1/2/07

Loss: Divorce vs. Death

A high school friend recently lost her husband to a heart attack. His death was sudden and unexpected. It has only been two months and she is still in the throes of grieving. The initial shock has worn off and now reality is hitting her square on: He won’t be coming back. My words have been a comfort to her, as I know exactly what she’s going through, but then, after our last conversation, she said something that all widows and widowers eventually say to me - "You don’t understand."

Don’t understand? Of course I do! Divorce is a death. It also ranks right up there with the most stressful periods in your life. You go through the same grieving phases and you make similar adjustments. There are differences, of course.

In divorce:
1) Your spouse, though dead to you in all the ways that count, is still a living, breathing person. Just somewhere else.
2) There is dignity in death, but no dignity in divorce. Rituals and ceremonies are designed to help a grieving family go through the horrendous stages of the death of a loved one. Divorces are looked upon as messes and failures. In the media divorces are often the butt of jokes. And what I discovered, with some shock and bewilderment, is that you are expected to get over your grief rather quickly. Even before my divorce was final, my friends wanted - no, needed - me to be happy and normal.
3) In most instances, the widow or widower inherits everything, including house, custody of the children, and a substantial life insurance policy. There are no certainties in divorce settlements (even though in theory the laws are set up to be equitable), and lawyers seem to receive a substantial amount of your assets if there is a disagreement.

The first point I made, that your spouse is still living, seems to be the one that widows and widowers concentrate on. For all intent and purposes, mine was dead to me. He looked at me as if I was a specimen to be examined under a microscope. Since the divorce, I’ve had no contact with him and seldom see him. The two times I did, he looked at me with indifferent eyes. There was no warmth, no sense of recognition that we’d spent 32 years together (most of them happy), and no desire to share cherished memories. He'd moved on, and I realize that he rarely wastes his energy thinking about our shared past. The last time I fleetingly saw him, a small pang of separation and loss hit me all over again. In addition, when my husband left, so did his family. This felt like a double loss.

My attitude about death vs. divorce is this: Loss is loss. Yes, death is final. But the death of a marriage also has a finality to it. It is death without dignity. It means the death of your friendship with the most special person in your life. It is the death of your love and future together. In many cases it means the loss of one’s financial security. In my case it meant having to deal with a sense of failure, and having to face middle-age and menopause square on without a supportive partner. I could go on and on, but you get my meaning.

Some day my friend and I will have a discussion about these distinctions about losing one's life partner, and how much more we have in common than not. For now, I’ll let her grieve and I’ll just keep on supporting her.

Addendum: It has been almost five years since my friend lost her husband. She now recognizes that we both experienced significant life-changing losses, just as I predicted. It took her five years to land on her feet, and almost that long to realize that we have so much in common as widow and divorcee.

30 comments:

BigAssBelle said...

never been divorced, but have lived through the near death of a beloved spouse. the thing that got me was the absolute powerlessness i felt. i have always known i am powerless over others, but it stayed in the back of my mind behind a hazy curtain until i was trying to save my husband's life by getting someone to help because he was not breathing, turning blue, machines going crazy and no. one. would. fucking. help. and i couldn't, didn't know how, had not the skills to save him. powerless. divorce or death, it sucks to face it.

Vic's Still Standing said...

Belle, you have a way with words. I've been to your site and I am in awe of some of the experiences you write about. So powerful and moving!

Anonymous said...

Hi I could empathise with the observations about a long loved husband looking through you, indifferent to the shared history and the look of contempt, almost. It was a shock last year when my husband told me he didn't love me any more. We'd had communic problems but I believed in a kernel of love there throughout. He didn't. It died. He left. He is amazed that I want to analyse my pain and loss and that I should want explanations. I can't understand how he can be so cold. A year later, i've found someone more wonderful but it's early days and I grieve for my kids growing up in a fractured family.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your comments. I am divorced, not by my choice, and am engaged to a widower. Your points are, in every way, right on the money.

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Michele said...

I looked up divorce vs. death on Google & this interesting article came up. I was divorced a long time ago, (it seemed like the worst thing in the world, but now it's just a blip on the screen of life) My sister's husband, however just died (early 60's). I see that she is going through many of the things that I did, but I'm sure she feels her situation is worse and in some ways it is. Her 2 children lost their father & while they're in their 30's, it's still a big loss. My sister grieves not only for the loss of her husband but for the loss her children now go through. My son, on the other hand, now age 27, was 3 years old when I got divorced, but he never lost his father & has a loving relationship with him to this day. Plus my ex-husband and I worked very hard to become friends because of our son & so my ex hasn't disappeared out of my life (despite the earlier times when I wished he would!) You go through the same stages of grieving whether you lose your spouse through divorce (assuming you didn't want the divorce)or death & I agree with the comments of "BigAssBelle" that whether death or divorce, there's a great sense of powerlessness. And yes, either way it sucks!
It's not a competition in terms of which is worse but when either event happens to you, it seems like the worst thing in the world.
See my website on divorce at www.divorcestep.com

Anonymous said...

Until you go through losing your husband, you will NEVER understand the difference. I was divorced twice and now have lost my husband to a heart attack. There is NO comparison here. I didn't understand until I went through it myself. It opens up a whole new understanding of relationships and life. No matter what you face, just remember you have to continue on with your life. I was hour by hour and now am day by day, so feel I have moved forward some in 1 1/2yrs.

Vic said...

I wonder perhaps if the conditions of the divorce might change one's perspective. I was married for 26 years. Our relationship, as I understood it, was a strong and loving one. My husband held my hand and told me how much he loved me the day before he stopped talking to me. Even our friends envied our marriage.

The suddenness of his moving out, the fact that I loved him, the length of our relationship, my history as a child of divorce - all of that contributed to my feeling about loss.

The death of a spouse is #1 stressor, divorce is the #2 stressor, although the stress is reduced by 25% according to the Homes and Rahe Stress Scale.

We all have different circumstances. There are couples who actually find relief in divorce. I found it to be a life altering event in which I was suddenly thrust into a strange and bewildering universe in which all my safety nets were removed.

I stand by my article in that there are many, many divorced people who relate to that profound and sudden sense of loss as a death.

Anonymous said...

Vic - I just found your article and appreciate it tremendously. Yes, divorce is like a death - the death of a marriage. And knowing that your former spouse is alive makes it all the more surreal. I was just 25 when I married and 32 when I divorced (no kids), and now, 3 years later, I still struggle every day to remake myself. I'm much happier and at peace, but I haven't seen my former spouse for almost 3 years and it remains a loss to bear. And you're right - unlike death, there is no dignity. I'm pushed to "move on already." People often don't realize that after you divorce, you don't want to just "move on and forget." If you're still standing - suddenly on your own - that's moving on in more ways than others often realize.

Anonymous said...

I have only just found your blog and I have to say, so far, every post I have read has touched me and could be my story.

When he left 18 months ago, we had been together almost 20 years and I am still missing him. He moved out of the country leaving me to raise our young son alone; I have described my situation as being widowed without any insurance to help us. That may sound cold but it is truly how I feel. He was there, he loved me then he was gone.


I am accepting of what has happened and while I will never condone what he did, I have moved on for the sake of our son.

Ann Cser said...

You sound bitter!!! First of all, I wish that my husband would have divorced me instead of being murdered. I love him so much that I would rather him be happy with someone else than dead!!! Secondly, there was no dignity in my husbands death. He was tortured and stabbed with a total of 61 wounds. We almost couldn't have an open casket because of his wounds. I don't care about the rituals for closure, at over two years I am still haunted by seeing him covered in blood and then later in the casket. Lastly, where is my windfall of money? He was 31 years old and we didn't have life insurance on him. I am left paying for a house that I owe more than what it's worth on half the income. I have the same bills with half the income. There is nobody to take half the debt.

widowedtoosoon said...

My husband died of a heart attack at 40. My children will grow up without a father. Sorry, but there is no comparison. And I question why you feel the need to compare. I have no doubt that divorce hurts tremendously. But you have no idea what you're talking about -- you are simply imagining what is unimaginable (thankfully).

Anonymous said...

You are clueless! When you yourself become a widow, then and only then can you compare the two. Until then........well I think you can guess what I want to say.

Anonymous said...

How ignorant you are , I only hope you never have to feel the pain of losing the person who makes you who you are. Some people's ignorance astounds me... You are one of them.
A grieving widow

Anonymous said...

Really? She realizes now after 5 years? Maybe she is just such a good friend and realizes you will never ever know what it's like to be widowed. Been through both. There's absolutely no comparison and until you've been through both, you will never know. I feel for your friend. What she must have gone through to have you explain the last 5 years how much you have gone through the same thing. Trust me, she knows deep down that you haven't. She just get's it better than you do and must be a rock to deal with your insisitivity in her hour of need. Want some help with getting over a divorce? Find someone who truely loves you. Hopefully you won't be the one who goes through the grieving process of his death, because you couldn't handle it.

Anonymous said...

Hi There, this is the most ridiculous thing I have read ever. My man and I were deeply in love and not through choice I had to nurse him and watch him die of cancer. He was only 40 years old. You don't mourn the loss of your man in anything like the same way with divorce. You didn't watch a healthy young man waste away not able to walk or eat and vomiting all the time, you don't have that pain with divorce. My man didn't want to leave me and even if he hadn't died and had left me nothing compares to this horror at least if he left me I could be angry with him. In fact before I met him he was divorced, his ex got 60k, moved on and got a new man within months. I got nothing but this grief for the rest of my life and NO MONEY. Maybe you should think before you write this stuff. Your poor friend.

Anonymous said...

You are wrong. I listened on the phone while a suicidal wrong way highway driver hit my husband of 22 years head on, killing him. Never again will I see the man who I was so deeply loved by and still so deeply in love with. We both still loved each other. That cannot be said of divorced couples, or there would be no divorce. I had to look at my 46 year old husbands battered body, and decide that it was too bad to keep his casket open. I had to watch my children realize that they would NEVER see their Dad again. A common theme with widows is that we are glad we weren't the one who died.....because we could not stand to think of our beloved spouses going through this level of pain. I had to go through my husbands belongings and find the six cards he had bought for my upcoming birthday. I have to see my husband's ashes in a container in my house. I have to face the fact that the clothing in his closet no longer smells like him. We live with the constant shadow of grief. It is inexplicable to anyone who has not gone through it. You are just flat out wrong.

Anonymous said...

Your complete lack of humanity is galling. Do you understand that you are relating as if the only loss is that of your own and in the process are completely ignoring that a human life has been lost. I have never been divorced but my husband is DEAD. My sister divorced and her ex is now a close friend, something that would not have been possible were it not for the fact that he is ALIVE. You shouldn't give reviews on the comfort of shoes that you have not worn.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I see zero comparrison. I see loss if your spouse leaves you, and yes hardship, upheavel, grief. But... they are not dead. You did not watch a person, with blood in their vains whom you loved die in front of your eyes or in some tragic accident. There is no comparison for your children who have no father to watch at their sporting events, walking your daughter down the aisle, teaching them to drive, seeing your son get his Eagle Scout Award. There is no second income EVER. When one divorces one of the partners WANTS to go or sometimes both. Usually in death no one chooses to leave (unless in the case of suicide, which has it's own set of aftershocks). I just co not understand the comparison is just off, hello someone is dead.

Anonymous said...

Let's see. I have no backup parent, ever. I will never see my wife again, under friendly circumstances or not. Cancer stole her from me when our love was strongest, and without my having any influence in the matter. My twin girls will go through all of their life milestones without their Mom being there for them.

Comparisons like this are for fools, and I am only responding because you felt the foolish need to equate your experience with one you just don't get. Most don't, and thank God, but most also don't parade their ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I am widowed, five years out. I will never "get over" the loss of my husband and grieve him every moment of my life. My children will never know the father who loved them so. I must now raise them on my own, with no support -- emotional or financial -- and not a break, ever. I did not receive life insurance and scrape by on a daily basis. Divorce is a loss, but a very different loss than death. I am sorry you feel the need to broadcast your ignorance in comparing loss by divorce versus death, and am frankly surprised your friend hasn't divorced you as well.

Anonymous said...

OMG! I have been divorced and widowed. To compare the two is horrendous! My young children will never remember the loving wonderful man that was their father only through the stories that I can tell them. Do you lay awake at night and wonder how this will effect them years from now? Do you worry - what if something happens to you? Do you search for answers and know you will never ever get them? Piss off with your comparisons!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, your friend has learned, as so many of us do, to just leave you to your ignorance because you have no frame of reference to understand the astounding differences between death and divorce - and I have done both. The loss of a marriage is something to gireve, but is wholly unlike a sheriff coming to your door to tell you your life partner, the man you were laughing with and kissing only a few hours before, is dead. DEAD. His life robbed, stolen from him by a careless driver. You may or may not have kids, but that is a very different conversation from, "But you will still see your dad," and if the dad ends up being a deadbeat. Divorce is horrible, and you can communicate with that without this absurd comparison. I am sorry you lost the husband you knew, and I know it hurts. But that former silly man, or strong lover, or amazing cook, still has a heartbeat. My husband does not. And I would step aside and wish him the best life even if meant he had to hate me to give him just a little more time to enjoy fresh air, or his favorite music...

I do hope at some point you realize you should never again say that to your friend. I hear an endless chorus of your friend sighing to the rhythm of her/his own shaking head quite often -- you truly do not understand, and you should not try to within your own frame of reference. It is not possible.

SieOma said...

I also question why you feel the need to compare and, worse, seem to think you've won some victory here. You made the comment you have made this comparison with more than one widow. Why do you need widows to validate your grief? Worse, why do you need widows to believe they do not suffer more than you? It isn't a competition. There is no grief reward. However, in one case a living, human being is dead. Divorce is horrible; death is tragic. There is no comparison in the level of pain experienced by individuals as for each and every one of us, the worst pain we have experienced is often the worst pain imaginable. However, as someone else said, you have failed to consider the tragedy of an actual death versus a symbolic or metaphorical death, and that is the life lost, which is exactly why widows point out that your ex is still alive. Yes, he was dead to you, but he wasn't dead period. My GOD, there IS a difference. And your friend is being kind. I have no doubt!

SJDawson said...

I'm sorry, there is no comparison here. I'm sorry for your pain, however, my husband died nearly 2 years ago leaving me with a 6 year-old and a 2 month old. Had we divorced, he'd be very present in their lives. How do I know? He was divorced, but remained a good father to the two children he had with his ex wife. If you asked them if there was any comparison in how they felt when he moved away and how they felt when I called to tell them he was dead and they'd never talk to him again, I'm sure they'd think the comparison was crazy.

Anonymous said...

Neither party is innocent in divorce.

Each party is innocent in death.

There is no comparison.

Anonymous said...

It appears you have become something of a "divorce" expert which is great. Help as many people as you can. But please leave out your comments about people who have had the misfortune of being widowed, the level of ignorance you display about this subject is truly massive and astounding. I am shocked that your widowed friend has stuck by you for 5 years. I would have dropped you right after the husband's death. My husband went to work one day and I never saw him alive again. He was killed in a car accident on his way home from work. Losing a spouse to death is nothing like going through a divorce (I've been through both). The fact that you are so strident in your beliefs, that you want to shove it into people's faces is what I, personally find, most offensive. You don't have any idea of what you are talking about. What's worse is you think you can imagine how someone else feels about an experience you have never gone through. Losing a spouse to death is way worse than is shown in movies or books or TV. The support that widowed people get from their family and friends generally lasts a few weeks and then we are on our own. So yes that is a little better than what divorced people go through but not much better. As others have said, many widowed people don't have life insurance or money to make up for the loss of the income of their spouse. I would not wish this experience on even my worst enemy.

Anonymous said...

You truly have no concept.
My husband was stolen from me and our kids. Our lives were changed in an instance. It was not by choice. I wish I never seen your blog. It is truly one of the most offensive things I have ever read. You should be ashamed

Anonymous said...

How dare you. Trust me, your "friend" was offended by your comments after her husband died. After five years she has just decided to agree with you for the sake of your friendship. I truly pity you because one day you may go through the hell of widowhood and you won't know what hit you.
Shame on you.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that my dad died when I was 13 and my mum died when I was 18. Now at 55 my wife is seeking to divorce me. I am so sorry for my 3 children who will have a broken up home. I feel very hard done by as i don't think that this is fair on any of us. Its very painful and im not divorced yet. The loss of two families is hard to bear.