Guest blog: Divorce and Death

Please read and think about this guest blog, from my girlfriend, Savannah. She sent this to me a short while ago and I asked to be able to post it.  Having been through divorce myself, her experience and perspective both resonated with me and made me sad – and thoughtful – about how I might have shown up (or not shown up) for other friends who have been through the same. 

A big thank you to Savannah for sharing so openly about her experience.

*****

First birthday, first holiday season, first anniversary: after a divorce, these milestones hurt just like a death in the family.  Even with the divorce rate so high in the US, the etiquette for how to help a friend who goes through a separation or divorce seems to remain a mystery. On behalf of all the divorcees, I’d like to share some thoughts with those who know and love someone experiencing a loss of their marriage and their immediate everyday world as they know it.  I share this from a female perspective – and as a recent divorcee.  And I’d like to ask you to treat the divorce as you would a death.

From the time when I was little, I heard that “boys will come and go but your girlfriends will remain forever.”  I am finding, however, that divorce is one event that challenges that old adage.  It seems that the uncomfortableness that accompanies the heartbreak, sadness, anger and exhaustion that divorce brings can up-end the tightest of girlfriend relationships.

At first, when as a divorcee, you have to share your big news with the family and your closest friends, you assume no one is shocked – they had to know it was coming. But like death, even if you know it’s imminent, it’s still a shock when it actually happens. And then there is that awkward pause. No one flies in, no one sends cards, even though as the divorcee, you could use the support. Regardless of who instigated the divorce, the loss is felt by both parties. And the family mourns in their own way the death of their in-law relationships. And while you can appreciate that, you wish someone would reach out to you, offer you the extra cup of coffee or phone call to help you navigate a messy and confusing time.

Then you move on to neighborhood friends, parents of your children’s friends and sports teams, because all of a sudden one parent is missing or sitting across the field.  And that’s where the silence begins.  People say at first, “Oh I’m sorry” and if they run into you, they’ll ask how you are and maybe want some information on status but then… the invites stop. You and your children stop getting asked to the local gatherings.  Your child isn’t asked by other teenagers how he is doing because that would just be weird. Your girlfriends you thought were close friends no longer ask to get a mani or have coffee or a cocktail.  It’s as if you disappear. Unlike a death of a spouse, there is no meal delivery or offers to help with being a single parent, no cards, no flowers and no hugs.  It is the most unexpected display of apathy.

So why does this happen?

I think there are several reasons why a divorcee suddenly feels isolated.

  1. People just don’t know what to do. How do we know what to say or what the etiquette is for divorce. It’s a hard topic, even though it’s a common one these days. It’s emotional. It’s scary. Someone might cry. Or have an angry outburst.
  2. Religion doesn’t condone it. Some people are challenged with how to respond because this is outside of their belief system and therefore it may be outside of their experience and comfort zone.
  3. It’s something the divorcee sometimes feels ashamed has occurred. And we never like making other people feel uncomfortable, so we avoid the topic and often the person – we “give them space” just when they feel the most alone.
  4. It’s complicated to now choose between the wife or husband in friendships – so it is just easier to walk away. Maybe friends think you don’t fit into their world anymore if not a happy, healthy family.
  5. It’s contagious. No, I’m serious.  People often feel that the negative energy around events such as divorce, an affair, and death are somewhat contagious and they want to avoid contracting it. It sounds ridiculous but the fact is that when someone you know is facing divorce, it pushes you to look at your own marriage and think about whether it’s what you want. It encourages uncomfortable thoughts. And we don’t like to be uncomfortable.

When there’s a death, there is a similar feeling of loss, grief, and anger from the directly affected parties.  And a similar sense of compassion, sadness and discomfort from friends and family.  But unlike in death, we don’t come together around a divorcee the way we do a widow/widower.  And yet, a death HAS been experienced. The death of a marriage.  The death of a family.  The death of the original dreams and aspirations that brought those two people together.  The difference is that everyone here survived, but is surviving in a new reality.  They have to learn new ways to interact with each other. New ways to identify themselves. They have to build a new life. And they have to figure it all out – on their own.

The result of this lack of support is that the divorcee feels isolated, like a social outcast.  Our calls aren’t often returned when we do reach out. We’re so busy trying to get through the days and support our kids, that we don’t have a lot of energy to keep reaching out. We start looking for new friend groups, new ways to get the support and socializing that we crave.

My experience has been painful. The divorce was hard and sad, but the ensuing loneliness I experienced was equally difficult. I don’t think it’s because my friends didn’t care, but more that they didn’t know what to do. And fear, lack of knowing and the passing of time created a distance that I can’t get back with many of them.

I am asking you now to think of divorce like the death that it is, and offer the support you feel you can to help your friend or family member get through such a significant loss.  Having been through it, I’ll be sure I treat any one I know who is going through divorce to some TLC. Losing a spouse to divorce is experiencing a type of death.  Sympathy, empathy and altruism are welcome.

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