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They say that divorce is like death. I’ve heard and read for years that separating from a spouse is “like losing a loved one.” But therein lies the difference.
In death, the deceased is indeed “lost,” never to be found again except in old photographs and fond memories.
In divorce, no matter how much you might wish the ex would get lost, it never seems to happen. There she is in the supermarket aisle, picking up the Weight Watchers meals you never thought she needed in the first place. There she is, calling you to transfer money into your daughter’s account for the winter coat you both promised months ago. There she is, knocking at the front door of the “family” home to claim a pair of silver salad tongs you received as a wedding gift a quarter century ago.
And how can divorce be like death when people’s reaction to the news is so bizarrely different? When was the last time your parent passed away and you were told, “Oh good, I never liked your father anyway.” Or: “It’s for the best, you’ll be happier now;” “You’re so lucky your mom died, now you have freedom to do whatever you want;” “I’m so sorry, but as soon as you’re ready I have another old man to introduce you to who would make a wonderful grandfather.”
No, I don’t think divorce is like death. I think it’s more like a game show. One called “Whose Side Are You On?” which pits neighbours, friends and relatives against the unhappy couple, deciding whether “he” or “she” will be the recipient of their love, attention and pity.
Or “Who Deserves This More?” in which a panel of judges hears from each side about a favourite painting, piece of furniture or the aforementioned salad tongs, then decides where this object of love and attention (at least no pity involved here) gets to reside for the next chapter of everyone’s lives.
Perhaps my favourite of all is a reality-based adventure show called “Where Do I Sleep?” In this contest, the newly separated couple decide to continue with vacation plans they made before the breakup, so as not to disappoint their two children. But with only one hotel room and two double beds, what combination of parents and children is least likely to tear the family apart even more?
Stay tuned, but first a word from our commercial sponsor, Ben’s Funeral Home: “Ben’s – guaranteeing you the deepest sleep you’ve ever had.”
Which brings us right back to the grim reaper.
The undeniable truth is that there are indeed similarities between death and divorce. All of the stages of grief are identical.
Denial: “You can’t be serious about taking those salad tongs.”
Anger: “You’ll take those tongs over my dead body.”
Bargaining: “You can take the spoon-looking one, I’ll take the fork-looking one. That way neither of us can use them.”
Depression: “Sigh …those tongs represented everything good in my life, and now they’re gone.”
Acceptance: “Fine, take ’em. All I eat now are wings and burgers anyway.”
There are, however, two major differences in the stages of grief between death and divorce.
It seems that when marital separation is involved, there is no rhyme or reason as to when each stage will take over or, just as quickly, disappear. One minute you can’t believe you’re alone in the house and you are furious with your ex – and yourself – for making it so. But then moments later, as you’re prancing around the house in the T-shirt she hated, blaring the music you could never play without headphones, the depression, denial and anger lift and acceptance kicks in.
That’s when a new “stage” emerges – one that doesn’t occur with death. Hope.
A little bug in your ear whispers: “Maybe you do have the capability to be a better partner. Maybe there is a true soul mate out there, one who will truly stick by your side till death do you part. Maybe you can be even happier.”
It is also said that there is a third major life-changing event that bears a similarity to both death and divorce in terms of the vacuum you feel and the stages of grief you go through – the loss of a job.
Thankfully, I haven’t had to experience this recently, but from what I have read, heard and discussed with friends who have gone through a mid-life career change, I like this analogy to divorce much better than the death one. Because “hope” is once again the primary motivator to get back in the saddle.
After losing a job, the stages you need to go through to land on your feet again are quite positive and life-affirming.
First, you must learn to embrace change, to not dread what lies ahead. Tied closely to this is being able to let go of the past, to shed old roles, successes and failures, and look to the future.
Next, you need to find strength within – to untie your identity from a specific job (or person) and realize that happiness and fulfilment come from your inner self.
And finally, you need to be committed to lifelong learning: to working on new skills, developing new interests and passions, and being open to meeting new people.
One of them may even bring along a new pair of salad tongs.
Ken Gruber lives in Toronto.
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