Friday, March 26, 2010

No contest

Darla and I started working together at the Dallas Morning News about a decade ago. Darla livens any situation -- especially a sometimes staid shift on the copy desk. Her laugh is loud and contagious. Her attitude is positive -- sunshiney, really. Her knowledge of pop culture is mighty impressive.

Really, there's no way you can't adore Darla. She is a loyal, cheerful, true friend.

While I have been grieving Steve's death, Darla has been grieving the end of her marriage. In one week, we both became single moms. What's more, we've both been writing about our separate experiences for the same readers. We both write columns for Briefing.

This week I wrote a column about an experience I had while away on spring break -- a woman who told me why it's more difficult to be a divorcee than a widow. After I turned in my column, our editor, Will, asked about a companion piece from Darla. She agreed and wrote a lovely, touching column that ran in today's edition next to mine.

You can read our work here and here. Or below.


Is divorce worse than death of a spouse? It's no contest
By Tyra Damm

When someone dies, people often struggle for the right words to offer those left behind.

Before my husband's death, I was often so timid that I might not say anything at all. I was definitely more comfortable sending a written note, giving myself time to compose what I hoped were comforting phrases.

A few friends have asked me in the past months if anyone has said anything awful or offensive. And I've been able to truthfully answer no.

Even when people are nervous or unsure, they've always found the "right" words. They always have the best intentions. Not a single person has said the "wrong" thing.

Until now.

Last week, while the kids and I were on vacation, I asked a nearby woman if she'd take our photo. I joked with her about how moms are rarely in photos.

She laughed and said she understood – she had 10 of her own children.

We visited for a while. I learned that she had gone through a divorce years before. I told her that my Steve had passed away in the fall.

Then she told me how being a divorcee is worse than being a widow.

That when you're divorced, you carry a stigma.

That when you're divorced, your ex-husband poisons your children against you.

That when you're divorced, your memories of your marriage are poisoned.

That when you're divorced, your children are more likely to get divorced.

That when you're divorced, your married girlfriends are afraid that you're trying to steal their husbands.

Wow. How do you respond gracefully to that?

I decided that I couldn't. I listened, nodded a little and was silently thankful that sunglasses were shielding my eyes, which no doubt were wide with awe.

I've never understood the competition among tragedies. "Losing a (child, spouse, sibling, parent) is so much worse than losing a (parent, sibling, spouse, child)" or "(Divorce, death) is much worse than (death, divorce)."

Why do folks think it's necessary to apply rational order to the kinds of losses that no one wants? Why can't we let people grieve on their own terms, without layering on someone else's loss or expectations?

Now, there was truth to my one-time photographer's words. I feel no stigma as a widow. My children have precious memories of their amazing daddy. Nothing can spoil my memories, either.

The thought of my friends being fearful of my spouse-stealing abilities makes me laugh.

But Steve and I had absolutely no role in our separation. His brain cancer was a fluke – not the result of a single choice or series of habits or questionable behavior.

We were truly meant to be together "until death do us part." The death part came much, much too soon.

Our children have just the memories – no visitations or shared custody. (As the child of divorced parents, I know how very painful it is to split time between Mom and Dad. I don't want to minimize that agony at all. But at least there was an option.)

How do my bouts of crying or sense of loss or moments of despair compare with someone going through a divorce?

I don't know. But I wouldn't dare minimize her emotions by telling her that mine are more monumental.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at


Is divorce worse than death of a spouse? It's no contest
By Darla Atlas

Last fall, my friend Tyra lost her husband to an inoperable brain tumor. A few days later, my husband announced he was leaving me.

After many years of marriage for both of us, she and I became single moms in the same week.

It's a coincidence we've talked about several times. I remember one phone call in particular; each of us kept saying, "No, but how are you doing?"

It was hard for us to fathom what the other was really going through.

Yes, we were both suddenly left without spouses, but due to extremely different circumstances.

So which circumstance is harder? Well-meaning people have told me they think divorce is worse, because you're facing both the death of a marriage and flat-out rejection by the one person who vowed to always be there.

In a way, I get that. There's a club I belong to now, which I've discovered has many more members than most of us realize. It's the "My Spouse Walked In One Day And Said He/She Didn't Love Me Anymore" club. We members share a special brand of hurt that is hard to describe.

One night, not long after my husband left, I sat on my front porch talking on the phone to my parents. (Front porch phone calls have become the norm since last fall; there are many things my kids don't need to hear.)

After I told my dad what my husband had said that day – basically detailing when his love had died (awhile back, as it turns out), my dad paused and said, "I don't think he can make you happy, Darla."

Not that I had any say in the matter; it's not like he was begging me to let him make me happy. The guy was gone and he wasn't coming back.

But that comment from my sweet and smart dad helped me look past the rejection and toward what I might actually want.

Still, the bitter end to a marriage is a tough reality in which to live. But does it mean the death of a spouse is "easier"? No way. It's simply different pain.

If I'm being honest, I now know I wasn't married to the true love of my life. I didn't lose my soul mate. I can't know what that feels like, and it scares me to even imagine that pain.

But some people who are divorced would say they did lose who they believed was their soul mate, so maybe they believe their situation is the most painful of all.

I don't know. All I know is perhaps we shouldn't try to answer that question because it's impossible. Besides, if people tell me divorce is worse than the death of a spouse, what does that mean? I "win"? It's laughable. There's no winning here.

But at this point, I can see the light peeking out from this tunnel I've ended up in. On good days,

I even feel like I've been freed from jail. That's not a feeling you get after the death of a loved one.

But what I do hope that Tyra and I share, after enduring our separate pain for six months now, is hope for the future.

It all takes time. I remember driving to Steve's funeral last fall, glancing in the mirror at my red, puffy eyes. I cried every day that week, for myself and for my friend. The kids and I sat in the balcony of a church filled to capacity with people who loved Steve. Tyra was at the front of the church, composed and brave.

She and I were going through very different ordeals (and we still are), but I'm guessing we shared the same feeling that day, deep down inside. It was a persistent, stabbing sadness, an ache that seemed to grow stronger with every breath.

Because a broken heart is a broken heart.

Darla Atlas is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at

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