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(Graham Roumieu for The Globe and Mail)
(Graham Roumieu for The Globe and Mail)

Sarah Hampson's Generation Ex

Good grief? Not after divorce Add to ...

When Antonia Fraser met Harold Pinter in the seventies, they were both married to other people and had been for 18 years. The historical biographer and novelist, then 42, had gone over to talk briefly with the 44-year-old playwright at a London party. "Must you go?" he asked when she mentioned she was on her way out.

She stayed for a while longer, and that encounter quickly led to a passionate affair, the end of both their marriages, and the kind of scandal the British lap up like Devon double cream.

Ms. Fraser is a Catholic aristocrat and mother of six children; Mr. Pinter, who died in 2008, came from a working-class Jewish family. In 1980, they married. Their life together was delightful, and this month Ms. Fraser published a much-anticipated book about it, based on her amusing and poignant journal entries over the course of their 28 shared years. Its title: Must You Go?

The state of being widowed is often compared to the grief one feels following divorce. Community outreach programs tend to lump those who are divorced in with people who have lost their spouses through death. But the two kinds of grief are very different. As one widow I know who attended a support group for single women explains: "I was so annoyed they didn't get it. I didn't want to sit around and hear women complain about their ex."

The most significant difference is the quality of the memories. Those of the widowed are untouched by the pain and hardship of divorce.

"I love you wildly and that is my solace," Ms. Fraser recalls Mr. Pinter saying to her when he was worried about finances.

"All I can do is shelter you under the wide umbrella of my love," she told him another time when he was in a black mood. When he was on his death bed, she leaned in close, seconds before he stopped breathing, and whispered: "It's me, Antonia, who loves you."

Well, a goodbye in divorce rarely comes in a soft whisper. And while it is possible and important, after some time has passed, to remember the happy parts (because every marriage has some) there is always a layer of disappointment -that whatever joy you once had morphed into something far more difficult. You could not sustain it.

Widows and widowers often acknowledge that their marriage had issues (just as all marriages have good parts, all, or at least most, have not-so-perfect parts, too). But the bereavement leaves them focusing on what they miss.

"We are left with a lot of gifts," explains a woman whose fortysomething husband died suddenly when he was away on business. "There was no anger, no unfinished business between us." (And when a spouse dies of a disease such as cancer, which often includes a long period of anticipating the end - the good and the bad - have been discussed. They experience "a good death," as I have heard some hospice helpers say when describing the honest emotions many people express to their loved ones when they know they are about to leave.)

Yet the grief over loss through marital breakup or death is equally intense, I would argue. Few people understand that divorce, even when you initiate it, causes mourning over the end of a dream. But widowhood is cleaner.

After a divorce, one can spend a lot of time - years, in fact - rewinding the marriage in an attempt to understand where it all went wrong. After the death of a loved one, the person left behind bears no responsibility for causing him or her to go. "It was a complete shock," says one woman. "I had no choice. I didn't want it to happen."

Singlehood following the two crises is also quite different. Both involve vulnerability, but the widow or widower is usually perceived to have less negative emotional baggage than an ex.

"Men were extremely kind to me," explains one. The death of a spouse "makes you more approachable."

Those who had a happy marriage often want to enter a new one. Their experience was wonderful, magical even. "You want it back," explains a widow who has a new partner. Which is often not the case for people who have left a difficult marriage. They have come to distrust the institution.

Still, a loved one who died has a positive presence in a bereaved spouse's mind, which can complicate dating and remarriage.

A reader once e-mailed me to complain about his attempts to date widows. They always compared him (unfavourably, he groused) to their dearly departed. And remarriage can feel as though it involves three participants. "It's very hard for someone who comes after to accept that they're not competing with a dead person," explains a friend of mine who remarried happily after the tragic death of her husband. "It can feel in their minds that you are having an affair."

With an ex, you may run into him or her, which can be awkward, but you don't always think about the time you had together.

It's not "Must you go?" It's "Glad you went."

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