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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Death and Divorce Have So Much In Common

Grieving Divorce and Death

Now that I am in the midst of grief, I’d like to go back and revisit a topic addressed long ago, the similarities and divergences between the experience of divorce and the experience of death.  It is a useful comparison, because for those who have never divorced but experienced grief, it provides some understanding.  For those in the midst of divorce, it helps by bringing some sense to the whirlwind of emotions. 

In both experiences, I suspect context makes a great deal of difference:  someone losing an aging parent as opposed to a young child or death of a loved one after a long illness as opposed to a sudden murder.  In divorce, the context of which person filed, whether the marriage was long term or short lived, presence of children, and so on all impact the experience.  So let me first give you a nutshell of my context.  

When I got divorced, it was because my wife filed, after some years of a difficult relationship and some attempts at counseling. 

The grief of death from which I will draw comparisons is the loss of my parents in the last couple of years, most notably my 94 year old father who passed away a few weeks ago after multiple bouts of pneumonia.   (I have never experienced the death of a spouse or child, and can’t imagine what that would feel like.  Those of you who have had those experiences have my sympathy.)

So first, a few similarities…

1—Loneliness or a sense of loss and empty space is a reality of both situations.  No longer do I have that person to share with, discuss events and ideas, or as a companion to do things with is a significant loss in both cases.  A difference may relate to who filed the divorce, but often the anger that comes with divorce means there is a loss of the companionship, but no desire to reinstigate it with that particular person, whereas in death, often one would give anything for just one more conversation, one more outing.

2—Anger is included as one of the stages of grief at death, and is a frequent experience in divorce.  In divorce, anger may actually be a very mild term to use for the rage that can arise.  The anger often comes as a response to the abandonment, betrayal and vindictiveness that can intentionally accompany divorce.  Though anger is often part of grief, I suspect it has a lot to do with the circumstances, and somehow it is hard to stay angry at somebody who suffered an illness and passed away, whereas it is easy to feel anger repeatedly at a person who intentionally betrayed your trust and turned against you.

3—Uncertainty enters both experiences, because your “normal” has suddenly shifted, perhaps impacting you financially (especially in divorce), affecting your time schedules and companionships, and requiring you to change the plans you had for your future.  Doing so without the life partner you loved and consulted with can be scary, especially if, as often happens in divorce, that person continues to actively make choices that undermine your future through financial manipulation or through “propaganda” issued to children and friends as examples.

4—No One Understands.  It was the existentialist philosophers who highlighted the notion that ultimately, we each are alone in our experience of life…or, some would suggest, alone with God.  That is, each experience of our lives is one that only we truly know, all others are outside observers, no matter how sympathetic.  This is poignantly true for those who divorce as well as those who lose a loved one in death.  While others have divorced, and others have lost spouses, children or parents, each relationship any of us has with another person is unique to the individuals involved.  Another may have lost a parent, but maybe they were closer to their mom, or maybe estranged.  Maybe the person lost shared about their suffering and illness, another may not have.  One divorce process involves great struggle over children’s visitation schedules, while another wrestles only with money.  So while others have had similar experiences, the feelings one has in the grief of divorce or death are unique to that particular person and that particular situation.  In both cases, one feels the bubble of being alone in the experience, even though loved ones may be near at hand and supportive.

5—Awkward moments.  In both cases, there are times when you are around friends, and there is suddenly an awkward moment because they don’t know what to say, and yet feel obligated to say something.  Such as the person who tells the parent who lost a child to SIDS, “Well, at least you are young, you can always have another baby.”  Really…people actually do say things like that!!  Or the individual who says, “Well, I never did think very much of your wife, anyway.”  Interesting, but not particularly helpful.  Both experiences leave people uncertain what to say, and you learn how to interpret the words offered as expressions of love and support, even if clumsy or inappropriately worded.

6—Emotional upheaval with no roadmaps is part of both experiences.  Individuals in both situations experience a rollercoaster effect, feeling strong and vibrant at one moment, devastated at the next, and weeping like a basket case at the drop of a hat.  While the movement toward healing and new normalcy has common features for most of us, the timeline may vary, and each person has to find the way that works best for them.  Often I have said to individuals grieving a death, as they apologize for what they consider inappropriate behavior, “It’s okay, there aren't certain rules of grief…you experience what you do, and you had to find what works best for you.”  Tips from others are helpful, both in divorce and death grief, but ultimately, each of us will write our own roadmap of recovery.

And now, how about a few things in which there is real variation—

1—Feelings of failure can happen in both experiences, but is much more common in divorce.  In a time of death, the survivor may second guess health care decisions, or say such things as, “If only I hadn't left them to go to the store,” implying they might have prevented a death, which most often is simply not the case.  Over time, those regrets seem to diminish as a more realistic perspective sets in, especially since most people will not consider you a failure or second class citizen just because someone you loved died.  But in divorce, feelings of failure are reinforced every time one hears the marriage vows, or hears some preacher speaking on the sanctity of marriage and against divorce.  The words to describe the lost relationship is usually something like “failed” or “broken” marriage, permanently indicating something went wrong.  And many times, individuals feel a great sense of embarrassment at having to say they are divorced, something not experienced when saying they lost a loved one in death.

2—A Sense of Finality accompanies the experience of death.  That very finality is what makes the grief of death so intense; there is not another chance to say, ‘I love you’ or to laugh together one more time.  And the individual is gone, and though some believe they sense the spirit of the person nearby, or that ghosts may haunt, most of us come to a point where we realize they are no longer around.  But in divorce, the finality is elusive.  The marriage has ended, but the entanglements often continue, especially if there are children from the union.  The ex-spouse, unlike the loved one passed away, may continue to insinuate themselves into your life, drag you into court time and again, or simply show up at some event making things awkward.  Or, because the ex attends certain events, you may alter your life to avoid having those juxtapositions.

3—Natural Processes  While one may greatly grieve the loss of a loved one, there is always an underlying awareness that death…even if untimely…is built into the natural cycle of this world.  It is the inevitable outcome we each shall face at one point or another (except, of course, if we happen to be among those living at the moment Christ returns).  But the experience of divorce is anything BUT natural.  The natural expectation at marriage is for a lifetime of love and commitment.  Divorce is a shortcircuiting of that dream.  It is the result of choices made, not the inevitable onward march of nature.  And so the eventual acceptance of the reality of divorce is different from those losing a loved one through death.

4—Loyalty is an area where divorce differs significantly from the grief of death.  Rarely do I hear individuals say to a person who has lost a loved one to death, “Well, you are better off without him anyway!”  Nor do people feel like they have to choose which of the two of you, you or the deceased, as the one they desire to continue cultivating a friendship with in the future.  Ideally, even in divorce, one shouldn't have to choose, but most people do.  I was surprised at some who I would have expected to be closer to my ex-wife who instead indicated their preference to spend time with me.  This experience simply is not part of grief at death.

5—Bargaining is also considered one of the aspects of grieving.  In a death situation, though, the bargaining is purely futile:  “If I promise to do everything right, then maybe God will spare him/her, or bring them back, or I’ll wake up and find it is all just a bad dream.”   But nobody comes back to life because of these desperate pleas.  By contrast, much of the divorce process is seemingly endless bargaining over schedules, finances, even over reconciliation.  This bargaining is actually an important part of working through the divorce, as well as creating the new normal to follow.  In fact, there are occasions in which the bargaining actually leads to reconciliation, which can be a very good thing.  Rather than being merely an exercise in futility, this bargaining becomes a shaping process for future life plans and schedules. 

There are certainly many other areas that could be considered, but I have no desire to produce an exhaustive study.  At least, not now anyway.  Bottom line, grief is a powerful part of the experience of loss, sometimes amplified by circumstances surrounding a divorce or death.  The help, encouragement and support of friends and family are invaluable assets, and I appreciate all those of you who have been that for me, both during my divorce back when, and in the midst of this current experience of grief.  God bless you, and may you received from him a hundredfold reward.

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