Elizabeth Edwards (2): The Estranged Widowed

Rose "Elizabeth Edwards"

One of the most destructive grief myths is "the deeper the love, the greater the grief." John and Elizabeth Edwards had, no doubt, a complicated relationship. He'd had an affair, another child, and the couple were separated, but stories tell us he moved back home to be with Elizabeth and their two children recently, as her condition worsened. So I anticipate that despite this late, public transformation to devoted family leader, there will be lots of talk about John Edwards' transition to widower and likely, lots of judgment of how he grieves based on how he "should" feel.

(Widowed people just looooove to hear things like this when they become part of public conversation. Did you know we have punching bags in our basements? Funeral homes ought to give them away as bonuses, along with the special kleenex and a year's worth of massage therapy.)

Some of us buy into the myth that big love results in big grief. We long to be told our love was "special," we romanticize our loves when they end in death, and we naturally idealize those who are no longer around to act real and challenge our glistening memories.

But it's not true. As we adjust to our life after loss, and the drama subsides, widowed people learn that there are no formulas for grief, no number of tears to shed per year of marriage, no tricks, no shortcuts, no system.

I've had the honor of sitting alongside hundreds of widows, hearing their stories, watching them adjust over time, in person and online through my social media outreach. I've known dozens who mourned partners who died during divorce proceedings, after affairs, during separations, and even years AFTER divorce. These spouses (and former spouses) feel the same type and degree of pain, and experience many of the same adjustments, as the widows with storybook marriages (both real and imagined). These souls deserve the title of "widowed."

Why would anyone want to be called a "widow?" We often say, "welcome to the club that no one wants to join." But it does matter, because unmarried couples are routinely turned away from receiving support after they lose a partner. Because inconsistent acceptance of marriage by LGBT people means that they are nearly always taken less seriously by those who have sympathy for widowed people. And as little institutional and social support there is for grieving people, it's important that everyone who needs it is included.

My own experience of marriage and the many stories I've heard make me doubt that relationships that are "difficult" in public are all that different from more private or easier ones, especially below the surface. Any long-term partnership develops organically. Each union is as different from another as one animal from another. Their triumphs are often formed in compromise; even when a couple gets along easily, outsiders can't tell what's going on inside each individual or inside their life together. My friend Malena translated a Spanish proverb to me once, as "No one knows what is in the soup but the spoon." It took me a while to figure out what this means: not only can you not tell what makes a relationship tick, but sometimes a couple that seems unhappy meets each other's needs perfectly. (My parents seem to have used this recipe.)

"Happy marriages" aren't always what they seem, either, and you should be especially mistrustful of the rosy glasses of a grieving person. Spouses tend to "saint" their loved ones the moment they die, no matter what happened before. And there is an old saying that one should "never speak ill of the dead." 
Imagine the burden this puts on widowed people who find out about former lives and loves, drug abuse, or "love children" after their partner dies.

The guilt John Edwards may suffer as part of his grief may be stronger than that of a more faithful partner, but one never knows. Guilt is a natural part of most grief experiences — most of us fantasize that our loved one would still be alive if we'd acted differently: taken a different route that day, spoken up to a doctor — and we bear this with us until we come to forgive. The guilt is so magnified that it hardly matters what the irritant is: there's simply no math that will tell you how someone may feel after a loss.

I'll wager that it won't matter that John and Elizabeth Edwards had a difficult relationship. His grief won't be lessened or increased by the fact that they'd been separated. Now the children's experience… they are old enough (the youngest is 12) to talk about everything they've seen. The challenge for John Edwards will be to be as honest as he can with them, about the good times and the bad times, to honor their relationship — and his — with his co-parent.

Unlike a child, grief is an elemental, animal set of feelings and experiences and it doesn't understand the details of any story. A different grief is borne by each person: our emotions vary in size, shape, and color. But it is always the same weight: 100%, and it can't be fooled or outwitted by any system, no matter how hard we beg.

Estranged, separated, divorced, unmarried, the death of someone you'd planned a future with is always a huge loss. We should call these losses by the same name: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Supa. Many already know that Scott and I were separated, but working on defining our relationship, whether it be to continue our marriage, or not. The separation was not my idea, inspite of the fact Scott had committed adultery while I was sick. I was ready, and I believe able, to forgive him. Because of these circumstances, few of my friends regard me as a "widow" and downplay my grief. It's so great to feel understood. Whether Elizabeth had chosen to forgive John, I don't know, and that's something that should be just between the two of them.

Carol Coe Pugh said...

I agree....and in my experience it's not necessarily those with the deepest love who grieve the hardest, but instead those with the most unresolved issues. Sometimes those who had a deep, healthy love are also able to move forward in time with fewer complications.

Though none of us want to be in this pool, there's definitely room for everyone.

Peace to all.

annie said...

Well said.

Widowhood reminds me a lot of high school (do we ever really leave that awful experience behind us?) where everything is tiered, judged and ranked. The tendency to analyze everything to (no pun) death as though something with as many moving pieces as a relationship can be perfectly parsed.

I feel sorry for John Edwards. He'd dug himself quite a hole already and now he's a widower on top of it. I wish him luck b/c he'll need it.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Anonymous (Lynn?), I'm so sorry the circumstances led peers to diminish your connection and your loss. Why are we so selfish with emotions? It's not like they cost anything.

Carol, there is definitely room for everyone in this club no one wants to join.

Annie, I agree. I rewrote this piece for Open to Hope and really sharpened the point about John's credibility. Without, I hope, stabbing too obviously. Poor guy, but mostly, poor kids.

Thanks for all your thoughts on this tough topic!

Star said...

Only being married six months was a hard cross to bear. I heard things like:
"You are young and can marry again" Yes this is true but no one will replace Roger.
"At least you weren't married long" Again, this is true but does that mean I will grieve less? Does this mean I will heal faster?
"At least you don't have kids" Ugh.
"You two didn't have time for the marriage to get 'old'" Okay, not sure if this is supposed to make me feel better.

For me, I lost a lifetime of plans. I'm not sure which is harder, to have lived those plans or to have them stolen before they began.

I am just hoping I die first in my next marriage. Then I won't have to know the answer.

Anonymous said...

We had been together 3 and a half years when zach was killed in a car accident. We considered ourselves married but were planning to make it official this new years eve. My daughter was 3when we met and called him daddy. My work didn't want to give me time off because he was not my spouse! I also lost a lifetime of plans. I lost my future! And I hate hearing "at least you're still young!" F*** them for saying that!

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Star and Anon,
BLEH. I hate those "explanations" too.

Anonymous said...

I both agree and disagree with your take on this, Supa. Every situation is completely different. And I only say this because my deceased husband was divorced before we even met (so I had nothing to do with it), there was no chance of reconciliation, and his ex-wife doesn't care in the least that he has passed. It has not affected her at all, except to help her adult daughter
(30 years old), my step-daughter, through it. As far as John Edwards, although he may feel badly about Elizabeth's passing, and on some level grieving for her, in reality, he DID leave her for another woman, so he is now free to be with that other woman without his "ex" getting in the way.

As far as unmarried and LGBT couples..I completely agree that they should be treated the same as married couples if the relationship was a committed one.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Anonymous, that's exactly my point. Even though he left her, he's still attached, and that will always be true, no matter what choices he made.

But as you say, every situation is different, my point is just that these bonds are not always severed so clearly, and legal status has nearly nothing to do with it.

About your own situation, you don't mention if you're happy about your LH's ex wife being distant. I've heard stories that go both ways... and every shade in between.

thanks for writing.



Anonymous said...

Hi Supa,
I'm completely ambivalent about how she feels. Stepdaughter is 30 years old so I have no need to see her or talk to her and neither I nor DH had any contact with her since Stepdaughter became an adult. However, SD tells me that her mother really doesn't care either way that he is gone.

I guess, though, simply because I am human, a small part of my heart hopes that she feels some little regret on how she treated him when they were married. She was horrible to him, which I don't understand because he was such a lovely person.

My children, and I, and my stepdaughter all remember him with love, so that is all that counts! :)

As far as John Edwards, the situation reminds me of Prince Charles and Princess Diana...when she died, he was free to marry Camilla as a widower, but not as a divorce'. I'm not sure he had any regrets, either.


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