While my ex-wife and I were in the process of getting a divorce, I eventually gathered the nerve to tell my grandmother about our impending demise. Grandma (my only surviving grandparent) lost her husband to an aneurysm back in the early sixties, and never re-married. She’s a traditional white-haired, German grandmother, and does not appreciate the typical reasons for divorce. She felt a whole lot better when she found out that the divorce wasn’t my idea (my ex-wife will burn in hell, not me). After a few hours of conversation, she said something that took me by surprise.
“What you’re going through is a lot worse than me losing your Grandfather.”
I didn’t think much about her comment at first, but after I got home, I found it was sticking in my mind. Grandma, with her octogenarian wisdom, was absolutely right. The truth in her soft spoken words was somehow obvious but the reasons for that truth were evading me. Finally, on New Year’s Eve, I took an post-midnight walk through the woods, drank champagne from a bota, and worked out the exact reasoning (frostbite as therapy?).
When a partner dies, the loss is sometimes slow, sometimes instantaneous. In either case, the knowledge of the loss is absolute. Barring the intervention of a supreme being, your partner is going to be gone, forever. If the illness that takes a partner is a long one, the difficulties and strain of dealing with the illness often brings out the nurturing qualities of the surviving partner. The survivor knows that, no matter the current strain, it will soon be over, and they will have done everything they can for their loved one. The waning time together often brings the partners closer, strengthening the bond before death takes it away.
When a marriage weakens and becomes unsalvageable, we use divorce to legally clean up the mess. The process that precedes a divorce is where the pain of loss begins. In some cases, you stand by and watch you and your partner grow apart, sharing less and less of your lives with each other. In other cases, you watch as your partner’s love fades for you as it grows for somebody else. Sometimes one partner loses all feeling of commitment, deciding that the marriage is no longer enough to keep them happy. None of these examples take place in an instant. They come on slow, and are accompanied with an ever-increasing feeling of doom and panic.
A divorce is also not an absolute loss (like death). After a partner dies, you are not likely to run into them in a restaurant or grocery store. If a partner cannot accept in impending divorce, they can easily hold the torch forever, insisting that they can pull their marriage from the brink of disaster. Even after a divorce, there’s no law that says that you can’t re-marry the same person.
The Materials of One’s Life
When a partner dies, you are left with the same trappings that you had when your partner was still alive. Your partner may be gone, but you still have your house, car, furniture, etc. Admittedly, it is often necessary to sell items off to cope with the lost income, but that choice is yours, and yours alone. More importantly, the items that have no value to anybody else, but infinite value to yourself, stay in your possession. I’m talking about memories: letters, photos, gifts, etc.
When a divorce is imminent, the soon-to-be-split partners must decided who gets what. While ending up with only half your life’s possessions is certainly difficult, the process of splitting ones possessions can be everything from emotional, to downright nasty. Fighting over individual items is common, and usually turns into lawyers fighting lawyers. Even if you have the good(?) fortune of going through an amicable divorce, you still have some daunting decisions to make. Who gets the CD or record from the first concert the two of you saw together? Who gets that photo of the happy couple on the beach on their honeymoon? Who gets that serving tray with your names and wedding date etched on the back? These activities become dreaded chores and don’t get any better if they’re put off too long.
The Healing Process
The biggest difference between losing a partner to death versus divorce is what we do afterwards to heal ourselves.
If a marriage ends in the death of a partner, it fulfilled its purpose. The ’til death do we part exit clause has been met. The marriage likely ended with the partners loving each other, maybe more than ever, and that memory is a lasting one. As time goes by, there is no desire to hide the memories of the marriage; they are there to be cherished.
A marriage ending in divorce is a failed marriage. While the stigma that is associated with divorce is nowhere near as damning as it once was, it still exists. Like other failures in our lives, a failed marriage becomes something to hide, something to forget. Many will take the memories of that marriage, shove them into a box, sequester that box in the top shelf of our most remote closet, and try to forget it exists.
Death and divorce also make different demands regarding how we remember our partner. A widow/widower can choose to remember their partner exactly the way they were. Unconsciously, a surviving partner will tend to remember their dead partner at their best. Divorced partners do not have this luxury. Even the most estranged couples will eventually see each other in public, unconsciously taking stock of how they look, who they’re with, what they’re driving, etc. As the time after the divorce lengthens, you are forced to cope with the fact that your ex-partner is somehow managing, not only to live, but to thrive without you. It can be a bitter pill to swallow.
While I certainly don’t wish my ex-wife was dead, I’m fairly certain that her death would have been easier to deal with than our divorce. I can’t help but wonder if she feels the same way.