Q. Our son had a serious brain injury last year and will never regain functioning. After that, my husband started reading the Bible and praying for several hours a day. He says that our son did not recover because I did not have enough faith. He refuses to get help or talk to me. What can I do?
A. After a tragedy, many times a spouse expects a partner to find solace in his or her religious belief system and becomes angry or disillusioned when the feelings are not shared. According to Judith Bernstein in her book “When the Bough Breaks”, the adage that “the family who prays together stays together” seems not to be applicable to families in crisis. People are extremely different in their religious beliefs concerning tragedy. Some feel that it is God’s will, some are angry at God, some blame their own lack of faith, and some believe that God has little to do with everyday occurrences in life.
My concern for you is not in your religious belief systems, but in the fact that your husband blames your son’s lack of recovery on your lack of faith. Respect for each other in all areas is a major factor in acknowledging grief and rebuilding a solid family structure. Accepting each other’s differences without becoming judgmental is a sign of strength in a relationship. This understanding is currently missing from your life.
Since you have made little headway in talking with your husband, perhaps he has a friend or relative who could speak with him. While religious beliefs often help people in times of trouble, obsessive and judgmental religiosity are often signs of an emotional disorder.
Because you are receiving little support from your husband in managing your feelings, I would suggest that you join a grief support group. If at any time, you feel your husband’s emotional state is threatening to you, please leave at once and seek assistance.
Q. Since our oldest son was diagnosed with cancer last year, our youngest son, who is 7, has started to regress. He has several physical complaints, new fears, and he has even wet his bed. Is this normal? Meanwhile, our teenage son is doing well and we expect him to make a full recovery.
A. It is common for young children to show signs of physical illness and regression after any kind of emotional upheaval in the family structure. Children can pick up on their parents’ and siblings’ anxieties even if they do not understand the situation.
Your younger son may also be fearful of being separated from his family. He may have a sudden fear of going to school or spending the night away from home. Occasionally, children who see their siblings or parents experiencing medical treatment become fearful of hospitals or doctors. Others can develop seemingly unrelated phobias.
When a sibling is ill, the other children often feel a sense of neglect. Now is the time to show your younger son additional attention. Take him on special outings, and most importantly, acknowledge his feelings. Children often understand this conversation better if you make the narrative about another child who suffered from similar circumstances. Such an example will allow your son to experience the feelings that he may not understand in his own life. Your older son should also spend time with his younger brother so that their relationship can become normalized again.
Children are very resilient; however, watch your younger son during the next few months. If he becomes withdrawn, has declining grades, or is verbally and physically aggressive, you should find a child psychologist or psychotherapist to help him sort through his anxieties.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a limited private practice in Pine Bluff. If you have questions, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.