For years after my divorce, more than a decade ago, I fought grief tooth and nail. My pride wouldn’t allow me to feel, never mind express, sadness. My distorted thinking convinced me that feeling sorrow meant I still had feelings for my ex-wife. I must surely miss her and want her back if I felt pain or loneliness. ‘How could that be,’ I wondered? This woman’s selfishness ruined everything.
One of my favorite writers, nineteenth-century essayist F.W. Boreham, once said a man’s heart is like a garden that must regularly be cultivated or weeds will overtake it and choke out its beauty. Avoiding my sorrow allowed the vines of bitterness and contempt to creep in, strangling much of my joy. Instead of going about the hard and necessary work of grieving, like most men, I chose an easier path, the broad way of wine and women. Alcohol became an elixir. Women became a remedy. Like a shot and chaser, where there was one, the other wasn’t far behind. Together they were a powerful enough antidote to entertain me into a stupor, numbing me from what lay under the surface.
Yet there’s this funny thing about pleasure, it’s incapable of carrying the load. The burden we place upon sex, drugs, alcohol, work, or whatever we choose to distract us proves too heavy and eventually buckles. Ignoring or avoiding hurt never makes it go away. The reality we’ve tried so furiously to sex or drink into oblivion lingers on the fringes, waiting for its opportunity to eventually, and always, come rushing back. The shiny objects we construct for ourselves will in time turn dull. What was once ‘fun’ will become boring, and its allure will wear off. But perhaps worse still, all our efforts to escape our unavoidable truth only leave lies and chaos in their wake. When our judgment day comes; when we finally hit the wall we’ve built for ourselves, the damage we must be pulled from is usually more severe thanks to our own making.
I’ve frequently written about my Emotional Winter. That’s when it all burned to the ground. The wall I had erected keeping out my truth had turned to cinder and lay in an ash heap at my feet. My shield became too heavy and could no longer be carried. Now lying open and bare, I faced a reinforced enemy, one that I had fortified with my own selfishness and ignorance. Those pleasures I once had made to be angels of my salvation, suddenly turned to demons intent on my demise.
That season became a story of attack and counter attack. I would advance against one enemy while losing ground to another. It would be six months of hard fighting and numerous lost battles, but when the final shot rang, the war had been won. I was victorious. Like the Prodigal Son, I felt restored by ring and robe. The struggle left me wiser in spirit and character. I would accept nothing in exchange for that season of my life. What it did for my life, in molding me partly into the person I am today, is incalculable.
Divorce is death. Two similar but yet distinct ends. The first is the death of a marriage; the breaking of a relationship and family. What once began with such promise and hope is laid to rest. The hurt and gladness, passion and love, shared between two people is killed. The other death is the that of an ideal; the death of a dream. Getting the two confused is easy. I did. My defiance to feel sorrow for my divorce was based on the mistaken assumption that I was grieving the first death, that of the relationship. I felt I was suffering the loss of passion and love between her and me, but I eventually realized I was wrong. The relationship had died long before, and I had grieved that death over time, with every argument we had, with every step further apart, with every ounce of distrust that seeped into our marriage. That grieving was subtle, and at times unnoticeable. It didn’t come with an all-at-once flood of emotions.
Instead, the grief I had fought against so vigorously was sadness for that other death—the death of what might have been. The loss of the dream and ideal I had for myself and my children. It was regrets of what I had hoped for their childhood. I desperately missed a cherished hope of a family and a life that could no longer be, and it was right, and necessary, to mourn its passing.
I’ve counseled men in the years since that to ignore their sorrow is only to delay the inevitable. To be so foolish to think it can be avoided. They wall each is building to keep the monsters away, will soon become a prison that is holding their hearts captive. The monsters will always be there, lurking in the shadows. To those men, I say to embrace the loss. Grab hold of those emotions and don’t let them go until they are subdued. There is a life beyond divorce, and if we want to grab ahold of what can be, we first must sincerely grieve what might have been.