Monday, October 28, 2013

The Big D's

No, this isn't a post about my breasts, although 2 out of 2 husbands would chest is blog-worthy.  If you're looking for boobie jokes, though, I recommend my friend Kristen's blog:  (You might notice her top blog post is, in fact, about having sizeable chest melons.)

Of course, my blog is less about dirty, witty humor and more about grief, struggle, and deep emotional issues.  You know, the kind of thing that really makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.  So the big D's referred to in this post's title are....drumroll, please....Death and Divorce.  Fun, right?  I'm sure you can't wait to dive right in!

When I was a new widow, I was desperate to find tools to help me cope with my loss and profound grief.  I devoured books about grief, I struggled through some intensely painful sessions with a grief counselor (which helped as much as or more than they hurt), I joined an online community for widows and widowers for virtual support, and I went to a handful of grief support group meetings.  At these meetings, I struggled to find people like me.  Of course, in some ways, the experience of losing a spouse is universal - the loneliness, the loss of a life plan, the questions over things like whether to wear a wedding ring and what to say when people ask about your spouse.  Yet, being so young, I was not the typical case.  I wanted to find others who would relate to me more closely, so shortly after moving to Austin, I posted a couple times on different websites looking to form a group of young people dealing with grief.  Only a couple people replied, not enough to form a group, so that idea fizzled out relatively quickly.  One of the responses, though, was from a young woman whose long-time partner had left her, and she was grieving the end of the relationship.  She wanted to join a support group to help her cope with this.  I don't honestly remember if I replied to her email or not, given the general lakc of interest I found, but I knew I wasn't interested in being in a support group with her.  I couldn't bring myself to compare our experiences, or to think that we were going through the same thing.  I mean, she was going through a break-up, and I was a widow.  She was dealing with life, and I was dealing with death.  I certainly felt bad for her, but also was almost offended that she reached out to me.  At that point, though, I was really looking for someone who had walked a mile in my shoes, and she hadn't.

A few months later, I became good friends with a woman named Heather, who started to read my blog as a way to cope with her sense of loss after going through a divorce.  Coincidentally, she moved to Austin to heal, just like I had.  She was very careful about choosing her words when she talked about how my blog had helped her, and made a point to say she knew that our experiences didn't really compare.  Still, in that first conversation with her, I realized that we were going through some of the same feelings and emotional aftermath as a result of our experiences, different as those might have been.

Since then, I've had several friends and family members who've gone through divorces.  At first, you'd think that death and divorce are very different experiences.  And they are -- especially if the divorce is mutually agreed upon, or if you're talking about the party who wanted the divorce.  But for those whose spouses made the unilateral decision that they wanted out of the marriage (or long-term relationship), our experiences are more similar than you'd think.  Sadly, I've had several friends in this boat in the last few years -- their worlds, their lives, their futures upended and taken away, sometimes suddenly and sometimes painstakingly over months or years.  None of us chose to have our spouses leave us.  None of us wanted to divert our life paths.  None of us wanted to be alone.  We all had to grieve the loss of our partner and mourn the fact that the future, the life, the plans we had will not happen.

That being said, it is NOT a good idea to say to a new widow or widower, "I know how you feel.  When I got divorced..."  This would not have sat well with me when I was in the depth of my grief, and is not very sensitive to that person who is in so much pain.  You'll just look like an asshole, because it's not the same.  Tread very carefully when saying you know how someone feels because you went through an entirely different situation (this applies to everything not just taking to widows and widowers).  I used to be quite offended when people who were divorced would compare our experiences.  I thought, "That's so different!  In a divorce, someone made the choice for that to happen.  Neither of us chose for Brian to die.  God made that happen to us, not either of us.  We were happy."   Still, in time I started to see some similarities, and this was in part because I was witness to several unwanted divorces.  In each case, it helped that my friends recognized that although we went through some of the same things, our experiences were different.  They were all very good at saying, "This is nothing like what you went through, but..."  And then I would say something along the lines of, "I know it is different, but I also know some of the feelings that result are the same."

In sharing our experiences as friends, we can acknowledge the similarities and differences in our experiences and the feelings we have.  I have come to realize that while both are very traumatic and painful, death and divorce present different challenges.

If you get divorced, you lack the finality of death.  In my case, Brian's body stopped working when he died.  Science dictated that he was physically gone.  No one and nothing could change that.  From that moment on, the grief began, and then the healing.  In a divorce, things aren't so cut and dried.  A lot of people end up second-guessing themselves, and sometimes a couple will give things another try, even in the midst of or after the divorce proceedings.  There is no metaphysical barrier preventing you from working on the relationship, even if it seems dead.  This can delay the realization that a relationship, a life as one knew it, is over.  It can keep a person focused on rekindling the relationship and prevent them from mourning its demise.  With a living ex-partner, there is also much more room for anger.  Of course, it is normal for a grieving widow or widower to have anger -- not just at God, but also at their departed spouse for leaving them (not all emotions are rational, after all) -- but the fact is that for divorcees, this anger is more rooted in reality and can easily be fed by nasty divorce proceedings and ongoing issues between the parties, particularly if they have children together.  Simply put, death is more of a clean break than divorce.  The bandage gets ripped off, and then you start to heal.  With divorce, the bandage is slo-o-wly removed, maybe put back on after you peek at the wound, maybe replaced, before it is eventually taken off.  Only then can the recovery begin.

Finality of loss is a double-edged sword, however.  One of the hardest things to accept in coping with death is knowing that you will never EVER hear that person's voice or laugh again, that they are truly gone from your life on this earth.  That is a hard realization, and one that you never have to embrace if you're mourning the loss of a relationship and not the loss of your spouse's life.  It is hard to wrap your mind around the idea that this person you loved and spent your life with does not exist anymore and is gone from this world.  

Related to that is the fact that death will almost invariably cause you to examine your spiritual beliefs.  When someone you love is gone, you wonder where they are, if they are with you, whether they are in a better place, etc.  You might question everything you've ever been taught, you might be sick with anxiety over the soul of the departed, you might find faith anew in signs from beyond.  Whatever your experience, death takes you down this journey whether you intended to think about such things or not.  You can remain blissfully ignorant or choose to not worry about such things if you're divorced, because you don't have that feeling of responsibility for or a vested interest in the soul of someone who has left the physical world.

Another difference is in the way death and divorce are treated by the rest of the world.  Divorce carries a stigma and shame, while being a widow or widower causes people to bestow a strange mixture of pity and admiration on you.  I was praised so much for being so "brave" and "strong," yet I don't see how I've done anything praise-worthy.  Bravery is choosing to face daunting odds -- running into a burning house to save the children inside, rescuing a dog whose fallen through the ice into freezing cold water, etc.  I just lived the life I was given; I'm no hero.  I simply did what I had to do.  What else could I do?  On the other hand, the rules about how to move on are clearer for divorced folks.  It's assumed that you'll date again and go on with life.  You probably won't cry on your new partner's shoulder when an ex-husband's birthday rolls around, but you very well might do that on your late spouse's birthday.  By the same token, only one of those is socially acceptable, so at least a widow can continue to grieve and heal while forging a new relationship.  It might be that dating divorcees feel more pressure to keep their residual pain and emotional hang-ups hidden from new partners.

I could go on and on about these losses, how they are similar and how they are different.  I will say that there are many similarities in how someone who chooses neither reacts when life hands them one of these anyway.  I have had conversations with other widows and with divorcees about our feelings of loss, about how to cope with being suddenly alone, about having to grieve the futures we thought we were going to have, about how to re-enter the dating world as adults who never thought we'd be there again, etc.  I think my experience has given me an insight on what my friends were going through, no matter the reason they were there.  Although our experiences were different, some of our feelings were the same.  We are all trying to walk the path of recovery, healing, and finding happiness again.  In doing so, we have strengthened our resolve, our friendships, our emotional intelligence and our ability to support each other in hard times.  What hasn't killed us has made us stronger.  

It's easy to get caught up in our differences, but sometimes it turns out that our similarities are stronger than they appear.  Rather than worry about who has had it worse or whose pain was greater (How does one quantify that anyway?  And why would you want to?), I have come to see that the path I've walked has made me a more empathic, compassionate person and I can relate to people a lot more than I could before.  Having walked with pain and grief, I know what it is like and I know that, regardless of the source of one's woes, you can come out stronger and better for it.

How have you dismissed someone's pain and hurt because you think you had it worse?  Is it possible your experiences are more similar than you care to admit?  If you focus on how people are feeling rather than the outward cause of their pain, you'll come to find that heartache and loss are the same for everyone.  Sharing feelings doesn't have to be a competitive game of who has it the worst; instead, it should be about drawing on your own experiences to help you be compassionate and understand toward others who are hurting.  


  1. What amazing insight and empathy. You got both aspects spot on.

  2. Hello, thank you for your post. I am new at this and I stumble across this one. I lost my 36 year only wife suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Sara died in ten minutes and we have a 11 week old son named William. The things you said I can totally relate to mostly about finding a support group young and similar tragedies. I am still searching as I live in CA but live in Austin several years ago. What a wonderful place. Anyway I just wanted to say hank you for giving me building blocks for the day.

  3. Hi Wendy, I found your blog and I am grateful that I have. I think this post is incredibly insightful into the "I know how you feel" realm. It is easy to forget in our grief that other people's trials and pain mean something to them, so when they share that with you it can become hurtful that they are comparing their pain to yours. I have struggled with this but I think you nailed it in explaining that the experiences are different, but many feeling can be similar. I also really love that you talked about not being a hero. After my husband passed away, many people told me I was "Superwoman" or the "strongest person they have met". I always feel like I am deceiving someone--I'm not "superwoman", just moving forward. Thanks for the post.