Death Or Divorce: Which Is Worse?

In deathdivorce, we face the palpable destruction of the familiar: the structure of marriage, the family home, and loss of "self" in the role of partner.
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This column is based on an article which first appeared at Daily Plate of Crazy.

I have never been a widow. I can only imagine that it is horrible, otherworldly, incomprehensible.

My logic tells me that the arduous process of reconstructing a life after widowhood is heavily dependent on individual circumstances: your age, your spouse's age, your support system, your family, your finances, and whether or not you're prepared for the death. Of course, there's the nature of the relationship itself (which may be complex), and when there are children, the issues multiply.

Though both of my parents are now deceased -- one died much too young, while the other died older and in her sleep -- I know these losses to be a different matter. But I observed my grandmother after her husband's death. They shared nearly fifty years together. When he passed away suddenly, she was brokenhearted.

Once, I was acquainted with a woman who was mid-divorce when her husband died. She quickly transformed from unhappy participant in a drag-on fight to someone whose sorrow was to be respected. And by the way -- her troubles were over.

So why compare death and divorce? What might we see if we actually do so?

In death we confront the finality of a loved one's passing. In divorce, though we don't generally wish our partners dead, we sometimes realize that life would be easier if that were the case. And those feelings add to our confusion, our guilt, and our difficulties in co-parenting.

In death and divorce, we face the palpable destruction of the familiar: the structure of marriage, the family home, and loss of "self" in the role of partner. The identity issue is heightened for women who must choose to keep or shed a married name.

It seems to me that divorce twists our grieving in turns and term; we're mourning illusions and we confront regrets -- perhaps a lack of generosity in the bedroom or an inability to tolerate a breach in vows.

Self-esteem will take a hit. Legal battles may rage for years. Logistical nightmares (shuttling kids) may wear us out. And friends? They weary of our dramas. Often, they desert.

And for the midlife woman left to raise children alone, where is the light at the end of the tunnel? What if she's juggling kids, job, and aging parents? What of woman's greatest fear at 50 regardless of marital status -- that she won't have enough money to just keep going?

Man or woman, we're licking our wounds. We absorb blame and we place it. We relive matrimonial death -- in waves of unknown duration.

None of this is to say that death is easier to survive than divorce. There may be years sacrificed to a loved one's sickbed, as well as medical bills, lack of insurance, and little means to generate income. Still -- when contemplating widowhood versus divorce, I wonder why we demonstrate more compassion when it comes to the former, though the ghosts of the latter still walk the planet.

Rabbi David Wolpe writes on his own divorce in a 2011 piece which appeared in the Washington Post. He cites a letter written by his former wife Eileen:

"Divorce is a hard path, a long, circuitous journey that is not something you can control... and your married friends look at you like you have leprosy. It threatens their world view for you to divorce. It threatens their marriage... everything changes. In ways you can't imagine or anticipate. Everything. Everything. Everything."

Eileen Wolpe goes on to describe divorce as:

"... the destruction of together-dreams, forever-dreams, family-dreams, love-dreams. You cannot leave a marriage without doing violence to all those things, no matter how amicable the divorce."

I am well aware that this is not the emotional terrain of every divorce. Yet I find these words to be a spot-on depiction for some of us -- of the subtle (and not so subtle) ostracizing, the ways in which we must find new footing, and the bitter surprise at the losses that just keep coming.

In offering these thoughts on widowhood and divorce, I don't seek to pit one against the other but rather to equalize them in a way, recognizing that both involve life altering change which we treat respectfully in one case and callously in the other.

Shouldn't loss be the great leveler?

Perhaps divorce generally isn't worse than losing a spouse, though both leave us in turmoil, and facing practical adjustments of indefinite duration. But the words spoken by Eileen Ansel Wolpe highlight the death-like impacts of marital dissolution, suggesting (to me) that divorce in many cases ought to be considered the "exit" of last resort -- neither dismissed nor taken lightly. And in any case -- perhaps every case -- those who pass through its doors, met with compassion.

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