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.