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I Needed a Ritual to Mark the Beginning of My Divorce

Thursday, September 22, 2022

By Sally Schwartz

On the morning of my wedding, I lingered in bed thinking about all that lay ahead. Motion and purpose filled my parents’ house, with details planned from breakfast to the time my groom and I would drive away in a car decorated with streamers. There was an outfit for breakfast, an outfit for lunch, and a gown and veil steamed and ready for the evening. The transition from being single to being wed involved ritual, costume, and a slew of family and friends.

On the morning of my divorce, I again lingered in bed. There was no bustle in the house. My husband had moved across the country, and both girls were away at college. There was no special breakfast planned. In just a few hours, the unraveling of my twenty-three-year marriage would be over. No more explaining to my family why Tim preferred staying at home instead of joining us for dinner, or why he’d be leaving a family event early. No more worrying about his increasing reclusiveness. No more pretending I believed in his business, in his ideas, in his ability to succeed.

I no longer cared how he spent his days, and I stopped caring about his lack of interest in how I spent mine. It had been refreshing, at first, not to dwell on unpleasantness—the term Tim used to describe anything leading to conflict. Our combined aversion to difficult conversations then led to an ominous silence that moved into our house and settled around us like cellophane, sucking a bit of air out of our lives every single day.

What started as a good run diminished into the quiet loneliness of parallel lives. Tutoring and cycling kept me busy, while my husband’s start up consumed him. By the end, we were two people living next to one another, focusing only on our own interests.

Before getting dressed, I paused. What does one wear to her divorce? Funeral clothes felt morose, and the one suit I owned felt too formal. I chose a wool dress in a shade not quite brown and not quite beige. It wasn’t the color of death or of hope; it was the color of sadness. I grabbed a long, ecru lace scarf. Brides wear lace, I thought, as I hung it around my neck. I would wear lace to my divorce, letting the delicate material mark the beginning and now the end.

At the courthouse, the judge asked if anyone else would be present. I shook my head. My husband had chosen to remain in Boston, leaving the process of legally ending our marriage to me. Balling up the ends of the scarf, I started to cry. Divorce felt like failure. As much as I needed to break free from our quiet unhappiness, there was also deep sorrow clinging to me like cigarette smoke. The judge offered a tissue, which I took. I blew my nose and tried to smile. “Every little girl dreams of getting married,” I explained. “No one dreams of getting divorced.”

The entire process lasted about ten minutes. And then I was no longer married. Back home, as I climbed the porch steps, I breathed the cold November air deep into my lungs. With every inhalation, the realization became clearer. After years of feeling submerged, I had finally come up for air.

Throwing my married identity into the pit and listening to it sizzle felt cathartic.

When I got my court date, my friend Nancy had asked, “What are you doing to celebrate?”

“It’s not something I want to celebrate,” I said. “It’s supposed to be sad.”

“I know,” Nancy said. “But still, you need to have a party. You need to burn shit.”

The idea of hosting a party to celebrate my divorce bothered me. My marriage had failed, and my children were aching. “I’m not having a party,” I said. “But I could burn some shit.”

“That’s my girl,” Nancy said. “Send an invitation. There are a lot of us who want to help you with that fire.”

And so, to a few beloved friends, I sent the following email:

Dear Women I Adore,

As you all know, I am in the final weeks heading into my divorce. I have been issued a court date, and my lawyer assures me that though I will awaken that morning a married woman, I will retire for the night fully divorced.

It seems coarse to celebrate because it is not a happy occasion. But it feels wrong not to mark this transition.

You are all invited to my house on November 5th, any time after 6 p.m. There will be liquor. There will be food. And there will be a blazing bonfire.

Dress Code: Clothes suitable for standing outside in inclement weather for this intemperate event.

Mood: Cautiously optimistic with an overarching sense of relief.

Gifts: Bring anything you’d like to throw in the fire and burn to ash.

After the invitation went out, I began to refer to the gathering as my “Divorce Shiva.” In the Jewish religion, sitting shiva is the ritual of mourning a loss and accepting the comfort others offer. Friends come with food and kindness, nurturing the bereaved through their grief. Calling the evening a “Divorce Shiva” made no sense because the divorce is not what died. My marriage is what died. My nuclear family is what died. My sense of order and my faith in the world is what died. But what rolled off my tongue were the words “Divorce Shiva.”

As people began to arrive, I made an announcement. “I am sad. This is sad. You are my friends, and you’re here to support me, not to congratulate me. So, there is food, and there are adult beverages. But there is no cake because this is not a party.” For effect, I took a hefty swig from the glass I was raising. “One more thing. No photos. None. No posting anything, anywhere.” I looked around, striving for meaningful eye contact. “My daughters are hurting. My ex is hurting. I’m hurting.” One more swig, and then I added, “But lots of burning. Who wants to join me at the fire pit?”

The sense of being a coven of witches gathered for some ceremonial ritual wasn’t lost on me. We stood in the moonlight, pitching whatever we could find into the fire. I tossed the last of my formal stationery, engraved with Sally and Tim Higginson, into the flames. The stationery I’d used to thank my parents for the antique fish knife they gave us on our first anniversary. The stationery I’d used to thank my college roommate Valerie for the baby sweaters she knit for our first child, and then our second. The stationery I’d used to write my mother-in-law after every Christmas, detailing my appreciation for the way she orchestrated the family’s celebration, from the stockings to the goose.

Throwing my married identity into the pit and listening to it sizzle felt cathartic. Poking the embers and feeling the warmth emanating from them was healing in a way sitting inside, alone, could never be.

The night of the dissolution of my marriage, I was surrounded by friends. They came out in force to offer love and support. They helped mark this moment in time. Instead of a chuppah, there were flames. Instead of dancing, there was standing. Instead of revelry, there was solidarity. I didn’t know how much I needed the ritual until I was immersed in it.


Sally Schwartz has worked for over ten years as a syndicated columnist for The Chicago Tribune, where, until recently, she published under the name Sally Schwartz Higginson. In addition to the Tribune, her work has been published in The Sun, Herstry, The Sunlight Press, Brevity Blog and Read650. Her essays have been featured on the podcasts Writing Class Radio and Heart of the Story.