Two Common Questions on Death and Divorce that Need to GO!

Category: Weekly Columns

 Cartoon About the Meaning of LIfe death and divorce

When I was young, my mother would often take offense when someone would ask her, upon seeing me with my mom, “is he your only one?” She was always polite but given that she’d lost two other children, it was one of those questions that hurt, though the person asking had no idea. Simple questions about death, divorce, and our family make-up may seem innocent, but are they really?

Repair the World

There are two other sayings and/or questions – on death and divorce – that, depending on the situation belong on the trash-heap!

1. How old was the person when he or she died?
2. Well, at least you got your gorgeous, wonderful children (out of your marriage that just recently ended in divorce)!

I’ll explain my view on these and the context in which they often come up and are expressed. I believe they are often as foolish and/or insensitive as those that asked my mom if I was her only child.

Impact of Divorce on a child

Perhaps this issue isn’t quite as earth shattering as the economy or conflicts in The Middle East, but I like to tackle issues and problems that I might have a chance to impact. I can dream, can’t I?

Let’s start with the first question most of us ask upon hearing that someone died, especially if we hear it’s a parent or grandparent – How old was he or she?

Again, it seems a perfectly normal and innocent question but when you really think about it the question is not only naïve but diminishes the grief of the recently deceased person’s family. What difference does it really make if the person who died was 80, 90, or even 100? Is the grief less – at that moment?

Custody comic

Yes, sometimes if an elderly relative is living in pain, death is a blessing of sorts. And, yes it is more tragic when a younger person dies too young, especially a parent outliving a child. But, regardless of the age, the loss of a dear loved one is painful and I think a better question would be, “Can I do anything to help?” or “Is there anything that you need?” Maybe even a simple commiseration such as, “I know how much he or she meant to you.”

When my parents died at 89 and 90, I was heartbroken. I was not ready for them to leave our very small family. My father was still in full spirit when cancer finally overtook him at 90 and, yes, my mother’s death was one of those mixed blessings, but I grieved as much as if she had been totally vital at her death.

Meaning of Life comic

I believe that the survivors of the deceased simply want our love, our condolences. They really don’t need to hear what a lucky, long life their just departed loved one had.

Question number two always seems to follow hearing the news of a divorce, when there are kids in the family. In an effort to comfort the friend or relative going through the trauma of a divorce, people will often say, “Well, at least you have your beautiful children (out of the marriage).” While most of us will hear that and initially think it’s true, upon reflection that statement is really dumb.

Compassion image

Why couldn’t we have had equally beautiful children with a spouse that didn’t lie, cheat, or otherwise end the marriage where children were involved? Heck, we might have even had more beautiful children with someone brighter, kinder, and better than the louse that just left without a second thought, leaving behind those said “beautiful children.”

Again, perhaps what is needed instead, is what I really needed upon my wife’s leaving – some comfort and help! Heck, the mother of my young boys pretty much packed up and left for good. It’s a long story, but this was during the time I was caring for my ailing parents, when the boys were just 6 and 9, and I had to begin to handle a California divorce and California (Anti) Family Courts. I was devastated.

Cake showing pain of divorce

Yes, I had two terrific children. And, ironically, caring for them during what I call the Dark Days of Divorce helped me stay centered on the bigger picture versus dwell on worries of what lay ahead. But, I’d sure have appreciated a couple of dinner invitations during that first summer. I’d sure have appreciated family friends offering to babysit the boys so I could have a night off.

There’s a saying and a song about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Too many times, I fear we say trite clichéd things without really understanding what the person may be feeling and going through at that moment. Our intentions may be good, but the effect may not be so good.

Perhaps if we really thought a bit more and perhaps offered some meaningful support, rather than just words, we’d be really serving our friends and loved ones better plus doing good.

cartoon about meaning of life

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Dealing with The Empty Nest

  • geofflivingston

    Wow, it doesn’t get more real than this. And I think the end message is that you never know what’s behind the eyes, and it’s not easy to tell that from appearances. I am sorry for the pain you have suffered, but am glad for the character that it built, which you share with us. Thank you, Bruce.

    • Bruce Sallan

      What a beautiful comment @geofflivingston:disqus and thanks so much for sharing the column on Google+

  • CX Journey™

    Thanks for writing this, Bruce. I can relate on both accounts. I chalk it up to people not really knowing what to say. Although, I’m not really sure what leads them to think that “So you’re an only child now?” and variations thereof are really meant to make me feel any better.

    • Bruce Sallan

      I agree @twitter-415008745:disqus that it’s likely not knowing what to say, but I felt I needed to SAY something to hopefully alter people’s thinking and perhaps encourage them to THINK a bit more before opening up their mouths…

      • CX Journey™

        I appreciate that you said something… and hope it affects at least one person.

        -Annette 🙂

        • Bruce Sallan

          I’m sure WE will Annette @twitter-415008745:disqus

  • Susan West of Mars

    Bruce: YES to the divorce thing! I’m in the middle of it now and … holy smoke. Who cares what the kids look like when they are struggling so terribly? When they are aching for a father who began to check out seven years ago? And yes to the friends, too. One of my widowed friends warned me that losing my couple status would cause friends to drop me, but … well, so many had been alienated before I was officially a single that maybe I’m not surprised. Guess I’m an optimist.

    • Bruce Sallan

      @36a56d770997f0cc9e63a4f83a5f9fe3:disqus – I think there are two kinds of people. Those who have been married (and not divorced) and those that have been married AND divorced. The latter fully understands the former, while the former has NO CLUE what the latter is really going through and feeling!

  • Jon M

    Great points. We need to realize that saying nothing is better than trying to make some sort of small talk. Do no harm is a principle we need to embrace more often!

    • Bruce Sallan

      YES, we do need to realize that @JonMertz:disqus – that saying nothing is so much better than saying something that might hurt!

  • HadassahHannah

    Great post! I know a lot about divorce second-hand and way too much about death first-hand. Based on that, please allow me to add a few suggestions.
    1. A great thing to say to someone in recent divorce or, especially, widowhood is “WHAT can I do to help you?” and/or, suggest/do something concrete that you know you can fulfill. When I was widowed, exactly ONE person brought over food unasked. It meant so much!
    2. If you are recently divorced and speaking to someone who is recently widowed, PLEASE do not claim that your pain is worse because in your relationship, love crashed-and-burned. Yes, this was done to me by someone I had been close to for decades!

    • Bruce Sallan

      People can be so dim some time @fd39f299ce31ba6eaad2a717d3183e4e:disqus – thanks so much for adding YOUR wisdom to this dialogue!

  • David Weber

    Knowing what to say to someone who is for whatever reason in extremis is one of the last communication skills most people learn.

    • Bruce Sallan

      You should know, Professor @7f990e539df4ddefe26884eb65a5f04c:disqus – any suggestions/tips?

  • Pingback: An Amazing Teen, the Boston Explosion, plus Death and Divorce | Bruce Sallan Radio Show | Bruce Sallan()

  • Stan Faryna

    In the absence of a reply to news that may be borne in pain and worry, I rely on one simple question: How can I help?

    • Bruce Sallan

      Exactly right @faryna:disqus