During a first meeting with a new friend, it came out that we’ve each been married twice. He mentioned being twice divorced; I said I was once divorced, once widowed. A brief conversation on the difference between being widowed and divorced came up. While we didn’t spend much time talking about this (nothing dead-ends a potential relationship more than rambling on about past ones), it has gotten me thinking a lot about the differences between the two events.
Going through a divorce provides far more choices than going through the death of a spouse. For most of us, divorce is an option that we choose, while the death of a spouse is something that happens to us. I realize this is a “Captain Obvious” statement, but the implications are great.
Making choices provides a sense of power and control, even when the choices are limited. Being a part of the group that is making decisions is always better than just hearing about decisions that were already made, whether the venue is work or personal life.
Very often, the situational realities surrounding death consist of a long series of events with few choices given, and those choices tend to be quite grim. Certainly for me, and I believe for many people, going through the experience of losing a spouse is an exercise in powerlessness. You can’t change the course of a disease, or go back in time to prevent an accident. Especially in situations where hospitalization is involved, the role of the spouse is bystander. I spent a month sitting with nothing meaningful I could do to help. By the time I needed to plan a funeral, my ability to make meaningful, rational choices was gone. In fact, one of the more challenging parts of those first few months of being a widow was a shell-shocked feeling that hit me when I did need to make decisions. My mind felt like half-set Jell-O, sluggish and thick.
Going through a divorce presents a panoply of choices and the ability to exercise some real power. Every step of a divorce requires action and choices. The entire process is a jockeying for power and control.
Which leads to the 2nd big difference; change. Death has no backsies. Divorce does. My ex-husband and I have a good relationship. He sent me a very heartfelt sympathy note when Rick passed away. It wasn’t always that way. We went through years of acrimony, but the need to continue being parents, and time, eventually brought us to the place we are now.
Death eliminates change. Part of the grieving process is coming to terms with the realization that wherever you were in the relationship is where it stopped, forever. Whether it was the best time of your relationship or the worst, there will never be any more growth. It’s over, irrevocably, and undeniably.
Moving forward is another area, one I’ve written about before. Every step forward after a divorce is a positive and affirming move; the same actions taken after a death seem bittersweet at best, betrayals at worst. I first wrote about this months ago, when something as small as moving a bookcase seemed fraught with subtext. Now I’m actively meeting new people, and it is causing me angst on a level I haven’t felt since adolescence. I’m feeling more distant from my marriage; in my head it is now firmly in the past.
There’s a new level of grief with that realization. Last year, I started every day wearing our wedding rings on a chain around my neck; they were my talisman, giving me strength and the ability to make it through each day. In my heart, I was still married. This year, I am not. I look at those rings every morning, but I rarely wear them. My grief is less personal, more situational: I grieve the loss of a future that is no more, of hopes and expectations and dreams that will never be.
Divorce spurs that same loss of a potential future, but differs in that the bittersweet is less, the joy in realizing it will be a different future is so much greater. I’m slowly coming to see that there can be joy, that there will be changes, but I’m still feeling guilt and loss over that realization.
Ultimately, I think that confusing patchwork of joy and sadness, poignancy and excitement that marks moving on after losing a spouse is the greatest difference between being divorced and widowed.