[Photo credit: TheDyslexicBook.com.]
I have this idea in my head that making peace with a loss means encountering a reminder of it, a date or an object or a place, without thinking about what happened. This idea doesn’t really make any sense and it doesn’t fit with any of the models of grief that I know.
Before you trot out the five stages of grief, please, just stop. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychologist working with terminally ill patients at the University of Chicago medical school in 1969. She observed how most patients responded to their diagnoses and published those observations in a book called On Death and Dying. That is the source of the five stages of grief.
The gift of Dr. Kubler-Ross’ work is permission to talk about grief and the language to do so, but the five stages are widely misunderstood as sequential and hierarchical and widely misapplied to events for which they make no sense. It’s easy to imagine the third stage, bargaining, with a doctor who diagnoses a fatal illness, but how do you bargain with, for example, a house fire?
So, please, just stop. The five stages of grief don’t apply to divorce but I can frame this post in terms of my favorite alternative, the dual process model (Stroebe & Schut, 1999), which can apply to losses like divorce. In this model, the revision of life after a loss is done through an oscillating process of approaching and avoiding reminders of the loss, moving away from it to ease the pain and toward it to confront and develop the resources to cope with the stressor. Sometimes the pain of a loss is too much, but when we can, we sit and listen to it and learn what it has to teach and we use that new learning to build a new identity, new relationships, a new life.
Right now, I’m thinking about this stuff because I’m roughly at the fourth anniversary of my divorce. The order was signed on September 22, 2014 and I received a copy on September 29, 2014.
I haven’t talked to my ex-wife since February 2014. We traded emails when I heard about her father’s death in spring 2015, concise but cordial, and that has been it. With no children and no shared property, there is no reason for us to talk. The divorce was uneventful. The annulment was ugly. There are rules in this space so that is as much as I am going to say about that.
This idea that I have, about not being reminded by reminders, is strange. I have furniture in my apartment that is from the marriage, things that I see every day but that never remind me of her. She gave me all of the pint glasses and they used to remind me of her but most of them have faded and gone into recycling. Yes, that’s a good metaphor for divorce, but it’s also what happens to pint glasses.
I have a doctor whom I really like and whose office I have to reach by driving through the neighborhood where I used to live with my ex-wife. That neighborhood is also on the best route to a place where I go for disaster response training. My ex-wife probably still lives in that neighborhood, though I don’t know that. I drive through there maybe three times per year and I think about the divorce then. It’s the same process that makes holidays tough after a loved one dies, that the rarity of these events makes desensitization and the construction of new, competing, associations come very slowly.
One of the misunderstandings of the “five stages” model is that the end of grief is somehow a goal to reach. Grief is just the process of adjusting to life without a person or a role or something else that provides context and connection and meaning, It certainly makes sense to want to find a point where there is no pain. When it comes to a divorce, it also makes sense to want to know when someone else can occupy that place in your heart. Others who come along want to know that you are available to them, and it is fair of them to want to know, and to ask directly.
With “acceptance” as a goal, though, it seems to be dangerous to acknowledge thinking of the past, lest someone think that you aren’t “over it yet.” My now-ex and I dated for a bit more than a year before marrying. I was legally married for almost nine years but separated for most of three of those years. I spent about a decade with her. That’s a big chunk of my life spent with one person. I don’t think that I would want to be with someone who never talks about her ex, any more than someone who talks often of her ex.
I have learned and changed a fair bit in the last year. Some things come to mind:
It was a success
Two years ago, I was looking at the divorce as a failure, and it was, in the sense that the marriage failed. This is still factually accurate but it is no longer how I regard the outcome. I tried to save the marriage and when that could not happen, we divorced. I suggest that finding the courage and strength to walk away from a failure is a kind of success. Letting it go opens the way for something right, something better.
Something or nothing
Is something better than nothing? It’s easy to give up some of yourself to get some of what you want, but half a person or half a marriage is actually nothing. When having part of what you want keeps you from having all of what you want then something is worse than nothing. At that point, it’s a failure and time to walk away, but that little nub of something can be so comforting and far less scary than the prospect of having nothing for awhile.
Until it happens to you, you have no idea.
This is a staple of disaster and crisis psychology and of self-defense, too. Anyone can yap about what he “would do” in a given situation, but that’s just hope and bravado. You don’t actually know until it happens.
If nothing reminds you then you’re probably not paying attention.
In Casablanca, Rick never actually says, “Play it again, Sam.” Instead, he says, “You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can stand it so can I. Play it, Sam.” It’s a great example of approaching a loss. Some things are so distinctive that they have to remind us of their context. That’s how we remember things and how we make sense of life.
“What if” games are pointless
How would it go if it hadn’t gone as it went? What a completely ridiculous question, with no possible answer. Things that actually happen are enough to keep me busy.
I’m still getting better
I can think of ways in which I am a better man now than I was in May of this year, and with that, I expect to keep improving. I wish that I had been a better husband for her but I could only be what I was at the time, and if I had been anything else, what would have happened? There’s no way to know and it doesn’t matter. As for me, I don’t ever want to stop learning and growing.
If I get to thinking about divorce, or if I don’t, for a few days in September 2019, that’s OK. My Weyerbacher pint glass probably has a few more dishwasher cycles left in it before I move it to the blue bin and that’s OK, too. I hope that she is happy and healthy and doing well. I will keep getting better and tending my own fire.
Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description. Death Studies, 23, 197–224.