Becoming Whole Again
"You don't give a damn about me," the congregant said.
"What are you talking about?" I questioned.
"Well, Rabbi, I know you're always reaching out to people in mourning. And that's commendable. But what about me? I'm grieving, too. I just went through a divorce, and let me tell you, it was hell. Yet, I got nothing from you or the synagogue!"
"What would you like me to do?" I asked defensively.
"Have you ever been to a divorce court?" she inquired.
"No," I answered.
"Well, she said, "as you know, I'm an attorney. I'll take you there. Maybe then you'll better understand what some of the separated and divorced members of your congregation have endured."
It was a horror show. Husbands and wives screaming at each other, lawyers apportioning material possessions, children torn between separate homes and lifestyles.
That experience taught me that divorce is a kind of death. But there is a difference. After a death there is a funeral, whispered condolences, hugs, talk of happy memories. Friends and family console the survivors. After a divorce, one mourns alone. There is no public ceremony to acknowledge feelings of loss, to say goodbye. Old friends feel they have to choose sides. Children often blame themselves for causing the breakup.
As Jews, we affirm the concept of marriage as holiness, kiddushin. However, we wisely do not preserve the legal family at all costs. Mosaic law does not subscribe to the view that "what therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder." When the basic ingredients of love, communication, respect, and emotional support are missing, this holy union is terminable. Divorce may be a tragedy, but if the marriage is a mere formality -- an empty form devoid of spirituality -- preserving it is pointless.
How then, I wondered, could I as a rabbi offer spiritual support to the divorced in my congregation? I took graduate courses in this specialized field, and then decided to start a synagogue-based divorce support group. We hung up flyers, made telephone calls, and printed announcements in the temple bulletin -- but only one person showed up! While Judaism accepted divorce as a possibly necessary reality, divorce among Jewish families in the early 1970s was often considered a disgrace. Families were expected to remain together, whatever the provocation. We therefore moved the meeting place to a private home, out of range of the public eye. Thirteen people came, twelve women and one man. Here, they realized, they could break out of their isolation, interact with others who truly understood their plight, and form new friendships.
Each session commenced with a member sharing either a personal prayer or a selection from a Jewish text that brought a measure of comfort and hope. The central focus of our discussion was the anatomy of grief: the varying and volatile emotions of denial, numbness, anger, jealousy, panic, fatigue, guilt, depression, loneliness -- all normal feelings that needed to be brought out into the open. We talked about synagogue involvement, legal decisions, financial matters, friends, relatives, dating, the possible need for professional counseling, and discovering new skills. Our motto was simple: "Cry when you have to; laugh when you can." One major concern was how to help children adjust to the separation. Young people, they realized, needed continual assurance that they are truly loved; needed to know how the divorce would change their lives; and most importantly, needed to know that they were not the cause of their parents' problems.
We recognized that different people in our group were at different places in the grief journey, and sometimes the same people were at different places on different days. Grief does not travel along a straight line, then fade away and disappear. There is no cookbook for going through divorce, no recipes with simple stages. Each experience of this loss is unchartered territory. There are, however, certain commonalities of feelings.
As might be expected, given the extent of the loss -- a companion, a helper, a home, a town, a group of friends, economic security, a synagogue, an extended family, perhaps even an identity -- there's a strong urge for denial. It is not unusual to hear a recently divorced person say, "This is just a bad dream; when I wake up, I'll find that it really didn't happen." Some have difficulty saying the word "divorce." Others secretly pretend they're still married. Denial is natural. Fleeting moments of disbelief shelter the distressed from inner torment, allowing emotions the time to catch up with the bitter reality of divorce.
Divorce also generates much anger, resentment, and jealousy. Common complaints include:
- I'm not perfect, God knows I tried. Why me?
- Nobody does this to me and gets away with it.
- My friends should have known what was happening, should have helped. Whose side are they on?
- My former spouse is "having a ball" while I'm alone and miserable.
- Why do some people have all the luck?
These emotions are normal parts of the separation process. In our group we discussed the fact that jealousy is as old as Cain and Abel, David and Saul, Joseph and his brothers. As the pain subsides, so will the anger; still, remnants of hostility may erupt from time to time.
In the aftermath of divorce, thoughts -- and actions -- sometimes can be inconsistent and irreconcilable. At one moment, he or she wishes the marriage had never ended; in the next second: "Thank God, the ordeal is over!"
The emotional pain and swings can wreak havoc on the body: insomnia, nausea, dizziness, palpitations, rashes, tension headaches, back pain, loss of appetite or considerable weight gain, and especially fatigue. It is the somatic response to the drastic changes in life: "As a man thinketh, so is he." (Proverbs 23:7) A compassionate physician who understands the mind-body connection can be of enormous help in alleviating the pain.
Guilt and Regret
Added to the emotional mix are intense feelings of guilt and regret. "If only I had done this, not done that, tried harder, been more understanding, forgiving, accepting." Examining and reexamining the marriage, the former partners are acutely aware of "failures" and "shortcomings," real and imagined.
Many of our group discussions revolved around what might have happened if members hadn't engaged in this or that argument or action. Together, we came to terms with the fact that the past is history and problems cannot be resolved with "if onlys." What a burden of self-accusation, self-reproach, and self-deprecation we sometimes bring to bear on our lives. If God can forgive on Yom Kippur, it is time for us to learn to forgive ourselves.
Depression is anger turned inward. The divorcee says, "I'm so alone, empty, unprotected. The pain is unbearable. How can I go on?"
Depression is not weakness. It may be a psychological necessity, an essential part of the grieving process in which part of one's life is severed and a new, whole, decision-maker needs, somehow, to emerge. As it says in Gates of Prayer (CCAR Press): "There are times when each of us feels lost or alone, adrift or forsaken, unable to reach those next to us or to be reached by them. And there are days and nights when existence seems to lack all purpose and our lives seem brief sparks in an indifferent cosmos. None of us is immune from doubt and fear. None escapes times when all seems dark and senseless. Then at the ebb tide of the spirit the soul cries out and reaches for companionship...."
The members of our group confronted their denial, anger, resentment, jealousy, ambivalence, guilt, regret, and depression with courage, even as they pondered the question: "How do I become whole again?"
When the marriage ended, I told them, you did not think you would survive. But others have gone before you, making the tormented trip from marriage to divorce to the single life, and whatever lies beyond. They learned that life does not end with divorce. Doors open, and you find the strength to walk through them. People enter your life. You make discoveries. Gradually, you begin to heal, to become whole again. But yesterday remains with you. A complete person carries memories of the past, as well as curiosity about the future.
Keep your integrity by honoring the past, I advised. If you are responsible for child-support payments, make them your first priority. If you are not the custodial parent, keep your relationship with the children alive by frequent visits, phone calls, and letters. Tell your kids you care. If you have custody, allow your ex to see the children without a battle, without asking the youngsters to recount what happened during each visit, without making them feel guilty for enjoying the company of their other parent.
You may now be ready to take out the mementos of your marriage and look at them with clear eyes. Surely, there were some happy days. It was not all bad. Your ex had some good qualities; otherwise you would not have married in the first place. The good parts are part of your yesterdays. They are a part of you.
Rabbi Earl A. Grollman served as spiritual leader of Beth El Temple Center, Belmont, MA for thirty-six years. The author of twenty-six books on such subjects as divorce, dying, death, and Alzheimer's, he lectures extensively around the world.