The Difference between Death and Divorce

01.11.2011, 10:54 AM

It is sometimes assumed that divorce’s impact is no different than the death of a parent.  Clearly, painful, but not unique.  Here I try to show why divorce is different because of its on impact the being of young people. The Children of Divorce.

It seems that the difference between death and divorce has something to do with ontology. Death may shake a young person’s being, as he witnesses the monster of negation take his mother, for example. But such a situation, though frightening, never throws his own being into question, as if making it only a shadow. It can suggest or reveal vulnerability: the death of a parent may witness to the reality that one day the child will also be overcome by death. But, again, it does not retroactively threaten his being as divorce does. Death looks to a future reality, an event that will happen as time unfolds for the young person. Divorce does not so much point forward as throw the foundational event of the child’s very origins into regret and question. Death promises the eventual end of his being; divorce questions if he ever should have been at all. This no doubt is a much more haunting reality. Rather than wondering if you will be remembered at all after your death, divorce asks if you ever should have come into being, now that those who are responsible for your being have negated the relationship that created you.

This also has a great amount to do with agency. As we have seen, we are given our being through action. Death (unless it is suicide, which opens up a whole other truckload of issues) rarely if ever occurs through the agency of the dying person. Disease, accident, and tragedy happen to the parent over and against their choice (action). But divorce is an action, not a fate; it may feel unavoidable, but from the child’s perspective it will always come finally by the choice of one or both parents to end the union. For instance, Natalie says, “There were days like that where I really, honestly wished she had died. Then there’d be only happy memories. I was scared of the idea of divorce when I was twelve, and I’ve never been scared of my parents dying. It never even occurred to me until the divorce.”[iii]

Because divorce is integrally connected to agency and because these actions create encounters that form community, its action weighs much heavier on the ontology of children. The child is the outgrowth of the community of Mom and Dad, of being-with. Death ends community person-to-person, but it does not negate the community of memory. The child in death must bear the reality that her dad is gone, but he remains a longed-for and missed agent in the still-existing community called family. He, even in his death, is part of the narratives and history of the community. But in divorce these narratives take on the residue of anger (or hatred), and the history is split. Now with Mom, Dad can never be spoken of, or only spoken of with frustration, suspicion, or indifference. In relation to the children, divorce then splinters a parent’s being, while death does not. Staal articulates this ontological reality when she says, “Here’s the thing, though: Time flirts with us, flashing what could have been, what should have been, what was. When a parent dies, children are at least given the pretense that they will travel through the five stages of grief in accepting the death. . . . But with divorce, there is no rubric detailing how we should act or feel, especially as we get older. Lacking the finality of death, divorce can start to mimic a film negative. We become hooked on what’s missing, where blank spaces have replaced substance.”[iv]


[iii] Royko, Voices of Children of Divorce, 198.

[iv] Staal, Love They Lost, 17.


9 Responses to “The Difference between Death and Divorce”

  1. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    This is really, really important.

  2. Julie says:

    I have to disagree. As someone who has worked quite extensively with children who have experienced the death of a parent, I have seen that it very much effects those children ontologically.

    As you put it, “It can suggest or reveal vulnerability: the death of a parent may witness to the reality that one day the child will also be overcome by death. But, again, it does not retroactively threaten his being as divorce does.” However, that realization of vulnerability as well as the redefinition that takes place when someone so integral to our personhood dies are certainly ontologically shifting. Yes, most children in grief think about their own death at some point, but primarily they are thinking about who they are in the face of their transformed surroundings (ie – the world is not what it once was) and family unit. All change in the family unit will affect a young person ontologically.

    In addition, when you say, “In relation to the children, divorce then splinters a parent’s being, while death does not,” I have to say the child experiencing a grieving parent is most precarious. Parents who are overwhelmed with grief are often inaccessible and unreliable emotionally. While this can be true in the case of particularly difficult and angry divorces, more often I have seen that parents try to overcompensate the loss experienced by the divorce and instead hyper focus on their children’s emotional needs and concerns. Many children experience the death of a parent as, for a time, the death of both parents. To say that a spouse’s death is not splintering in the same way that a parent is splintered by divorce does not seem accurate.

    “He, even in his death, is part of the narratives and history of the community. But in divorce these narratives take on the residue of anger (or hatred), and the history is split.” It strikes me in this statement that you are speaking about a particular type of divorce. Many divorces I have seen have been more amicable than not, and the past family narratives may take on a different hue, but are not altogether tainted. I wonder if it might be helpful to make a caveat – just as not all marriages are the same, not all divorces are the same either.

    “But with divorce, there is no rubric detailing how we should act or feel, especially as we get older. Lacking the finality of death, divorce can start to mimic a film negative. We become hooked on what’s missing, where blank spaces have replaced substance.”

    Divorce should be grieved, and often those experiencing divorce go through similar “stages of grief” just as any change brings experience of grief. However, the amazing blessing is that for many children, they are still able to have relationships with their living, albeit separated, parents. I think many children and families who have experienced death, especially untimely and tragic death, would much rather have a parent who was living. I confess that I have not read your book, and so perhaps I’m missing some of your wider argument; but as someone who has worked with a number of grieving children, I must say the finality of death seems to bring with it more pain, not less.

  3. Julie says:

    I’m interested in hearing your responses…

  4. Carey says:

    I think it’s very very important to give voice to the experiences of children of divorce and to understand the trauma and loss more deeply. I think understanding the experience of divorce for children from a spiritual perspective is under-explored and important.

    I *don’t* like the idea of comparing the experiences of death and divorce with an overtone of a preferable experience, or to argue that one more damaging or even that one experience affects children more deeply or traumatically.

    When my father died, I lost the only link to that side of my family and have a significantly diminished relationship to them now — this is true within the community where I grew up, as well. The fact that both of my parents knew that my father was sick and could die and did not share that with my brother or me has led me to question anything that comes from my mother’s mouth, including whether she and my father wanted me. I can look at my own history/pre-history and wonder what was true and what wasn’t. It is all up for grabs. Unfortunately, I can’t even ask those questions of my father. Fortunately, I am Gen X-er, so I am not alone as a skeptic — my father’s death hasn’t helped my sense of what is real and what isn’t real, what is possible and what is not possible.

    Also, I would have written this piece differently. I think that the experience to which Mr. Root speaks is important, very important. At the same time, to speak in a way that frames an argument in which one says, “the experience of children of death is x, but the experience of children of divorce is y” implies that “y” is a more important experience. This is a pet peeve of mine. I would have written about the children of divorce and children who experience the death of a parent using language more along the lines of “the experience of children of death is x and, at the same time, the experience of children of divorce is y.” I don’t know, this is probably way too picky. It is something about which I’m sensitive and about which I feel the need to speak up.

  5. ki sarita says:

    I’d be more interested in real data on the actual impact on children,
    than some philosophizing in the air.

    Perhaps the rest of the books contains it, but this quote sure didn’t.

  6. ki sarita says:

    BTW carey I like you response, there is nothing cheaper than competing for who has it worse .

  7. Andrew Root says:

    No one is competing for who has it worse. But many children of divorce have been told that they shouldn’t feel so bad about their parents’ divorce and be so dramatic about its impact, because, after all, their parents haven’t died. I’m not trying to minimize the death of a parent. I’m wanting to to keep it from being a way to minimize the experience of divorce–which it unfortunately has been used for often. Of course, some families deal with the death of a parent, and that is terrible, but overall, societally we tend to have more outlets and practices for a child going through the loss of a parent than those going through a divorce. Maybe most telling is that NO ONE would ever communicate to a child who lost a parent that it is no big deal and things will get better and maybe be better in the end; no one would tell the child dealing with the death of a parent to look on the bright side. But children of the divorce hear this all the time. Divorce is the death of a relationship, a relationship that formed your very being, and it is the death of the family you knew, in which your being existed. Also, philosophizing and hard data as held opposition is an impossibility. All data is interpreted, all data has to be viewed through some hermeneutical lens. But, if you want data look at McLanahan and Sandefur Growing Up with a Single Parent. found very significant difference in outcomes between children who experienced death vs. divorce. Children who experience divorce were significantly more at risk (shockingly more). Yes, I try to interpret (philosophize) why, and you would have to read the whole book to place this thesis. The point is that these two experiences are uniquely different. ‘m not the one that connected them, our cultural scripts have. I’m trying to disconnect them, in fact, to point to their distinctive realities. And because it is a book on divorce, I want to raise the significant experience of divorce since comparing the two have been a way of minimizing the experience of divorce. Divorce affects more than half of all children, the experience they go through deserves another look.

  8. Carey says:

    “But many children of divorce have been told that they shouldn’t feel so bad about their parents’ divorce and be so dramatic about its impact, because, after all, their parents haven’t died.” I am confident that this is true.

    “Of course, some families deal with the death of a parent, and that is terrible, but overall, societally we tend to have more outlets and practices for a child going through the loss of a parent than those going through a divorce. Maybe most telling is that NO ONE would ever communicate to a child who lost a parent that it is no big deal and things will get better and maybe be better in the end; no one would tell the child dealing with the death of a parent to look on the bright side.” These assumptions/generalizations don’t match with my experiences.

    “Divorce is the death of a relationship, a relationship that formed your very being, and it is the death of the family you knew, in which your being existed.” This was my experience when my dad died.

    “Divorce affects more than half of all children, the experience they go through deserves another look.” I totally agree with you.

    I applaud the work that you are doing. I don’t like it when people compare the experiences of divorce and death. I think, also, that people are uncomfortable with loss of any sort and that’s why we say stupid things or minimize experiences, especially experiences that kids go through. I think, especially around divorce, as you pointed out, adults are the ones that are making the choices to end a relationship, etc… and they need to deal with their guilt, etc… so they gloss over all the things that you’ve raised.

  9. Kate says:

    My parents got divorced five years ago when I was thirteen. This article might possibly be the most accurate thing I’ve come across so far in all of my research. Amazing work.