Widowhood is Not Divorce

Day 150: And that's that.

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The Divorced and the Widowed normally agree to share a thin isthmus of common ground where the idea that each state marks a loss of a marriage is concerned, but while the Divorced believe the losses are slight variations on the same theme, Widowed adamantly object to what they see as a presumption.

Divorced feel that mourning the end of a marriage with its letting go of hopes, dreams and an intimate enduring relationship mirrors very closely the process that widowed must also go through.

“Except for that dead body in the room,” widowed counter.

And they are correct.

Let the howling protest of dissent begin.

Though divorce is not as dissimilar to the technical aspects of being widowed as widowed would like to believe – or the comparison as offensive –  though they might howl with the ferocity of Hamlet ranting at his mother – any person who seeks empathetic ground with a widowed by offering their divorce for comparison is going to be met with disdain that is barely a step above that reserved for those people who try to compare the death of their Fluffy or Spot with a widowed person’s spouse.

Divorced (and probably a few widowed as well) miss the point though because they are looking at the forest and not the type of trees that populate it. It is not the dissolution of the marriage that is the issue but the mechanism of grief that it triggers. Grieving just a marriage is far different from the grief that accompanies the profound loss of a person. Widows aren’t grieving marriages.

Pros and Cons

While grieving the loss of their marriage, a divorced person might recall the benefits now lost and the good times had but at the heart of divorce lie very good reasons for separation which outweigh the formers. That the cons eventually carry the day is what helps the divorced person move on.

A widowed person, by and large, has a “pro” heavy versus “con” light list. He/she is seldom under any illusions about the marriage or the late spouse, but for him/her the good outweighs the bad. There is a good reason for that. Though the grief industry has defaulted over the decades to highlight the sadness, it is actually the positive emotions and memories that sustain the bereaved and are essentially what moves them forward and back to life.

So when the divorced person needs the focus to be on the very good reasons for moving away from a former marriage and bond in order to move on and perhaps build a new life and relationship with someone else, the widowed person needs to hang on to the good memories and positive attributes of the deceased to keep from drowning in the intense sadness. This helps with the healing of the broken bonds that they never intended to break. The regaining of optimism feeds their resilience, which research has shown is what separates the majority who weather bereavement from those who are incapacitated by it.

Protesting Too Much

Therefore, the “sainting” of a late spouse/union, which baffles and irritates potential new partners who have divorced or never-married points of view is important for the widowed person if they hope to move on with someone new.

George Bonanno in his book, The Other Side of Sadness, notes that the overwhelming majority of bereaved will focus on good times and traits to the exclusion of the negative. They will do this even though they know the deceased and the relationship weren’t perfect. The need to look on the good side is integral to the healing process.

Widowed folk tend to react vehemently to the idea that their situations are like divorce at all. Often they will retort, “I didn’t choose to be widowed.” Which is a stinging indictment of the divorced and never-married.

No little boy or girl grows up dreaming of being one half of a “broken” marriage or being viewed as emotionally dysfunctional because they enter their middle-aged without having settled into marriage. That’s silly and incorrect.

However, the reality is that divorce, or never marrying, offers a slightly better measure of control than widowhood, which basically offers none.

Not The Same

A key then to avoiding a clash of expectations/world views in a relationship where one party is widowed and the other is not is recognizing that the emotional factors necessary for moving into a new relationship are different for both parties.

Divorced need the good reasons for having moved out of a past marriage to motivate them towards a new relationship, and widowed need their good memories to remind them of why moving into a new relationships is well-worth doing.

Pushing a widowed person to “cough up the goods” on a deceased partner probably slows their healing process. It’s counter intuitive to what some call the “grief process”.

This isn’t to say that the new partner of a widowed person should be subjected to frequent (or any, really) out of context trots down happy memory lane. It does mean that a person who is still doing a lot of that type of verbalizing is still likely working towards – not acceptance (the idea that the bereaved struggle to accept the reality of death is a fallacy as that comes quite quickly really) – but towards a place where real building of a new relationship and moving on can begin to happen.

The Reality of Grief

The other difference between divorce and bereavement is the intense sadness. In Chapter Three of The Other Side of Sadness, Bonanno discusses one of his case subjects, a man named Robert, who lost his sister to a brain tumor. Though Robert had experienced the loss of both his parents earlier, it wasn’t until his sister’s death that he truly experienced a profound loss and the grief that comes with it.

Too often people make the mistake of believing that losing anyone (or a pet) means that we all share a common experience known as grief. It is, however, the connection between two people (and no, not a person to pet) which determines the intensity of the grief. Often the connections between spouses, or between parent and child, are the deepest, and therefore the most heart-rending of losses we can ever know.

Even Bonanno reminds his readers that intellectually we can know what grief is and yet have no actual understanding of what it feels like unless we have experienced the intense connection to another that can near literally tear our hearts in two with its almost depthless sadness when we lose it. Such a profound loss leaves the bereaved consumed to the point where breath feels precarious and tears are impossible to stem. It’s a crushing darkness in the brightest sunlight, threatening to blot out sanity itself.

Grief is essentially a stress reaction employed by the mind/body to help deal with the feeling that we are physically at risk. It’s oscillating nature defies current grief industry definitions that would have us believe that it is continuous, plodding from one step to another until it reaches a finish line. The human body couldn’t withstand the stress and for this reason – good feelings, positivity and happy memories are vital. They are the “eye” of grief’s hurricane without which it would kill us.

So when a widowed person tells someone, “You don’t understand” and that person takes offense/exception – it’s likely because he/she has yet to encounter this profound level of sadness that is otherwise known as grief.

It’s neither a good nor a bad thing to “not understand” but the attempt to superimpose another type of loss over the top of a widowed person’s experience to make it fit is asking for misunderstanding with compound interest.

Widowhood and Divorce share the loss of a marriage. What they don’t share are the same means for moving on or the same level of grief.

21 responses to “Widowhood is Not Divorce

  1. One thing that is very different is a divorced person does not usually still “feel” married once the final decree is gaveled by the judge. When a spouse dies the feeling of still being married continues. Not the legal contract but the emotional sense of the marital bond very much intact. The marriage is not null and void when the coffin lid closes for the final time as it was with the gavel for the divorced. The bond is not and can not be severed in that manner and only through grieving and time will the bond transform itself into something different.

    I truly believe this is the feeling that keeps many widowers from fully embracing the new love in their life. Until they make peace with having a new love and they are not cheating on their wife or her memory they will not be able to keep the new love from being or feeling as if she’s the “other” woman…..because somewhere in the recesses of the widowers mind she is the other woman. He can apply rational logic that he isn’t actually cheating but until the heart can agree there will be a roller coaster of mixed signals going on.

    When the widower is psychologically able to say goodbye to the marriage and not feel it to be a betrayal of his wife then and only then will he be able to see the new love in his life in the here and now and appreciate them for who they are and not what comforts they can provide while in mourning. Number 2 will never be number one until the widower reconciles the guilt within himself and no longer feels that he is cheating or betraying the sanctity of the marriage and his emotional identity changes from being his wife’s husband.

    Moving on is a different from letting go. We can physically move on because it’s a mental decision but letting go is an emotional passage at the end of a journey and I believe that’s the first step before real moving on can be accomplished, A lot of people try to do it the other way around and then we end up reading blogs like this to figure it all out 🙂

    Yes the two are very very different.

    This article has really helped me put some things into perspective and has given me greater insight as to the underlying dynamics that have caused uncertainty and confusion in my own situation. Thanks for the great read!!

  2. I believe it may be “natural” for the widow or divorcee to get angry over their grief. When some people grieve, they are inclined to go down the dark road of turning the normal “grieving” process into something selfish and hateful. The widow did not expect her loss and was probably quite happy for the life with her husband. The divorced person, however, may have anticipated her loss, her loss may have been as unfair as the widow’s loss (in the case of the man committing adultery, for instance). If reader’s are howling about the comparison, it is because they understand that BOTH experience grief, loss and anger and wish to have their emotions and experiences validated. I don’t believe the divorced person doesn’t know their loss is not the same.

  3. What if the marriage was so doomed, that you would have divorced or been miserable together if your spouse hadn’t died? What do I do with unhappy memories, regret, guilt AND sadness all rolled into one? The happy memories are long ago and far between, so I feel like I loved him and divorced him AND buried him simultaneously!

    • From what I have gleaned from the experiences of widowed who were in unhappy marriages when a spouse died, it doesn’t seem to lessen grief and even has the added burden of feeling guilty b/c there might actually be relief among the many emotions churning.

      It’s okay to feel whatever you are feeling. The last years of my first marriage were difficult b/c my late husband’s illness was misdiagnosed as depression and alcoholism. By the time DR’s were willing to check him for a physical illness, I was ready to walk. It was so very difficult to slip back into the role of loving caretaker b/c his erratic and sometimes cruel behavior of the preceding time was still there and he was now too far gone mentally for us to work through that. I was stuck doing that on my own, followed by a long stint of care-taking a man with advancing dementia who couldn’t interact with me at all on any meaningful level.

      So, I have some idea of the conflict of which you speak.

      Cut yourself some slack. There is a lot going on for you to sort through and really, there is no guidebook to follow. Eventually, you will come to a place where you are comfortable with who your late husband was, what your relationship really was and you will know how to move forward. It gets better. In the meantime, it’s okay to mourn the guy and the marriage even if it wasn’t storybook and even if you are fairly certain it wouldn’t have lasted had he lived. And it’s okay to be relieved that it’s over. Doesn’t make you a terrible person just a human one.

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  10. I guess that was my long winded way of trying to say the same thing lol … Comparisons are pointless and can generate needless conflict, because even among the divorced there are a wide range of experiences, and same among the widowed. So trying to make the two into something similar is simply not possible.

  11. I think it is as hard to capture divorce as it is death in terms of describing it, because there are so many different factors that figure into each individual divorce. Having been a family law paralegal, I have seen couples who simply agreed amicably that their marriage was over and never exchanged a cross word through the entire process ….and I have seen the ones who hate each other so thoroughly that we would have to bring them in through different doors and give them separate conference rooms to conduct a court-ordered mediation.

    Mine was somewhere in the middle I guess. I had loved this man more thoroughly than I thought possible, and know he loved me the same ways. The things that broke us apart were pretty evenly balanced on both sides, as far as blame goes. I think the divorce was so hard because we were still very much in love with each other, but each of us had done and said so many horrible things that we believed we could no longer live together. I have regretted many times asking for the divorce, because I know now (in retrospect) that we absolutely could have salvaged it if we had both put aside our pride and tried. That regret, and the guilt of now having our son grow up split between two households, and the love I still felt for him (combined with the hate for the things he had done) all mixed together to form absolute hell for me for a long time. It took a couple of years before I was healed enough to even date casually again, and five years before I had another serious relationship. But a dozen other divorcees will have a dozen completely different experiences with it.

    On a lighter note, we once had a client who, between himself and his wife, spent over $60,000 in legal fees fighting over custody of their chihuahua. Not kidding. It actually made the news here at the time. They had a custody arrangement and support payments and everything, and the wife once called the police when the dog was not returned from visitation on time, and wanted to charge the husband with custodial interference. I have no idea how her attorney kept a straight face as he explained that Texas law on custodial interference applies only to human beings.

    • And it’s the differences that make the comparison of widowhood and divorce – in terms of emotional pain – pointless. That’s not really where I want this to go. I am trying to keep the focus on the moving on and the explanation on why divorce isn’t applicable to widowhood (or vice versa) as an analogy.

      I have noticed that women dating widowers who have been divorced are frustrated in their attempts to equate the two by widowers who simply say “it’s different” and can’t really explain why. I want to clarify the “why”. And it’s not about pain or who has it the “toughest”. It’s not about “sucking it up” and “everyone’s been through shit”. It’s about what occurs in the healing process that makes the divorce comparison a non-starter with widowed. Conversely, I can’t use my widowhood to understand divorce either. Not the actual experience even though I have plenty of experience as a single person in dead end relationships and being dumped. They just aren’t the same.

      It’s better, just my opinion, to just approach a relationship with a set of expectations that doesn’t allow for wiggle room on the bad behavior front regardless of where the parties are coming from in terms of past relationship – a kind of “check your bags at the door” kind of playbook.

      Women, much more than men, want situational examples for everything that can be pulled out, referenced, used to beat ppl with – whatever – in relationships and they only have to be in same general ballpark to work. It’s our shorthand and we are able to make fairly broad connections. Men, on the other hand, will not look at a duck and think bird. If there are even slight differences, they are not the same. End of discussion. But when it comes to emotionally charged stuff – we all err towards “a duck is equal to only another duck”.

      Okay, enough rambling. I appreciate your feedback, Caitlin.

  12. BTW I agree with you that the title of this piece just does not do it justice. People who are defensive about the widowed/divorce comparison may believe it is just about that, and it is SO much more. I am not good at coming up with snappy titles but I was thinking “different toolboxes for completely different jobs”, although that seems a little flippant for the depth of the writing. I just don’t want anyone to skip over this in the mistaken belief that it is something that they don’t want/need to hear.

    • I am toying with the idea of sharing it w/DAW’s – just for input. It is a work in progress. I hesitate b/c I am only guessing at the divorce aspect based primarily on what I read from those who are divorced/

      Yeah, the title doesn’t do the topic full justice.

  13. I loved this piece. It made me understand better than ever what DH has been through.

    Another point that occurred to me is this: although divorce is extremely painful and the end of a set of dreams, it is not the end of POSSIBILITIES. As horrifically painful as my divorce was, and as much as my ex had destroyed me emotionally – there were still times over the following couple of years when I would think, “is it REALLY over? Is there really nothing left that we could go back and rebuild upon? For the sake of our son, and given the deepening friendship and respect that we have as co-parents, could we maybe give this another try?”

    In the end I never decided to even test the waters on that; we had both simply moved on and it seemed best to leave it at that. But even the most broken marriage still has a chance of revival, if the two parties are alive and willing. Death is the absolute end of ALL possibilities, good or bad. There is no going back and finally apologizing for that thing you did at Thanksgiving. There is no way to follow through on that promise you made to be more affectionate and listen better. It is the complete and total silence of all the “what ifs” that could ever exist.

    I have tried many times to empathize with my DH to understand what he went through. I remember once very vividly seeing him (in my mind) on the day he got the news, sitting on his couch, picturing his lively, vibrant wife lying on some cold table in a cold room, utterly still and silent. It broke my heart then and it still does now. He is a very affectionate, touchy-feely man and I cannot imagine the pain he felt at realizing he would never feel her skin again, never run his hands through her hair, all the things I know he loves to do with me. They cremated her in Virginia and shipped her remains back to Texas, so he did not even get to see her one final time to say goodbye.

    The word that comes to mind for me in death is “brutal.”. It is so ruthless and inescapable. I know how I felt when my dad died. It was this implacable, untiring, constant companion in my head: “your dad is gone. Your dad is gone.”. So I can say I know what it is to deeply grieve, but I do not know what it is to grieve a spouse. Thank you for writing this, and helping me a little further along in my constant journey to understand and cherish my husband better.

    • Thanks. I struggle with the phrase “Widowhood is not the same as divorce” as being dismissively non-explanatory. I’ve wanted to write about this for a while but it wasn’t until I was rereading Bonanno last night that an idea began to form and during the last minutes of yoga class today (yes, when I am supposedly to be clearing my thoughts) it just fell into the start of a theory. It still needs polishing, but I am pleased with its start.

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