There’s the end and then there’s finality.
Divorce is often compared to death in terms of the experience of loss and grief. But despite their similarities, dealing with grief after divorce is different from grief over death.
When you’re suffering from any kind of pain or loss, the last thing you want is a comparison of your pain to others. “At least you still have (this),” “At least you didn’t lose (that),” “It could have been so much worse.”
Making comparisons, even with the best intentions, can minimize the sufferer’s feelings and reality. It can also lead the one making the comparisons to mete out compassion relative to the judgment made.
When comparing the ways that dealing with grief after divorce is different from grief after death, no such judgment is intended. Those who have experienced both divorce and the death of a spouse can best attest to the entanglement of their similarities and differences.
Some of the obvious ways that dealing with grief after divorce and dealing with grief after death of a spouse are similar include:
- There is the painful loss of a spouse, and often the loss of self-identity as a partner.
- Both divorce and death mark an end to your hopes, dreams, plans, routines and all things familiar.
- You are left to navigate life without your partner -- emotionally, physically, financially, legally, parentally.
- Both divorce and death can blindside you. Divorce may be rooted in betrayal, and death may be sudden or accidental.
- Divorce can feel like a slow death when there is a slow deterioration of the marriage, even when there is a fight to keep it alive.
- Both can make you feel that you have lost control of life and your purpose.
Some of the differences in dealing with grief after divorce and dealing with grief after death are obvious, and some lie in the stages of grief themselves. Both losses share the stages of grief -- in many ways similarly, in many ways differently, in all ways uniquely and profoundly.
Here are 10 ways that dealing with grief after divorce is different than dealing with grief after death.
- Death is permanent.
There is no second-guessing, no going back to communicate regrets or even anger, no co-parenting the children. There are no accidental encounters, no showing up for major life events and feeling gratified that you have healed from what once shattered your world. You will never see, hear or touch this person again.
- Death isn’t a conscious choice.
With the exception of suicide, which leaves the bereaved in a wake of psychological and physiological difficulties, death isn’t voluntary. We all die, and only God knows the moment.
When a spouse dies, the relationship is left in its final state. Did you have an argument the same morning that your husband had a fatal heart attack at work? Did your wife discover your affair just minutes before driving off in her car and getting into a fatal accident?
Death doesn’t leave an opportunity for reconciliation and healing in this realm. Divorce, on the other hand, at least holds the seed of opportunity for the parted spouses to resolve their differences, to learn, and to forgive.
- Divorce means children have both parents.
They may not have them together, but they still get to have a relationship with them both.
When a spouse dies, a parent also dies (assuming there have been children). And that changes life in a permanent way for both widow(er) and children. Parenting now belongs to the bereaved spouse alone.
- Family and friends react differently.
Divorce can be a rending force to friendships and families. It’s understandable that in-law relationships may weaken or disappear, as the “blood is thicker than water” principle goes into effect.
With both types of loss, there is often the weight of social expectation to get through the grief and move on.
The immediate shock of divorce or death can leave you physiologically and neurologically overwhelmed. When denial is employed as a temporary defense mechanism, it can protect you from the effects of overwhelm so that you can do the work of surviving.
If allowed to endure too long, it can lead to irrational behavior. A jaded spouse may stalk his/her ex or act as if the divorce isn’t real. A person facing the inevitability of a spouse’s imminent death may refuse to accept and prepare for that reality.
- Pain and fear.
Loss of marriage and loss of life are both terrifying, life-changing events with long-term, even permanent, effects. Suddenly you are alone to deal with life. How will I go on alone?
In the case of death, that pain and fear are surmounted by the reality that the departed is never coming back. S/he can never again contribute in any pragmatic way to your life.
In the case of divorce, the pain may be exacerbated by feelings like anger and betrayal from events that culminated in the divorce.
Both divorce and death leave plenty of room for anger. Divorce is commonly riddled with anger -- for betrayal, dashed hopes, insensitivity, indifference…
Death, too, leaves plenty of room for anger. Doctors and hospitals may fail, misstep, or simply not care as much as they should. Even the departed spouse may have left this world with unresolved discontent.
Sometimes you are angry at yourself...and sometimes at the circumstances themselves. But in the case of death, you are left to deal with that anger alone, with no hope of getting any clarification or comfort from your spouse.
It’s not abnormal to make a last-ditch effort to save what is important to you. At no time is that bargaining more poignant than when a person’s life is coming to an end.
A spouse grieving divorce may bargain with an ex by promising certain behaviors in an effort to reconcile. And impossible as it may sound, a widow(er) may continue to plead with God for the restoration of the departed’s life. What if…? If only…. Please, please….
Marriage and divorce are two-way streets. Both spouses contribute, both withhold. But even in divorce there is the opportunity for atonement if both people are open to that kind of healing. And forgiveness is always a choice that can move life forward without the weight of resentment.
When grieving death, however, it’s only the bereaved who can feel guilt, and who must find a way to heal, atone, and forgive. Could I have done more to save him/her? Did I ignore the signs? Would s/he still be alive if I had done xyz? I wish I had/hadn’t said/done (whatever).
Depression will look much the same whether you are dealing with grief after divorce or grief after death. It is the longest and most long-lasting stage of grief, and can become debilitating on many levels if left untreated.
If you have lost a loved one to death, you may have an especially difficult time with depression as you try to heal. You may still feel married, and therefore incapable of moving on into a new relationship, a new home, or a new life.
Depression after divorce may be experienced in the shadow of an ex who is a constant reminder of what you once had but lost. Depression after death is always experienced in the absence of that same reminder.
Dealing with grief after divorce is both similar to and different from dealing with grief after death. The stages of grief are the same, even though they may be experienced in profoundly different ways and in an unpredictable order.
The biggest difference between the two is also the most obvious. Divorce, while most likely permanent in terms of the marriage, isn’t permanent in terms of life.
And where there is life, there is also the hope and possibility of mutual forgiveness...and healing.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and life coach, who works with people just like you who are in search of support discovering things to do when dealing with grief after divorce. For free weekly advice, register for my newsletter. If you’d like to explore working with me, you can schedule a private 30-minute consultation with me.