Smith: Divorce vs. death: Which has bigger toll?

Victor Benito Michael did not know that I had planned to write about the subject of his online comment to last week’s column about timelines for grieving over the loss of a loved one.

On Nov. 9, Michael wrote, “Please know that your article has touched at least one person out here on the interwebs who is more fortunate than yourself by the loss of a long-term relationship by means of divorce and not death. My loss is far less consequential, though still permanent, final, and without further communication. Your perspective still struck a chord and I really enjoy the second half of your story. I hope that your road to happiness continues forward and thank you for sharing this heartfelt story.”

The subject this week is the result of ongoing discussions I have had with several friends regarding divorce or the death of a spouse, and which one allows kids to cope more easily with the situation.

A case could be made both ways. Initially, I believed that divorce was easier because there was always the hope of reconciliation, even if that hope was distant. Then I asked my friend, Los Angeles-based psychologist Karen Kay, to weigh in.

“This is quite complicated for many reasons,” Kay wrote in an email. “It depends on how amicable was the divorce, what age were the children, and what was the cognitive capacity of the kids at the time. Also important is how contentious was the prodrome.

“Similar questions abound for death — whether it was long and drawn-out, painful, traumatic, such as gunshot or a 9/11 event and, again, the ages and cognitive capacities of the kids. The best-case scenario is a divorce that is amicable, but where the parents are relatively and appropriately transparent regarding the facts that they were very happy at first — happy to get married and then happy to have the child(ren). This way, the child feels he was welcomed into a happy family, that the decision to divorce was not easy or quick, that the parents worked for a long time trying to improve the situation but were unsuccessful, and that they will always be a family, but a different one, where both parents will always love and be parents to the children.”

My two children are adults and that has enabled them to cope fairly well with the death of their mother last June. But I am also going to give myself credit for doing during the death process what Kay recommended for divorce.

Throughout the two years that Cay lived after her diagnosis, I kept both kids informed of almost everything regarding her prognosis. There were never any surprises, even when we were told Cay had six months to live — and again when it was just two months.

There is no doubt in my mind that this communication, plus the two-year process, has helped them manage their grief in a way that has enabled them to live fairly normal lives despite the tragedy.

Divorce is another matter. By its very nature, divorce is always negative to some degree, even if, as Kay wrote, it is amicable. But yes, proper communication and management of the divorce process can mitigate any potential side effects.

Neither the death of a spouse nor divorce is good for kids. The key to healthy kids during either process, I believe, is to stay in close contact with them, regardless of how hard the surviving spouse is grieving, or how contentious the divorce. When kids know parents care, almost any challenge can be met.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to