Losing a partner, whether it is through divorce, breakup, or death, is disruptive. Any kind of major relationship break is considered a high stress event by mental health experts. I don’t see much value in ranking them, finding one to be easier or harder than the other, but several people have asked me how they compare and I do think understanding the similarities and differences is helpful in grasping why widowed people behave the way they do.
There is quite a bit of overlap. Having experienced both, I can attest that they both suck and I hope to never experience either again. Both involve tremendous loss: loss of a relationship and loss of identity certainly. With both, I went from being a wife to something that was less defined by society. I had to recalibrate who I was and what my role in the world was.
With both, I experienced grief for the death of all the hopes and dreams my partner and I shared.
I also found both to be expensive. Most people understand the financial hit of divorce, but there seems to be little understanding of how expensive death is. People have asked me about collecting my late husband’s social security, but I’m not eligible for it. There was no financial windfall beyond a life insurance payout that helped but didn’t make a significant difference in my finances. Losing my late husband’s monthly disability payments, and before that, his paychecks, made a huge difference in my finances.
A few people have suggested to me that being widowed is essentially the same as being divorced. I think this view overlooks some very consequential differences:
- How it impacts kids. When my ex and I split up, our daughter was devastated but she wasn’t also mourning a parent. When my late husband died, my daughter and his son both lost a parental figure. Both kids were adults and I found it challenging to support them while going through my own loss. Supporting young children who have been bereaved is even more complicated (shameless plug for a friend’s memoir: Charlotte Maya’s moving memoir, Sushi Tuesdays, about raising two young boys in the wake of her husband’s suicide describes the intense parenting she had to do alone).
- The finality of death. You may not want to, but with a divorce you could reach out and re-establish a relationship with your ex. But a dead spouse is gone forever. My ex husband is alive and well and we are friends, but my late husband is gone from this earth.
- Getting rid of stuff. In a divorce, the ex typically takes their stuff with them. When the spouse dies, the surviving spouse has to deal with all the stuff. For me, that process goes on and on. There are things that can be given away or sold, but there is a lot that has sentimental value and triggers strong emotions. Last weekend, for example, I came across my late husband’s snow boots. He was perpetually cold and always made a big deal about how warm those boots were. It makes sense to give them away, but that means saying good-bye to one more piece of him.
- An element of choice. Divorce was a choice my ex and I made because we were both better off not being married to each other. I am not better off without my late husband. My late husband and I not only brought out the best in each other, things were getting better in that regard. I miss him every day.
- Public opinion. Moving forward after divorce is seen as a triumph. This is not the case for widowed people. I read every day on the Facebook widow groups about someone being told they’re moving forward too quickly or too slowly. Besides, I don’t want to move forward from a relationship that was profoundly nourishing.
- Availability of peers. When I got divorced, it was easy to find other people my age who had been divorced. It was much harder to find widowed peers, which is why I was so grateful to find the Facebook groups for widows I mention all the time.
- Obligation to preserving a legacy. Many widowed people feel an obligation to maintain some sort of legacy of the person who died. I feel like it’s important to keep talking about my late husband as a way to keep his memory alive. Someone who is divorced has no analogous responsibility.
- Viewing divorce as a failure. I don’t happen to consider my first marriage a failure, but I’m aware that many people view any marriage that ends in divorce that way. On the other hand, being widowed doesn’t seem to be accompanied by any such judgments.
Of course, what I’ve said here isn’t universal. Someone who didn’t want their divorce might feel differently. Someone who was widowed in an unhappy or abusive marriage might have a difference experience.
Supporting someone either way may be similar. Ask what they need, offer specific help, let the person grieve the loss in their own way.