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.

Tears. Again.

If you’re sick of hearing about my sorrow, you can leave. I don’t mind. I’m sick of my grief and tears, too, but I’m stuck with them.

Ever since my father’s death two months ago, I’ve been in a strange state. Not only has his death brought back the memory of the death that devastated me (the death of Jeff, my life mate/soul mate), it’s set in motion a whole new set of changes in my life. I came to look after my father after Jeff died, and now that they are both gone, I have to look to my own life and figure out where I want to go and what I want to do.

Do you really think I want to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, live a nomadic life in some sort of camper/van, or any of the other things I blog about? Of course I don’t. But the one thing I do want — to go home to Jeff, the Double Rainbowonly person who truly understood me — is forever denied me. And so I try to find new wants, which isn’t easy because I’m not a person who wants. (I never wanted anyone, either, but like a mythical being clothed in light, Jeff appeared in my life one incredible Saturday morning in August thirty-eight years ago. And then, almost five years ago, he left to go back from wherever he came.)

I’m fine most of the time. Really, I am. But today, I was with friends watching a movie — Patrick Swayze’s The Last Dance — and one woman piped up, “Divorce is so much worse than death.” I’d heard her make that same stark remark many times before, but today, I couldn’t let it pass. I said, more sharply than I intended, “You keep saying that, but it’s not necessarily true.” She went on her normal spiel about how when someone is dead, they don’t keep coming back, and I again spoke sharply. “Don’t you think I would give anything if Jeff came back? Your ex-husband has finally left you alone, but Jeff is still dead.” Her response was her oft-repeated, “But you didn’t have to deal with him rejecting you.”

I could have told her about the thousands of rejections one has to deal with when someone is dying, how they leave you every single day, how they have no time to think of you because their own concerns loom so large, how your heart breaks and breaks and breaks with the constant rejection until finally you don’t feel anything any more. I could have said a lot of things, but I wasn’t able to continue the conversation. I’d started crying when I spoke the simple words, “Jeff is dead,” and I couldn’t stop.

I pulled myself together to take my leave after the movie, but I cried all the way home, and I’m crying still.

How is it possible that almost five years later, I can be pulled back to the pain of his dying so quickly? Sometimes I wish I were as stoic as I once thought I was — I presumed I’d take his death in stride — but grief is more than simply feeling sad or rejected. It’s even more than those insipid 5 (or 7) stages of grief that everyone seems to believe in. Sure, we feel shock, denial, anger, guilt, sadness, depression, and acceptance, but most of us also feel anxiety, frustration, loneliness, confusion, despair, helplessness, panic, questioning (both as a need to know why and as a cry of pain), loss or gain of faith, loss of identity, loss of self-esteem, resentment, bitterness, isolation, inability to focus, suspended animation, waiting for we know not what, envy of those who are still coupled or who have yet to suffer a loss. And we suffer myriad physical symptoms such as queasiness, dizziness, sleep problems (too much or too little), eating problems (too much or too little), bone-deep pain, inability at times to breath or swallow, exhaustion, lack of energy, restlessness, and seemingly endless bouts of tears. (Yes, I know, those who get divorced also feel many of these things, and I empathize with them, but they do not have to deal with the angst of death, which adds a whole other layer of pain to the equation.)

My grief has mostly wound down since I’ve dealt with so many of the various aspects of grief, but still, days like today remind me that I will never be over Jeff, never stop missing him. And so I try to be tolerant of other’s condescension, try to create new possibilities, try to want something enough to make a life out of it.

And yet, no matter what I do for the rest of my life, he will still be dead. Nothing will ever change that — not my thoughts of an adventurous future and most certainly not my tears.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.