|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.