Last week a woman said something to me that stopped me in my tracks. It had occurred within the context of a conversation we were having about the death of my husband last year when she asked me how I was coping. I explained that I was getting back on my feet. It was then she said,
"You're lucky; death is so much easier than divorce."
Had I heard her correctly? She went onto explain, saying that before she'd divorced her husband she had often wished him dead because all her troubles would have disappeared overnight.
I've often heard people in unhappy marriages discuss how much easier it would be if the other person died rather than going through a breakup. I must say that when I was in a miserable relationship, I once had that thought, and, as fleeting as it was, the shame of it stayed with me long after the relationship had ended.
In the cold light of day, death would seem to instantly resolve many problems: not having to make the decision to leave, not having to risk breaking up the family, or threatening the security of the family home or finances, no on-going power struggle with the ex, no co-parenting problems, no loss of self-esteem or friends, and no legal battles.
Divorce, on the other hand, seems to be more complicated as it can create a sense of failure for not making the marriage work. You can experience guilt, even, as a result of feelings of not trying 'hard enough'. Having to continually communicate with your ex can cause issues to arise, especially if there are children involved.
Photo by C. Glass
If the divorce is particularly acrimonious, one of the hardest things to endure is the inner conflict of wanting to be a good single parent and be nice to the ex in front of the kids versus wanting to scream at him/her for ruining your life!
Interestingly, a study from the University College Dublin in 2004 revealed that children suffer more from the effects of a divorce than the death of a parent. It stated that the children of divorced parents were more likely to suffer from depression, have poor social skills, and do worse at school compared to children who experienced parental bereavement. Does it also challenge the view that a child would be better off with divorced parents than to be raised in a 'bad marriage'?
Having experienced both divorce and death as a partner, and a mother, I can report several correlations.
In both cases, the grief centrally revolves around the loss of your future life. It's natural to assume that you'll be with your partner forever and you feather that dream by building a fantastical life about how the two of you are going to drive your campervan into the sunset and live on the Islands of Dreams.
The loss of those fantasies- for that's what they are- creates an ocean of grief that nothing and no one can fill. The only remedy is to bawl your eyes out while saying goodbye.
The main difference that I've found between going through a divorce, or bereavement, is the way that people treat you. Someone going through divorce can be regarded as an emotional wreck, and other people may stay away for fear of being embroiled in the breakup drama.
Once the divorce is complete, friends often take sides, potentially leading to an even more painful loss of the friendship group that you previously turned to in your time of need.
Conversely, grieving the death of a spouse seems to solicit a different response like friends offering a shoulder to cry on, placing a thoughtful lasagne on the doorstep and gently encouraging the bereaved to step back out into normal life again.
The two are extreme by comparison yet, for me, the feelings of grief were as intense in both divorce and bereavement.
One obvious difference is that divorce is a choice and death is not. I have shared many evenings with friends while they debate whether or not they should leave their spouse. Some of their debates have raged on for years! Making a decision to leave a marriage when children, family structure and finances are intuitively sewn up together is often a painful and drawn-out process.
Of course, with death the decision is made for you.
If I could return to that conversation with that woman (me) who was so unhappy in her relationship, I would encourage her to leave it - pronto. What is the point in continuing with something that brings you heartache, or perhaps more truthfully, makes you think that death would bring a solution to the problem?
Having the had the experience of being in a marriage with someone that I truly loved and then having to watch them die, I can honestly say that I do feel fortunate for having been left with the happy memories of a joyous life spent together.
The pain of the loss of someone whom I loved and who I know loved me who I spent many happy years with does, to me, seem preferable than the pain of being moored in the bitterness, agony, and disillusionment of not being able to have made a - once loving - relationship work out.
It's easier, for me, at least, to grieve someone that I loved who is now gone, than it is, perhaps, to grieve the living when love has gone.