Grief: Divorce vs. Death

A week after Jeff died, I had to go to the bank to open a new account in my name only, and the woman who helped me said she had recently undergone a devastating, unasked for divorce. She was the first person I met who understood at least part of what I was going through, and we commiserated with each other.

Up to a point, there are many similarities between the two losses. Both involve:

  • Deep emotions: shock, pain, yearning, angst, loneliness.
  • The death of hopes, dreams, the future the two of you had planned for yourselves.
  • The ripping apart of the pair bond, the survival unit, which causes a fight or flight hormonal upsurge and puts tremendous stress on the body.
  • A disruption of habits. Once a behavior becomes automatic, the prefrontal cortex no longer has to make decisions about that particular behavior, which saves the prefrontal cortex from becoming overwhelmed. Disruption of routine after the loss of a life mate, however, destroys this balance, and contributes to brain fog.
  • Being suddenly uncoupled in a coupled world. Ours is a culture of couplehood. Many songs, movies, books, holidays are about love and the importance of being with that one special person, and now you are expected to slough off the weight of this culture and go on as if nothing happened.
  • Dealing with betrayal and rejection. Divorce is a betrayal and a rejection, but so is death. The fact that someone who died of illness did not choose to leave does not mitigate the betrayal and rejection. It’s not as if a person has done these things to us, but as if life itself turned its back on us.
  • Learning a whole new way of living. What you once did together, now needs to be done by you alone.

But there is a divergent point, and that point is death. With all a person has to contend with while going through a divorce, they do not also have to deal with death as a concept or as a reality. Death is shrouded with an element of blank. It is the great unknown and unknowable, and our brains are not equipped to handle the immensity. And yet, while we bereaved are going through the most traumatic event of our lives, we also have to learn to deal with and accept this utterly unfathomable concept.

We all know, of course, we are going to die, but we don’t KNOW. And now we do. This knowledge sends so many chemical and electrical signals throughout our bodies, setting off a cascading series of hormonal reactions, that it leaves us feeling bewildered and traumatized. This is all in addition to our emotional grief. We feel the loss, feel the death, in the depths of our soul. We feel the very winds of eternity screaming through the gaping wound in our heart where our love had been amputated from us.

Divorced people know where there erstwhile mate is, and if they don’t, they can find out, but we bereaved don’t know, can’t know. We call for them, we wonder how they are doing, look for them in crowds. But they are no longer here in the flesh.

When people would tell me how much worse divorce is than death, I would fight back my tears and wish that Jeff really had divorced me. At least I would know he was happy (once I got over being furious with him, that is), at least I would know he was well.

Beyond this empirical evidence, there is an actual, factual difference between the two types of losses, and statistics bear out the truth of it. On a scale of 1 to 100, the loss of a life mate or child tops all at 100. Divorce, the second worse stressor is 73.

I’m not trying to downplay anyone’s pain. We all deal with the traumas life throws at us the best way we can, but ever since Jeff died, my goal has always been to help the bereaved understand what they are going through, and to help their friends understand the enormity of their loss.

Whatever your loss, I wish you peace.


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

14 Responses to “Grief: Divorce vs. Death”

  1. jj7854 Says:

    I was never able to quantify the diversion point to where I could express it to those who compared divorce to death of a partner. I would just say that if divorced, there was still the possibility of making memories, becoming friends or just smacking them if required. Your words, as usual, express so eloquently what I never can. I bought this book for my friend that just died wife but am holding onto it until the appropriate time. How does one know when that time is?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That comparison really got to me, Yeah, I know, they had a hard time, but death is what makes the difference. As for your question — I don’t think one time is better than any other to give the book. Mostly, what feels right to you. If you still aren’t sure, wait a week or two until that first shock has eased a bit.

  2. Constance Says:

    Death and divorce are both hard to accept.
    Sometimes, while I was divorced, I would think that it might have been better if he had died. I had a real hard time raising my children without any support from him or financial help.
    And, knowing he was with someone else really hurt, instead of being with me and our children.
    When he died he was alone. It broke my heart. I still loved him and still do.

  3. Aggie Tracy Says:

    As usual Pat you said what I could not put into words.
    We all know we have to die, but yes, know we really know it, and it means something very real. I constantly have it on my mind.
    It is such a hard concept/reality to wrap the human mind around.
    Thank you Pat!

  4. Terry Jean Allard Says:

    Thanks for the well articulated and extensive piece. I found myself nodding in agreement to your points. Divorce generally is not “out of the blue” and although the partners may not agree on divorce, they do realize problems exsist and have had some control in attempting to keep the relationship together or define the terms of its’ ending.
    The ending of a marriage whether through sudden death or terminal illness control is lost…well not lost since that would imply control was once there.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      This isn’t a subject I am comfortable writing about since it’s one that is so steeped in emotion on either side, but my research for Grief: The Inside Story helped me realized that there is a definite difference based on something other than “my grief is worse than your grief.” Thanks again for the topic.

      That’s a good point — to a certain extent, there is culpability on both sides. Not always, but generally. When it comes to death, both people involved are without fault.

  5. Christine Hanson Says:

    Your blog/articles are an amazing journey of what happens when we lose someone so close to us. I feel happy you have chronicled this experience and it will help many. I will work my way through your posts and recommend them to my friends that have lost people very close to them. Wish you well,

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Thank you. I appreciate both the compliment and the well wishes. If you need to talk about anything you read, please leave a comment. I will respond. Wishing you well, too.

  6. Ainsobriety Says:

    I’m am going through a divorce. Unexpected and unwanted. The result of an affair that completely blindsided me and destroyed what I thought was a good life with my best friend.
    It is a deeply painful, traumatic and shocking event. Much worse than I could ever put into words. It has changed my view of the world, my sense of myself and my hopes.
    I am left with a loss of trust in others and still hold the old love from before the betrayal. It’s very complicated.
    I don’t think death would have been better or worse…but I often wonder.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I am so very sorry. What a terrible thing to have to deal with. I know a divorced woman who swears that divorce is worse because we who have lost our husbands through death don’t have to deal with the horror of the deliberate rejection of us as a person/spouse/friend. Any divorce is hard, but if it comes at you without your knowledge or consent, it must be devastating. I hope you can find a support group of people who understand because dealing with those feelings on your own would be even more excruciating.

      Although my situation was different, I know enough about unwanted and unexpected divorce from the friend I mentioned to know that it takes a long time to get over the shock, to regain your sense of self, and to eventually find some sort of accommodation with what was done to you. Be patient with yourself.

      If it helps, write a mystery and kill him off. I’m not being facetious. That’s what Sue Grafton did and why she started writing.

      Wishing you all the best as you deal with this horrific time in your life.

    • lossgriefhealing Says:

      I also went through a divorce after an affair, but ended up remarrying my ex. He passed away 14 months ago and I can say, for me, the death was much worse. I also lost my only child 6 weeks ago.

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