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Divorce as Bereavement: Where Were My Cakes and Casseroles?

By Sandra Winicur

A month after my divorce I went to my Temple for my father's Yahrzeit. At the Oneg Shabbat after services I was approached by an old acquaintance.

"Sandra," she said, "I was really surprised to hear that you got a divorce."

"I was pretty surprised myself," I said.

"You both always looked so compatible," she continued. "I had no idea your marriage was in such trouble."

"No," I said. "neither did I."

She patted my arm. "Well," she said, "statistics tell us that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. I guess we just have to expect that kind of thing," and she started to leave.

I called her back. "Would you be very upset if your husband died?" I asked

"Of course I would," she answered.

"I don't see why," I said. "Statistics tell us that 100% of all marriages that don't end in divorce end in death. We just have to expect that kind of thing."

She looked annoyed. "It's totally different," she said.

Another friend, widowed some years back, was listening. "It's different, all right," she said. "Death is easier to deal with."

It took a while for that to sink in, but after a few months I began to focus on the fact that for many, perhaps most, women leaving a long-standing marriage, divorce is as much of a bereavement as death, and complicated by three factors:

1. the lack of permission to grieve – there is a feeling, both personally and from the community, that mourning is an inappropriate response;

2. the lack of an established support system for divorce – divorce disrupts and alters the a woman's usual support system – spouse,  children, relatives, in-laws, friends, synagogue, Sisterhood;

3. the scarcity of good behavioral role models – I knew very well how to be a  Jewish widow. I'd seen many models. I was totally unprepared to be a Jewish divorcee.
We in the Jewish community have no good pattern either for being divorced or for dealing with divorced women. The end of a marriage, whether by divorce or by death, is an event to mourn, but the Jewish community is not sufficiently sensitive to the divorced woman's need for a mourning ritual and for grief support.

Grief – A woman in a long-standing marriage is committed to the marriage as much as to the husband. There may have been problems, but that has only increased her commitment and pride that problems were being overcome.

Marriage and family therapist Marsha Brook, Associate Director of Madison Center, a community mental health center in South Bend, Indiana, says that “...the end of a long tern marriage is the shattering of a dream. ...In the generation of women married prior to the ‘70’s, to divorce is perceived as to fail in the most devastating of ways. We were bred to marry for life...especially if we married Jewish men!” Disruption of such a marriage by divorce rather than by death causes its own heartaches, six of which I'd like to identify here:
Rewriting the past – While both death and divorce change the present and the future, only divorce changes the past. Were the good times, the shared goals, the commitment to the future, all an illusion? Didn't he appreciate how she tried to be there for him? Realizing how much essential communication has been lacking gives a woman a sense of having been betrayed, as she wonders what was really going on for the past several years.

Fury – Note, I don't say "anger." Anger doesn't BEGIN to describe the feelings of betrayal, now that the one person she was most accustomed to turning to for support has not died, but has passed judgment on her and turned away. I remember, in the first year after my own divorce, repeatedly telling people about a cartoon I had seen several years back. It was a snowy scene in the steppes of Russia, and a couple in a sleigh were beating the horses to try to escape from a pack of wolves tearing after the sleigh in hungry pursuit. Leading the pack was a small dog, and the woman was saying, "When I think of all we've done for that dog...." That's how I felt.

Embarrassment – A divorce often makes a woman feel like a victim. In our culture, there is a sense of shame about being a victim, about being singled out by fate. We in the American middle-class believe we should have control over our destiny, and are embarrassed when surrounded by those who seem to be more successful at it than we were.

Disruption of the family – Like it or not, the family, especially the children, are now torn apart in a way that does not occur with death. One or both of the parents is probably angry, and the children are definitely angry, at some level angry at BOTH of these people they love for destroying their home. Extended family are also in chaos, and family occasions will never be the same. (When my ex-husband told my mother-in-law that he was getting a divorce, her first sentence was, "Oh no, now there'll be no more simchas.")

Financial changes – It has been shown repeatedly that divorce generally lowers a woman's standard of living more than death of a spouse does, and more than occurs for a man. This is an especially poignant problem if children are involved.

Guilt and regrets – With the eternal rehashing that accompanies divorce, with time and distance in which to think, with counseling, it becomes easier to see the forces that led to the breakup. This new understanding of self is often accompanied by the feeling that perhaps if this understanding had come sooner the divorce could have been avoided. While this assumption may be erroneous, it brings its own set of regrets and guilts. We divorced women often have the feeling that we didn't do the best we could.

The tendency to self-blame, for so many of us a part of our heritage, may be fed by self-exonerating statements from the ex-spouse of such nature as...
    "You cared about the kids more than about me...."
    "I always resented the way things were going but you never noticed...."
    "We never did the things I wanted to do...."
    "I still love you but I want more out of life...."
    "I'm not fulfilled...."
    "It's my turn now..."

and my own personal favorite:
    "You gained too much weight...."

So here we have the newly-divorced woman from a long-standing marriage, definitely in mourning, definitely grieving as much as a widow is grieving, but at the same time too angry to grieve, feeling that grieving is inappropriate, and with no idea of how to grieve appropriately in this situation.

Where does she turn for help?

After several years of thinking about this, often audibly, I believe that we, and when I say "we" I mean friends, Temple or synagogue, Sisterhood, lack patterns for treating divorce, just as the divorced women lack models for being divorced.


If my husband had died, everyone would have known what to do. The house would have been filled with cakes and casseroles, as the community visited, sat, prayed. The children and I would have taken a week off to bury him and grieve, while our friends and acquaintances came in to feed us and reminisce. We would have said Kaddish for him for eleven months. Then we would have put a stone on his grave, and resumed our lives.

After my divorce, I was definitely in mourning. Where were my cakes and casseroles?

People do the best they know. When I think of what my own inappropriate past responses have been to divorced friends, I cringe.

Many people called me once. "Call if you need me," they said. As a friend of mine said a few months ago, "You never really understand a need until you feel it yourself."

Most people assumed that my primary emotion was anger and my primary goal revenge, and by supporting that, helped to make it so.

Standard comments made to me, repeatedly, were:

    "You're still attractive. You'll find someone else soon."     

Imagine saying that to a recent widow, as if men were interchangeable, and the important thing was to just have one, any one.

    "What a jerk! I never really liked him that much."      

Great – what did that make me for staying around so long?

    "You're better off without him."

Imagine saying THAT to a recent widow.

    "It couldn't have been all bad. You have such lovely children."

Now that's a real conversation stopper.

    Nothing. – worst thing of all to say..........

Friends also sent books. I have a shelf of uplifting books given to me about divorce, self-realization, grief recovery. For anyone else in the same situation, I have some valuable advice. If you find yourself with a similar shelf of books, DON'T READ THEM. They're depressing. If someone offers you a book, ask for a murder mystery. It's much more therapeutic.

So, that's what we don't do for a recently divorced friend. What do we do?

1. Come after her – those of us who are newly divorced know we're lousy company. We desperately need to tell our story, like Coleridge’s "Ancient Mariner," but unlike him, we really don't want to inflict ourselves on anyone.

The most helpful friends I had were those who, having been there before, told me "Don't expect to be normal for a year," and then just listened.

2. Feed and exercise her – after the divorce, I certainly wasn't eating right. I needed those cakes and casseroles. I needed to be invited to dinner. I needed exercise – and will always be thankful for one friend who modified her schedule so I could walk with her on a daily basis, and for another who set a permanent place for me at her table and kept reminding me that it was there.

3. Include her – one friend said "Join my book club." Another friend took me to the symphony several times. You've got the idea.

Temple, Sisterhood and Ritual

One well-documented aspect of older women experiencing divorce is their newly developed negative attitudes toward the rabbi and the synagogue or Temple. These feelings are generally characterized by hostility to the rabbi and to Judaism, and self-exile from the synagogue.

Jewish women, especially those with traditional family attitudes, feel that Judaism implies she is responsible for keeping the family together. It is common for a woman to pull away from the synagogue after a divorce, because the divorce seems to contradict the family-based orientation the woman has had there for all these years.

This alienation is a special problem in many congregations because so many services are taken up with B'nai Mitzvot, with their attendant crowds, excitements and memories. There is less and less opportunity for regular prayer on a weekly basis for those dealing with pain and grief, or even just for those who want an opportunity to maintain contact with their Jewish spirituality. This is an issue that congregations need to address as their ranks grow, and more and more young families join, orienting observance around the needs of children and families.

Many synagogues now hold healing services for anyone in need of healing – those who are mourning, those who are ill, those who simply need healing. Such services effectively meet the needs of those in need of healing outside of the festive mood of the Shabbat service.

At present, however, there are things that can be done to avoid losing divorced women from the ranks:
· Call them for specific committee assignments.
· Ask them to teach in Sunday school.
· Call them to help out on special programs.
· Ask them to do readings or aliyot on High Holy days and other holidays.
· Think about the person's unique skills and find a way to use them.
· Ask them to help someone else who is experiencing similar problems.

And keep calling, even after getting refusals. Keep insisting that this person belongs in Temple. Keep trying to incorporate her in major activities.

Above all, don't let her slip through the cracks. After being a member of the Sisterhood for 20 years, what with the divorce and with moving twice, somehow I neglected to pay my Sisterhood dues one year. The next year, I wasn't on the Sisterhood list. That should never have happened.

Many Temples and synagogues put their main effort here in trying to incorporate divorced people into singles groups. While laudable, this does not help the person stay connected to Jewish observance. It just reinforces the feeling of not belonging in the mainstream of what the Temple is all about.

Another major problem for the divorced woman is the lack of a ritual with which to achieve closure. Death has its own rituals, but divorce does not. Unlike mourners of a physical death, one who mourns the end of a marriage digs no grave, and has no shivah. No one brings food, or stays to offer comfort.

Several women's groups have invented their own divorce rituals, which have been published in various Jewish sources. Often these rituals include blessings especially designed for the situation. As far back as the Spring issue of 1993, Lilith, a Jewish women's magazine, suggested:
 Blessed is the One who separates and makes distinctions.
 Blessed is the One who enables us to make transformations and new beginnings.

But these invented rituals were generally devised to fit into a pre-existing situation, such as a Rosh Hodesh women's group, or a havurah. There is something self-conscious about inventing a ritual and also finding an appropriate locale in which to perform it.

Since my ketubah was Orthodox, I wanted an Orthodox get. It took me two years of asking and some help from my children to obtain it, but the sense of closure it gave me was immediate. I think the advantage was that it was an established ritual, with definite motions and behaviors that I had to perform. Women in less traditional congregations are trying to create an appropriate ceremony that is more suitable to our liturgy, but gives the same sense of involvement and finality. An article in the March, 2005 Sh’ma by Or N. Rose and Judith Rosenbaum speaks to this issue poignantly and describes efforts that are being made to ritualize the get more meaningfully.

Adult Children

Not infrequently, divorces that occur later in life occur when the youngest child goes off to college. The assumption is that the children are adults now and will be less affected by it. However, for young adult children, this may be one of the most devastating experiences of their lives. They are faced with the paradox of mourning for a broken family whose members are still alive, a very stressful and depressing situation.

A 1991 book by Noelle Fintushel and Nancy Hillard, called A Grief Out of Season, indicates that students who have just started college are especially devastated by parental divorce. Everyone has heard the classic remark of the returning college student – "You moved my bed. Didn't you think I was coming back?" They've gone off to be independent, rebellious and exploratory, secure in their homes and backgrounds, and as soon as they turn their backs, everything that they counted on has dissolved. The family they expected to come back to is gone, the home they grew up in is gone, their old friends are away at school with new lives, and they have not yet established a support system in their new locale. In addition, the student's financial security may be compromised or eroded.

To make matters worse, they are often so consumed with adolescent issues, realizing that they're not as independent and ready to leave home as they thought they were, that they may put off dealing with the emotional crisis, and refuse to accept help. In addition, they may withdraw from school or perform poorly out of anger at the people who had encouraged them to succeed, and who have suddenly betrayed expectations and standards taught for twenty years.

Older children of divorcing parents are often isolated, with no skills to deal with their new situation, and no idea of how to react. The community needs to reach out to them too.

Some friends of the child literally do not understand why their friend is so distraught when both parents are still alive and available. Divorce is so common that such a strong reaction seems inappropriate. Since their own homes are intact, they still believe in their own independence.

On the other hand, close friends who have grown up with the child may be frightened. As one of my daughter's friends said to me, "If there's one thing I know for sure it's that my parents would never get a divorce. But if there was another thing I knew for sure it was that you and your husband would never get a divorce. I really don't know anything for sure any more."


The operative idea in all of this is "Caring." If we care enough, we can create an environment of warmth and support for those who need it.

Some years ago, when I was hospitalized with pneumonia, the Sisterhood chair of L'Havdil made sure a gift was there for me when I came home. When I called to thank her, she said that she had been hesitant to do it, because she didn't really know me. I told her: "Caring is like a massage. It doesn't matter if you don't know the person who gives it. It still feels good."


Found in: Divorce