Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Divorce is as Hard as Death

Eleven years ago my aunt died. She was an incredible person-- beautiful, vivacious, kind. Her death was completely unexpected and it was a tragic shock for her three daughters and for our entire extended family. When my Dad called to tell me she had died I was at work, and since I was living near my aunt and uncle's I headed straight to their home after I got off. When I got there the room was dim and full of people mourning and comforting my uncle and his daughters. For a long time I sat with my arm around my cousin (we are about the same age) as we mourned the loss of a great woman. We shared stories about her, we looked at pictures, and we cried together until our faces were raw . It was a sad night but there was something sacred and holy about it as well.

Three days after my aunt's funeral I got another phone call from my dad, this time much more frantic and upset, telling me that he had come home to find a moving truck emptying our house of all the furniture and a note saying that my mother was leaving him. She'd taken my two sisters and he didn't know where they were. In those moments as I cried with my father on the phone it felt like the world had come crashing down. My mother had been struggling with mental health issues for years, but things had been going better and I hadn't been expecting this.

I went through the rest of the day in a daze and that night I headed to my grandmother's house in Salt Lake City to spend the night before driving home to Idaho to be with my Dad. I've never felt more alone than I did that night. I laid on the couch in my Grandmother's parlor and my wonderful, saint of an aunt held my head in her lap as I bawled. She didn't say much but just stroked my hair as my heart bled out through my eyes. 

I arrived home to find our house almost completely empty and life as I had known it for twenty years over-- just like that.

No funeral, no flowers, no cards, no meals from neighbors. No crowd gathered in my home to comfort and mourn with me. No happy stories to remember, no eulogies, or assurances that we would be a family forever. No grave to commemorate what once was. Just a lot of hurt feelings, unkind words, confusion, and anger.

Me and my siblings when I was about 12. I'm the one hiding behind the car on the left.

It has been more than 11 years now that my parents have been divorced. It has been a hard 11 years, with lots of additional struggles and heartaches. Both my parents are remarried, which has brought some big ups and downs, and we have all worked hard to make things work.

I've been thinking about writing this post for several years now, but have always chickened out. It is still a topic and a wound that is easily re-opened. Yet, I've been feeling strongly that I just needed to  acknowledge for a moment that divorce is every bit as hard as a death.

I think because the death of my aunt and my parents divorce happened so close together I really realized how similar they were. I realize that loosing ones mother and having your parents get divorced isn't exactly a straight across trade, but I think that in many ways the feelings are really quite similar. In each situation a family goes through an irreparable loss, they have lost something or someone that will never be able to be fixed or replaced. A divorce is a death of a family, of dreams, promises, and plans and I think it can hurt just as much as loosing a loved one.

In fact, I wish that as a society we treated divorce more like we do a death. That instead of trying to sweep the broken pieces aside in embarrassment and anger, that we took more time to mourn. Time to acknowledge a loss of dreams and expectations, time to acknowledge the hurt that everyone is going through. More time focusing on the good in people rather than the bad, more time speaking kind words rather than mean ones, and more time remembering the happy memories rather than all the bad things that were done and said.

Yet, I think the problem is that too often divorce is so seeped in anger, on both sides, that it doesn't allow room for real love, compassion, or kindness. It seems to me that when someone dies it is easy to forget, or minimize the bad. The person is gone, and so why hold on to  hard feelings? It is easy to focus on the positive aspects of a person when they die, but with divorce it is just the opposite. Both sides have to justify who is right and who is wrong and so every mean and unkind things that can be thought of is dug up and thrown around. I think the anger prevents healing and is the real tragedy of divorce, because anger always destroys.

As I have thought about it over the years I've decided it would be kind of nice if we could hold funeral services for and even dedicate "graves" to broken families. That it would be healing to have a place where you could consciously let go of what was broken and gone, a place where you could (symbolically) bury what had been and now  never will be again, while still holding on to all the good parts--  the memories, the joys, the pictures, the happiness, and all the things that made you a family before.

Because here is what I have learned in 11 years, that love is more powerful than anger. Anger always destroys and it never makes anything better. Holding on to anger is like drinking poison hoping that it will hurt someone else, when the reality is that it just eats at you from the inside out. I've learned that loving people, even when they are completely unlovable, can work miracles. That when we choose to love Christ can do amazing things and make hopeless situations better. I have seen first hand how anger can destroy and I have seen first hand how love can heal, and I promise you love is always the better choice, especially when it is the harder one.

So I guess here is the bottom line of this post; that if you, someone you love, or even someone you barely know has gone or is going through a divorce love them like you would if they were going through a death. Don't leave them alone, cry with them, feed them, comfort them, and don't judge them. I've learned that there is always a grain of truth on BOTH sides of the story, and that both sides can be right. It is always better to just love people, rather than try to decide who is to blame more than who. Love everyone, no matter what they have done, because the alternative is to be angry and victimized which really stinks ... trust me on that one.

I know that for me it has helped to think of my parent's divorce as a death, to allow myself to grieve, to ache, to cry, and to mourn for what was and what could have been. To acknowledge that I've experienced a huge loss, something that only Christ and His miraculous atonement can make better. I have also learned that love is always a choice and just because someone has hurt you it doesn't mean you have to stop loving them. Let them hurt you again-- no-- but love them for who they were, who they are, and who they can become--yes.

Divorce really is as hard as death, but just like love can heal the sting of death, love can also heal the sting of divorce. In fact, I am coming to see that Christ's love can fix just about anything, no matter how broken and shattered.

Eleven years down the road, I still miss the family that could have been but I can see how God has taken the pieces and created something beautiful. It hasn't been (and still isn't) an easy process but I am learning to trust Him, to let go of my expectations and trust that He is the master builder and the master healer. My family doesn't look anything like I once thought it would, but you know what, we have come a long, long way together and I can see that Christ is shaping us into something broken, but still beautiful.


  1. I. Love. This. Post.

    My parents had been married a few months shy of 30 years when I got that call from my mom. It was 4 1/2 years ago. Things are still hard-but they are slowly, slowly getting better.

    More than anything, I wish I had been allowed to grieve. I had so many extended family members judging me for how I handled it. It took me a couple of years before I forgave my dad. Is that good? No. But I'm not perfect, and I feel that as the oldest child many extended family members expected me to be. Really I just wish they had put their arms around me, told me they could see that I was hurt, and told me they would love me while I worked through my own emotions.

    1. Thanks Tamaran, I agree there is a BIG lack of space for grieving, especially public grieving with a divorce. It seems that it is always much more complicated than it appears and it would just be nice if people could withhold judgement and allow for more love and understanding. It is hard!

  2. You nailed it. I'm so glad you had the courage to write this. I have a brother who is divorced, and it still haunts him, years later. I think if we did treat divorce like death it would be taken more seriously, and perhaps become rarer. Thank you, again.

  3. Thank you SO MUCH for posting these deep & personal thoughts.
    I have been divorced for almost 8 years now and I completely agree with what you have said.
    In some ways I think death is easier, b/c you know that person is gone until you see them in the next life.
    With divorce, that person can keep popping up in your life, which then reopens those wounds you are trying to heal. After 8 years by ex-husband and I are in a good spot in our relationship where we can be cordial. And even though there have been multiple prayers & forgiveness & trying to heal on my end, those wounds still rip open a little bit.
    Whether it's death, divorce, or something else it is ALWAYS the best option to choose kindness, love, and understanding over judgement, criticism, and harshness.

  4. This is beautiful, Heather. Thank you for your vulnerability and boldness. Every word rings true. Love you!

  5. That was amazing to read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Although I've never been personally involved in divorce, I totally agree it's like a death and there needs to be a grieving period. You spoke so eloquently about the process. I hope your words will touch people so that they will be willing to do the things you suggested (talking, dinner invites, etc). No less important in this situation than if it were an actual death.

  6. People and church judge people who are divorced that they are not fit for church work. And that they could not keep their vows, they are not to be trusted. I had that type of notion once . But after seeing the cruelty of this divorce in my own family where I could witness it happened near to me.. I started to think about it differently, I wish I could be a help to such people more to come to Him and used for Him... !! Is it possible... yes it is , I see it, I see how these wounded persons are able to reach other wounded to bring them to Christ.. in more empathetic way.

  7. I'm so sorry for what your family has been through. I completely agree that divorce is like death. I wish that as a society we were more understanding and open hearted about these situations. Beautifully written Heather. My parents are still married but I've had two sisters "divorce" my family and it has been one of the most painful things I've ever experienced. It is the death off a family, of relationships... heart breaking. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. Thank you for this. I'm going through the heart break of losing a sister in law who was just like a sister to me because of divorce, and it is incredibly difficult for me. I thought from the beginning that it was just like losing her to death, and have mourned for many months, and will continue for the rest of my life, most likely. I so often find healing words from your blog, thank you for sharing your heart.

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  10. I appreciate much of what you have shared. Your keen insight into the way we try to remember the good and focus on compassion with the death of a loved one versus a focus on guilt and blame and harsh feelings and memories with a divorce is especially important. I agree wholeheartedly that we should treat divorce situations with much more compassion for all involved and touched by it as well as offering space and time to grieve and allow people to heal at the their own pace. We should react that way to anyone experiencing any of the many kinds of loss that life has for us.

    I would however like to point out that there is a big difference in the two. I don't see divorce as the death of a family or what it could have been. Those people and those relationships are still here and still alive. They may be broken, changed, and never to be like they were before, but they are not dead. Instead of a death a divorce is more like a breaking, healing, evolving, organic kind of thing. Divorce can be like a death, but each divorce is different. Each person's experience is different within each divorce's environment. It has a great opportunity for change and growth for each person involved.

    My experience with divorce was nothing like a death. It was a changing, troubling, hard thing to experience, but my family has grown and evolved in such a way that I can only call it a blessing now. It has shaped me in a way that has strengthened my own marriage, my relationship with God and spirituality, and has given me the opportunity to have a much larger family through step relationships than I had the opportunity to have before. I wouldn't want to have someone give me their condolances now, nor would I want to view it as something lost. What I mourned was quickly replaced with greater things. In comparison, death remains a loss that doesn't change. We grow to live better with the loss and with ourselves, but our relationship with those individuals is stopped where it was until we meet them again.

    I think loss should be mourned, but I don't think every divorce should be. It depends on what was lost and what was gained, and what can still remain. But love, love should be shown in all our interactions with others.

    Thank you again for your words. They are very compassionate and very appreciated.

    1. I appreciate your perspective and I think you are so right that everyone's experience with divorce will be different. I actually have to agree with you about the step family thing too, it is hard but it can be a blessing to have more people in your life. I actually wonder though if how people experience divorce is in part relative to the amount of anger involved, on their side and on other peoples sides. I have actually seen some families handle it relatively anger free which I think makes it more of better situation. But I know hat all the divorces I've felt with have been pretty angry and nasty affairs and it really makes you feel like you have lost someone. I think that a divorce can be a re-birth situation but every re-birth requires a death first, so I think that there still is room for mourning even if things turn out good in the end.

  11. What a beautiful, heartfelt post. Thank you for sharing. I think about you and your parents sometimes and have wondered how you're doing, so I appreciate this glimpse into your lives.

    I get both what you and Monica are saying. I wonder how much of a person's perspective has to do with how he or she experiences divorce: as one of the marriage partners, as one of their children, or as an extended family member. We're all individuals, so we're always going to experience similar situations differently, but there may be more commonalities between people in the same group.

    I hope you continue to see the Master Weaver's tapestry as it emerges.

  12. I can relate to this post so well. I feel that I am still mourning the loss of my broken family and it's been 16 years since my parent's divorce. It actually brought more heartache and instability in my life than I ever realized it would. It took me years to get over it and years before I could imagine myself being married. The anger, resentment, sorrow, and hopelessness felt much like the death of a loved one. Thanks for writing this post and for helping me see how my feelings are normal and valid. (I'm still working on the loving everyone involved part)

  13. p.s. I AM happily married now! With a beautiful family, with Christ at the head of my marriage. But, it took years to get here, and a whole lot of therapy. :)

  14. Thank you for this insightful and beautiful post. My husband and I are separated since last summer. My heart aches for all of us. My husband is trapped behind huge walls that I believe come from a childhood of hurts that he doesn't know how to let go of. We have been married for more than 20 years and the past several years have been very painful for our me and our children. There doesn't seem to be any desire on his part to work this out; he seems comfortable in his current situation. Our youngest kids keep trying to figure out how to get us all back together, but that can't happen until there are healthier attitudes and healing. I am realizing that divorce is likely our next option. Your post is soothing balm to my aching heart. I don't understand, but I know that with the help of my Heavenly Father and my Savior, Jesus Christ, I can be strong for myself and my children.

    This is a huge loss and the tears come all the time. I am so sad for my husband who can't see what we are losing; I am so sad for my kids who have to deal with all the differences from what we have always taught, "Families Are Forever"' I am so sad for myself; all I ever wanted was to be a wife and mother; I have been a good wife and I'm trying to be a good mother. How thankful I am for the atonement!! Thanks again!

  15. Thanks for writing this post! I haven't had to deal with the death of a family through divorce, but I am dealing with the death of my dreams for more of my own children. I won't be able to have any more of my own and it has struck me how similar this is to the death of a loved one. I feel like someone has died. I guess there are many things in this life that are so similar to death. We all experience some kind of major loss at some point.

    Your ending words to this post are beautiful. I feel broken, but I too know that Christ can still shape my life into something beautiful. Thanks for writing that!

  16. My first marriage ended in divorce close to 17 years ago. I appreciate reading your viewpoint as a child of divorce, as I continue to struggle to know how to help my children. I agree that divorce can be like a death. There really is severe grief over the death of the family. I have also experienced many deaths in that time, and I do feel that in some ways divorce feels worse than the deaths that I have experienced. When someone dies, no matter what kind of life they lived, they no longer have the opportunity to hurt you again. Not so with divorce. With a death, there is still the promise that you can be together in the eternities. Not with divorce. Death brings a finality, a closing chapter from which you can begin again to move on (I suppose you could call it closure), although the grieving continues and we will always miss our loved one. With divorce, especially when children are involved, there are constantly new battles, new losses, new hurts, new opportunities for awful, no closure. There are frequent and ongoing new losses that must be grieved in a divorce, even years and years after the actual event. Frequently you don't just lose a spouse, but you lose your children too. Maybe I would feel differently had the deaths I've experienced been my spouse (whom I adore) or my own parent. Grief is such an intense experience, no matter the cause, and comes in so many forms. And I believe it is why we actually covenant to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. I wish that we could recognize those needs better in each other's lives.