Living With Dying articles
The Marital Stress Of Having A Sick Child - online extras
By Leah Carey
Feb. 28, 2017
When a child gets sick, the entire family is affected. Nancy and Bill Hartwell talked with us about how they cared for their marriage while caring for their child.
When Zach first got sick, a social worker sat with Nancy and Bill to talk about how his illness could affect their relationship.
“A lot of marriages split up when a child is sick. Either one person can’t handle it, or there’s blame that it’s your fault that they had this disease, not mine,” Nancy said. “They talked to us about it right away at the hospital, about really taking care of our marriage and our personal relationship during it all.”
“Not that we didn’t ever have any fights during the six years, but we did it together,” she said.
They quickly realized they had strengths in different areas and were able to rely on each other.
“There were things that Bill was better at and things that I was better at. He didn’t get into the research part of it like I did. I would stay up late at night and do the research part of it,” Nancy said. “But Zach was 6 foot 1 and at one point 200 pounds and can’t walk by himself. You had to hold him up when he’s walking and that was very difficult for me. So those things I had to rely on Bill to do.”
“If one of us just couldn’t handle it that day the other one stepped up and did it. You just don’t both have a bad day at the same time!” Nancy continued. “You pull up your big girl pants and you move on. That’s what you have to do.”
Perhaps one of their greatest strengths as a couple was that they continued to see each other as three-dimensional people, rather than as projections of their own fears and upsets.
“You have to be really cognizant that you’re recognizing that the other person is going through the same thing you are, has all the same feelings that you do,” Nancy said. “You have to support each other, too, not just the child.”
“I think it would be really, really easy – especially when the child has passed – to go into your own private mourning, rather than mourning together,” she continued. “And I think you just have to be very cognizant of it and recognize that you’re going through it together. This isn’t just happening to Zach, it isn’t just happening to me and Zach. It’s happening to our whole family, and we have to go through it together.”
“It’s either going to tear you apart or bring you closer together,” Nancy concluded. “You’re in control of which it is.”