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On divorce and ambiguous loss


"I think this might speak to you," said my friend Cate as she sent me a link to The Myth of Closure, a July 2016 episode of On Being featuring Dr. Pauline Boss. In interviewer Krista Tippett's words, the episode explores "complicated grief, the myth of closure, and learning to hold the losses in our midst." (Cate was right: the episode does speak to me, deeply.)

Pauline Boss is an expert on what's sometimes called ambiguous loss -- for instance, the loss someone feels when a loved one is slowly dying of Alzheimer's. Or the loss experienced by a parent whose child dies, or someone whose loved one is kidnapped and never found. Loss without closure. (One of the cases she makes, quite cogently I think, is that "closure" is a myth that doesn't actually help us.)

She talks about people grieving loved ones who died in dramatic ways: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or a tsunami that kills thousands. Those parts of the interview are powerful... but for me the most resonant sections are when she's talking about ordinary losses. For instance, she talks about how American culture expects immigrants to not grieve their decision to leave wherever they came from. And she says:

The more you want people to get over it, the longer it will take for them. And why not remember your former country, your former island, your former culture while you’re learning to fit into the new one? In other words, having two cultures is what it ends up being. 

What she says here makes me think of my own life changes, especially the end of my marriage. The life we had been building is the "country" that I left, to which I can't return. I have complicated feelings when I remember the home I used to know -- not so much the literal house where we lived (though I miss that sometimes too), but the psycho-spiritual sense of home that I located in that relationship.

We all go through these changes, and we all experience this kind of loss. "The past is a foreign country," as L.P. Hartley wrote. None of us can revisit what was. Even in a relationship that remains intact, we can't go back to how things were then, whenever "then" was. But in a relationship that comes apart, the sense of loss is more profound... and one can't help remembering what was, even when it is no more.

I'm not the only one who makes the leap between the ambiguous loss inherent in literal immigration and the ambiguous loss inherent in this more metaphorical kind of move between life's chapters or incarnations. At one point in the episode, Krista asks Dr. Boss to reflect specifically on how these ideas about complicated grief and the fantasy of closure relate to divorce. And Dr. Boss says:

"[C]losure” is a terrible word in human relationships. Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them, when they’re lost, you still care about them. It’s different. It’s a different dimension. But you can’t just turn it off...

it’s not as dramatic as the disasters we are talking about, but it’s more common every day. And that is you are leaving someone, you have lost someone by the divorce certificate, but they’re still here. So they’re here, but not here...

[T]hey’re present and also absent at the same time. That’s especially true when you co-parent children. And so divorce is a kind of human relationship that is ruptured but not gone. 

Ruptured but not gone: that feels familiar to me. Once you've been attached to someone in a deep and intimate way, that attachment can't be erased. It becomes part of who you are. (Rabbi Alan Lew wrote about this too, in his brilliant This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, which I have cited here so often over the years.) Even when the marriage is over, it remains, like a phantom limb.

In one sense, divorce is real, and it makes a difference. The ritual that ended my marriage was real, and it made a difference. And in another sense, divorce is a fiction -- or at least "closure" is a fiction. Even when one or both partners move on with their romantic and interpersonal lives, the relationship that was never entirely disappears. It is always something that used to exist, and its imprint remains.

And loss and grief are not linear experiences. It's easy and tempting to imagine that one goes from greatest grief, to lesser grief, to no grief at all. That would be so logical, wouldn't it? And that isn't how life works. Grief comes and goes on its own calendar, in its own ways. (I've written about that before -- see Good Grief, 2014.) And grief can coexist with gratitude and hope. They don't cancel each other out.

Getting divorced is an ongoing experience of coming to terms with ambiguity. I can be thriving in every way -- and then be knocked into a spiral of sorrow by the sound of a particular song, or the sight of two people holding hands, or a wedding invitation that arrives in the mail. The grief doesn't negate the truth that I am thriving, and the thriving doesn't negate the truth that I am still navigating grief. 

Getting divorced is an ongoing experience of coming to terms with contradictory truths. I was partnered for 23 years, and now I'm navigating life without a companion. I'm grateful for what is, and sad for what isn't. The relationship through which I once self-defined no longer exists, but it will always have existed, and I will always be shaped by it, even as I work on learning to define myself in other ways.

There's ambiguity in all of these things. And my relationship to the marriage, and to the feelings of loss that still ebb and flow as I approach the one-year anniversary of the day when we agreed that the marriage was over, is also ambiguous. I'm grateful and I'm sad at the same time. In one way the marriage is long over, and in another way the marriage will never stop shaping who I become. 

Deep thanks to Krista Tippett and to Dr. Pauline Boss for giving me a conceptual frame big enough to hold these ambiguities. Listen to the episode or read the transcript here: On Being: The Myth of Closure.