Divorce vs. Death (From the Perspective of an Adult Child of Both)

(A note: I am not intending to start a debate...death of a parent and divorce of parents are both awful things for a child to endure, at any age. This isn't a competition, just an anecdotal comparison from my experience, that supports the research I was presented. I don't mind good conversation, this isn't intended to be the final say on divorce vs death of a parent, but please know I acknowledge that there is a unique, painful story for each divorce and each death of a parent.)

A few years ago I went to a conference on adult children of divorce. It was the first time I realized that the thoughts and feels I'd had about my parents' divorce were shared by others...and that there was research to document them. In my case, so often my parents' divorce was presented as a "blessing" and the "best situation possible" and any attempt to express that while it may have been the right decision, it was still hard and, quite frankly, sucked was brushed aside.

One of the points discussed at the conference, however, was that research showed that children of divorce had more negative outcomes than children who experienced the death of a parent. Why? The reasons presented were because with a death there is an expectation of a mourning period, and an allowance for that mourning period. Rather than the support system being fractured by a {real or perceived} need to "take sides", the support system comes together to support the children and remaining parent. There isn't a sudden need to not talk about your dad when with your mom's family and vice versa. With death, there is a general acknowledgement and acceptance of this loss and the tragedy that it is for the remaining moments of that child's life. With divorce, there is rather an expectation to feel grateful for what things there still are and the 'blessings' that will come from the divorce - you still see your dad every other weekend; you have even more people to love you (i.e. stepparents and their families); you don't have to hear your parents fight anymore; etc.

Secondly, there is a finality to death that isn't present with divorce. With divorce, the parent who moves out/is not custodial parent is still present, but leading a life separate from the family. With death, the parent is gone. There is no hope of him (or her, but I will use the male pronoun because it was my reality and for simplicity in writing) coming to a sporting event, or running late or early for pick up, or how he will respond to mom remarrying, or how mom will respond to his remarriage. There isn't angst and tension leading up to every. single. holiday. (big or small) over who I will spend this day with and how I will let the other parent down gently.

There is a finality of death that, for me, after nearly 30 years of the unknown of divorce, was in an odd and horribly sad way, a huge relief.

For example, nearly every day something happens that I want to call and share with my dad. Now, I can't. I accept that loss and grieve it. (Yea, it's not quite *that* simple, but it's the process of things.) Prior to my dad's death, examples of other responses to something happening and wanting to call my dad and share it were:

  • This has to do with mom (or anyone on mom's side of the family or a friend of mom's), I can't really talk to him about this without it being awkward
  • I do call, because the subject is one that has nothing to do with my mom, and when I ask what he's up to find out his in-laws (my stepmother's parents, who I only ever called Mr. and Mrs. W...because I was never invited nor instructed to call them anything else) are over for a game night, and realize I'm interrupting a normal family event - that I barely remember even having with him
  • I need to remember to call Dad during the day tomorrow, when he's working, so I won't intrude on his time at home (his home, that I have never called home and am merely a guest at when I visit).
I could make a list as long as my arm, and then some, but I think you get the idea.

On one hand, there is this huge aching hole where my dad should be - as both my dad and as grandfather to Sugarbeet. In many ways it is and will be for a very long time, the most difficult thing I face. On the other hand, there are so many less landmines that I'm constantly trying to avoid that it almost feels relaxing and peaceful to just rest in the aching hole.

There isn't total finality - my mom is still living, and all who were part of my relationship with my dad are as well, so there is still a line between my 'two families' that doesn't get breached. Another part of the finality is that my stepmom and half-brother no longer speak to me, and so there is no need to consider holiday time or sharing of information - or else the constant struggle and feeling in the middle would have continued, in a different way, but it would have still been present.

No one still walking the earth wins in divorce or death - but in my experience, the research presented to me has certainly proven to be true. With this odd feeling of finding peace in an aching hole, I may just be finally finding healing that has been denied to me these last 30 years.

I want to end with a piece of unsolicited advice to anyone who may be reading who is a parent or stepparent to a child whose parents are divorced:

Please, let them hurt. Let them cry. Let them say how awful it is. Find a way to be comfortable when they talk about their other parent. Don't force them to see blessings where they see pain. Have true and honest compassion - suffer with them. Follow their lead, wherever it may take you - no matter how painful it is for you, so it is also for them.

St. Joseph, pray for us.
Holy Family of Nazareth, pray for us.
St. Thomas Moore, pray for us.
St. Margaret of Cortona, pray for us.
St. Helena (Helen) of Constantinople, pray for us.