Commitment” by Scott M. Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.

Mr. Stanley wrote his book to explain why the commitment made in marriage is usually stronger than that made in cohabitation.

Marriage vows should orient couples away from “me” to “we,” he wrote. It should inspire couples to make their marriages — and each other — a high priority. It should lead to mutual investments for the long term and predispose the couple to “sacrifice for one another without resentment.”

I can only imagine that these elements — leavened with heavy doses of love, patience and faith — can help a couple get past the tragic loss of a child, born or unborn.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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