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Divorce - There's A Time Limit On Sympathy

( Originally Published 1952 )

The gloomy title of this chapter is not only true: it ought to be. A widow or divorcee may be entitled to be a weeping willow for a time, but there comes a day when feeding on memories is an indulgence. It is also an imposition on friends and family. And it helps no one at all—certainly not the person who has gone out of your life.

It will probably seem to you that this unsympathetic moment comes a little earlier in other people's opinion than it does in yours, but when you recognize the first hints, you'd better pull yourself together and do a little constructive thinking. This doesn't mean to throw overboard, all at once, the props that have been supporting you. If you've been getting advice from your doctor or your minister or your lawyer, and the advice has helped, go right on getting it as long as you really need it. But, in your own mind, re-cognize the fact that it is time to face the future, not as a dreadful fate, but as something it is your job to make useful and interesting.

There is a thrill in making a life of your own, as there is in doing anything else that is creative. We are not pre-tending that this life you make for yourself alone will have the deep underlying happiness of a life you make for someone you care about. But eventually, when you are making it alone and unaided, that very fact will be stimulating and you will find that you can make it very interesting indeed.

You will need friends or relatives, but you'd better realize from the start that the ones who are on the job won't be the ones you expected. Nothing will surprise you more than who is right there at a time of real trouble—except who isn't right there Many of the friends themselves won't even be in the group they expected to be in. The weeks after your loss are going to seem endless to you, but to other people, time is passing with the terrifying rapidity of ordinary days. Besides, to be honest, haven't you ever slipped up in this respect? If not, you're among the really remark-able people of this world.

Don't brood about who does what. It doesn't matter in the long run, and actually, you will be touched and really helped by the kindness that pours in. If you are newly widowed, you will get dozens, and you may get hundreds of letters of sympathy, and every one of them will be written straight from the heart. People are really sorry, they do care, and a surprising number take the trouble to let you know it. So many that you may find yourself feeling that you are the touching center of interest in a very sad story. It's better to be careful about this for, after a time, that particular kind of interest is bound to wane, which is probably a very good thing for all concerned and especially you.

If you are a divorcee, you have a somewhat different problem. A number of your friends may fail to get in touch with you, and among those prominent by their absence, in all probability, will be some of your former husband's closest friends, people you thought were your friends too, because of close association. And why not? However open-minded people may be as to who was to blame for any divorce, it's pretty difficult and seldom very wise to try to remain close friends with both factions. Eventually, such a position will cause anyone to feel two-faced, as most people recognize. And wouldn't you put loyalty to the older friend first? Over the years, the roots of real friendship go deep, and the deeper they go, the harder they are to uproot.

It's a good plan to concentrate on the friends who do rally round and forget the rest. Anyone's morale can be undermined by a feeling that someone has neglected to do something about her that he ought to have done, and that's not a very admirable point of view, anyway. Friendship, or even kindness, based on duty is worth very little and right now is the time to let it go once and forever.

The divorcee has a very special job, and an all-important one, of letting go—that of letting go of her husband-that was. (We are, of course, referring to divorcees with no children or with grown-up ones, since the right of those with small children to make a new start is a question out-side of the range of this book.) This is something that seems to be a very difficult achievement for some women. The roots of marriage go deepest of all and a woman is seldom able to pull them up with the dispatch and completeness shown by most men. When a man is through, he's apt to be through, but a woman (unless she's too shallow to feel very deeply) is haunted by a million early memories and bittersweet associations, even though she was the one to get the divorce. This makes a complete break, in her mind as well as in her actions, a really difficult accomplishment—but that is no excuse for hanging on to the last few threads like a persistent burr. You don't really want him as a husband, or he doesn't want you as a wife—otherwise, what was all the shooting for? Maybe he does owe you a little more consideration; maybe a little nagging would do him good.

Never mind about him. It won't do you any good. It will breed more bitterness and it will make even your best friends shift a little toward his side. Neither spite nor a dog-in-the-manger attitude is in the least admirable and hanging on to a man who no longer cares for you has a shade of the contemptible about it. You are the one who will be hurt most, even by rancor kept to yourself. You'd better really wash that man right out of your hair and send yourself on a new way.

Whatever the circumstances, making a new start has got to be your personal job in the end, and it's wise to begin just as soon as you're able, if not just a little bit sooner. It won't be easy. There will be times in the midst of the most harmless conversation when a chance remark will bring back a memory and cause a practically unmanageable lump in your throat. But you can learn to talk louder and faster about something quite different, and though your friends will think you haven't been listening, they won't hold it against you. You will have to learn a dozen other tricks to meet a dozen other problems, but the determination you put into learning will help you get under way in your new course.

We can't tell you when you will be able to do this, that being an individual matter, but we can advise against a long period of showing a mournful face to the world. It no longer has even convention to recommend it. Public opinion has undergone a merciful change since Grandma was a girl and today it is not considered disrespectful to the dead, or flippant for a divorcee, to live normally. You are, of course, still priviledged to go right on being miserable indefinitely if you prefer, but we don't know what good it can do and, as we have implied, your friends will get very sick of you in time, and with good reason. You are not, after all, the first person to have a great personal sorrow. Most people do, at some time in their lives. For a time, of course, your lot will seem much harder than anyone else's, but it is unlikely that other people will hold this opinion as. long as you will.

To be impolitely frank, you are probably a little hard to take just now. There is no use in pretending that you are as much fun, or as interesting, or even as attractive as usual. On some days, even if you're young, you feel at least ninety and are certain that you look it and no one cares much about you anyway, which doesn't make you a very gay companion. Also, you're undoubtedly edgy and a little bit sharp, and your mind wanders now and then during your best friend's husband's best story. They'll both forgive you, but it's a good idea to see their side and be grateful for their forbearance.

Your first step is to be as normal as possible. Not being a figure of sorrow isn't enough. Don't be a martyr or a brave little woman either. Just be yourself, as soon as you can, which won't be very soon at best. Talk about the subjects that everybody else is talking about, not about yourself and, above all, not about your bereavement, unless you are asked a direct question. Even then, make your answer brief and avoid that tempting tinge of self-pity in the way you word it.

Not wearing mourning too long undoubtedly makes all this easier, though just how long too long is is another personal matter. It seems scarcely necessary to say that there has been a radical change in the way most people look at this question. Practically nobody even considers wearing solid black for a solid year, as widows once did, adding a touch of white toward the end, perhaps, followed by another year or six months of washed-out grays and lavenders. This was a procedure that established an artificial and unwholesome gloom, and we can think of nothing to be said in its favor. The great majority of widows, how-ever, sincerely want to wear mourning for a time. It is a protection, and in the first desperate grief, it seems like an expression of some of the emotion one so badly needs to express. But there comes a day when you feel pretty drab in unrelieved black. At this stage, every time you catch a mirrored glimpse of your somewhat haggard face above plain black that is beginning to seem a little dingy, your spirits drop a little lower. By now, your family is beginning to wish that you'd wear something more cheerful, and, since the majority of men dislike mourning, many widows know that their husbands would have wanted them to stop wearing it as soon as they felt that they could.

The truth is that mourning is almost universally unbecoming. It's quite another thing from that smart little black number you've always liked, brightened by your gold jewelry and topped off by a shiny black straw hat. Mourning is never shiny. You might just as well wear a bright red dress as a bright black satin one, in so far as mourning is concerned. The gold jewelry isn't mourning either, nor are your diamonds, if any (except your engagement ring). Mourning was instituted in a period when widows were supposed to mourn a long, long time and look it.

Actually, you probably will mourn a long, long time, but it is more civilized not to look it throughout the whole period, thereby forcing your private trouble on the public world. A better plan, after what seems to you, individually, to be a reasonable time, is to keep your personal feeling in a secret corner of your own heart. This will help you to be a more useful person and a less dependent one, and it will be a relief to the friends and relatives who have stood by, but whose sympathy—since they have not had the same intimate sorrow—is inevitably beginning to wear a little bit thin.


CASE IV.: Mrs. C.—Mrs. C. is a lady who emerged from deep grief with an equally deep loneliness, but with a realization that one can learn from all experience. She also realized that what she had learned would be of little use unless she did something about it, and she therefore set about finding something to do. In spite of the fact that she was brought up in the betwixt-and-between social level which thinks working for charity is stodgy unless supervised by something as impeccably correct as the Junior League, she found her solution by going on the board of a charitable institution for people even lonelier than she. She visits one of these regularly, bringing cheer and coming away with the feeling that she is pretty lucky after all. Also, since she has good sense and enterprise, in no time at all she found herself running enormous bridge parties and fashion shows which bring in a tidy little profit for her pet charity. The truth is that Mrs. C., quite as much as the charity, benefits from these goings on, for she has increased her interests and acquaintances greatly and reduced her loneliness in proportion.

CASE V.: Mrs. N.—Mrs. N. has always had a sentimental penchant for celebrating anniversaries, which caused many gay and festive occasions in the past. Since Mr. N.'s death, however, she has celebrated only the wrong ones. Those unconnected with Mr. N. no longer hold any interest for her, but on the dates of his birth, marriage, and death, she retires from ordinary life to hold a private orgy of mournful sentiment. Each time she emerges so wan, noble, and martyrlike that a gentleman of her acquaintance who is considering the difficult step of Giving Up after fifty years of enjoyable bachelordom, feels a definite setback in his enthusiasm.

CASE VI.: Mrs. McD.—When Mrs. McD. married Mr. McD., some twenty-odd years ago, she was very pretty, even more spoiled and already a little sharp-tongued. Through the years, she got over the first but not the second, and she made alarming strides in the third. Mr. McD. is an intelligent gentleman who soon saw that he could make a better life for himself than Mrs. McD. provided, but he is also a gentleman with a sense of responsibility, so he did nothing about it till their only son had grown up and gotten him-self a job, a wife, and a home of his own. Then Mr. McD. moved into a good hotel where he finds life very peaceful.

Mrs. McD. was so outraged that she got a divorce almost without thinking. Once that was accomplished she couldn't have been more surprised. Hadn't she given Mr. McD. the Best Years of her Life? (Unfortunately, they were his best years too.) She feels, and says constantly, that she was a very good wife—it not having occurred to her that no one is a good wife who doesn't make her husband think she is.

Mrs. McD. pours out her wrath on Mr. McD. by mail, telegram, telephone, and the occasional interview she manages to get when she catches him unaware. She has become what can only be called a shrew. Now that we think about it, we don't know why we brought her up at all, as she is fast becoming incapable of starting all over.

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