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Couples in crisis: Response to life’s trials has made 1 couple’s relationship stronger

FNS Photo by Dave Wallis Bill and Dana Stansbery watch as their daughter Jillian plays with toys at their home in Amenia.

AMENIA — Dana and Bill Stansbery have been together for 16 years and married for 10.

Dana says they have a very good friendship, that they’re “buddies.”

The Amenia couple met and started dating in high school. Little did they know when they shared a music stand in band that one day Dana would help Bill recover from being hit by a semi or that Bill would one day have to pick Dana up off the bathroom floor and make her take a shower when she didn’t want to live anymore.

The couple have weathered many storms together. During a three-month timeframe 10 years ago, Dana had a miscarriage, her grandfather and uncle both died, and Bill was hit by a semi while he was doing highway striping and the driver who hit him was killed.

Then, two years ago, after years of trying to become pregnant, going through in vitro fertilization, and finally becoming pregnant, their baby, Sophie Lee, died before she was born. Dana was 31 weeks pregnant, just nine weeks shy of a full-term pregnancy, when she went to the hospital after a bad gallbladder attack Dec. 28, 2011, and found out that her baby’s heart had stopped beating.

The umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck.

They could have broken down and there were days when they did. They could have given up. There were days when they wanted to. And they could have broken up.

An article in Psychology Today magazine says that sometimes couples who go through crisis change so much that they cannot sustain their relationship. Some studies show that many marriages cannot survive the death of a child, and one statistic asserts that couples who’ve lost a child are eight times more likely to divorce, the article states.

But for Dana and Bill, that was not a consideration.

They readily admit their relationship is not all sunshine and rainbows. They say they do argue with each other.

But they also support each other, pray together, and they decided when Sophie died that they would grieve together instead of withdrawing from each other.

“With all of the experiences that we’ve had together and the trials and tribulations that we’ve had in the past, every one of those trials has made us stronger and helped us learn how to help each other deal with the bad things,” Bill said.

James Pfeifer, Prairie St. John’s licensed professional clinical counselor, says that whenever people are faced with difficult circumstances, it can be a normal reaction to want to withdraw and isolate, but when we pull away, that affects the intimacy of the relationship.

During times of crisis, Pfeifer says his biggest concern is whether couples are communicating. That doesn’t just mean saying words, he said. It means talking about feelings, genuinely listening to each other, respecting what the other person is saying and reflecting back.

“When we isolate, we tend to feel worse,” he said. “It makes it harder to take in information objectively.”

There are opportunities for couples to build emotional intimacy throughout their daily routines. By talking about what they think and feel when things are going well, Pfeifer says couples can practice strengthening their communication skills which could help them better navigate a crisis together.

He says it’s like a basketball player who practices shooting free throws when he’s not under pressure so he is better able to sink the ball when the stakes are high.

Sometimes people seem to change who they are in response to a crisis. That change can also be hard on a relationship.

People like familiarity, Pfeifer says, so if that communication isn’t there and one partner’s character seems to change, it can feel like being with a different person.

“People have different ways of coping,” Pfeifer said. “The way someone choses to cope can facilitate a healthy recovery or stagnation.”

Before the Stansberys left the hospital in December 2011, they decided Dana would try to become pregnant again with an embryo they had frozen as soon as doctors allowed her to do so.

They went to the fertility clinic the following February. It was difficult and they said they cried the entire time they were there. But they decided to just keep moving, something that became somewhat of a motto for them throughout the year following Sophie’s death.

“There were a lot of moments in that first year after Sophie was born where we were wondering if we were going to make it, can this pain kill us, is it going to,” said Dana, a fifth-grade teacher at Central Cass Elementary School in Casselton.

They did make it, with the help of prayer, inspirational quotes, incredible community support, and of course by leaning on each other.

“If one of us has a rough day, we’re able to talk it through, just to get it out of our system and know that I understand what she’s going through when she has a rough day and she understands what I’m going through when I have a rough day,” said Bill, who works in the ag industry.

Dana became pregnant again that summer. It was a joyous, yet terrifying experience for the Stansberys.

“The worst thing was, after we transferred Jillian, you start to think about it and wonder if the worst-case scenario is going to happen again,” Bill said.

Because of Sophie’s death, doctors monitored Dana more closely when she was pregnant with Jillian and discovered there was another issue with the umbilical cord.

This time, one of the blood vessels wasn’t working correctly. Dana started seeing her doctor every three days to check her baby’s cord flow, heart rate, breathing and movement.

Three weeks before she was due, Dana’s doctor induced her and their daughter, Jillian, was born healthy with a near perfect Apgar score. (Apgar is a test to determine how well the baby tolerated the birthing process and how well the baby is doing outside the mother’s womb, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.)

“I was mildly freaking out most of the day,” Bill said.

Now, the Stansberys cherish every moment they have with 8-month-old Jillian, even the not-so-pleasant ones.

“Some people grumble about changing dirty diapers or being up all night,” Dana said.

“We have never had a moment like that. We love changing diapers at three in the morning, we don’t care. We’ve waited for so long to have her.”

They’ve also learned that grief is not forever and you can learn to live with it.

They feel truly blessed to have Jillian. But they still miss Sophie and there are still days when their grief feels unbearable.

“There aren’t as many days like that,” Dana said. “They’re more moments now. We think about how blessed and how lucky we are that Jillian is here and how sad we are that Sophie is not and that’s a hard balance.”

But they keep moving on in faith, hope and their love for each other.

“No matter how bad things are, you’ve got to have hope that it will get better,” Dana said.

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