Divorce is one of the most deeply painful experiences you can go through in your life. This is true if you were the one left behind or if you decided to end the marriage. Even if the end was a long time coming, and somewhat inevitable, what often surprises people is how heartbroken they feel when the end actually comes.
Divorce is a death – the death of your marriage and all the hopes and dreams you had of “happily ever after.” With the death of your marriage comes a whole host of secondary losses. Grief comes knocking at your door, insisting to be let in whether you want to or not.
What is grief? Grief is the normal reaction to loss. It affects you physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
It’s important to realize that, when you are going through a divorce, you will need time and space to grieve your loss(es) in order to be truly ready to adapt to your divorce and move forward. Grieving is a critical step in navigating your divorce.
There is a range of emotions that we experience in the death of our marriage. You may have heard about Elizabeth Kübler Ross who did ground-breaking work explaining the emotional process of dying. Here’s how her stage work applies to the death of a marriage:
Denial - This is a psychological defense or coping mechanism that comes in to protect the mind and emotions from being overwhelmed with pain. We’re holding on to the hope that we’ll wake up from the bad dream any moment. We refuse to accept the reality, suppressing the facts out of our awareness. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
If you are broadsided by the request for a divorce it can take time to let the reality sink in. If you have initiated the divorce, you may also be in denial about how much you will be grieving after you start the process.
Anger - It’s part of our human nature to get angry when we’ve been deeply hurt. We feel wronged, betrayed, we’re into the blame game. “It’s her/his fault! If only he/she would have changed.” Also, if you were not the person who wanted the divorce, you may hear yourself saying things like, “It’s not fair. I did everything I could to save this marriage.”
There’s anger at your ex and anger at yourself. Not only are you dealing with your anger, but the anger of the other people affected by this change: children, in-laws, family members, friends, etc.
A divorce can become a battlefield where war is waged with the idea that only one will stand victorious at the end. This can get really ugly if you use anger and a desire for revenge as the fuel for your divorce proceedings.
Ambivalence or Bargaining – You might have spent years trying to figure out how to fix this broken relationship, to convince your spouse that he/she is making a big mistake. You promise to change. “If I’m willing to ____, maybe he/she will stay.” You’re acknowledging the divorce is happening, but you’re trying to stop it.
Depression - You’re in the hurt and feelings of sadness, anguish, despair, guilt, etc. come flooding in. Your heart aches, it feels broken.
There are so many losses that happen with the divorce, like the loss of family (i.e.in-laws), the home you’ve made together, loss of roles, status, security, even a sense of meaning and purpose. You might be missing your children. Those dreams of retiring to Florida, living a carefree retirement together – all that is gone, too.
Acceptance - Acceptance is when you are prepared to live your life in this new reality, knowing that you’re going to be ok. It is where you start to see your part in the breakdown of the relationship and accept that everyone - both you and your partner - has been doing the best that they knew how to do. You’re ready to let go, forgive, adjust to your new circumstances, and move forward.
You may experience all of these (or none of them). You may be feeling stuck in one of these stages. And, you probably won’t process through these experiences in this exact order. Your divorce grief is not a linear process. It’s more fluid. You’re going to go all over the map. The end goal is accepting and embracing your new life.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO GRIEVE WELL?
We have been conditioned by our families, our culture, society, to deal with grief in socially acceptable ways. There are rules that are mostly concerned with helping others deal with you and your grief. Most of them are not helpful. Here are some of the “Rules of Grief” that I encourage you to examine and ultimately set aside:
Rule #1 - Don’t feel bad. A variation of this is “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it.” We view sadness as weakness. If you share your sadness in front of other people, they seem to feel an immediate need to tell you all the reasons you shouldn’t feel that way. “Don’t feel bad, you’re better off without him/her.” So you start to feel like your feelings are wrong.
Rule #2 - You should grieve alone. You get the message that nobody wants to hear about your problems (from Rule #1) so you keep your feelings to yourself. You try to keep up a brave front with others and do your crying when you are alone. “I’m fine,” is how you respond when others ask you how you are doing.
Rule #3 - You need to be strong for others. “Be strong for the kids, don’t let them see you’re upset.” This seems to make sense because you are trying to support others who are grieving the loss of your marriage by being there for them.
Rule #4 - Replace the loss as soon as possible. This is a mistake I see a lot of divorced people making - looking to replace the partner before they have had the time to do the work of truly recovering from the divorce. It’s a distraction tactic so you can avoid the pain of being alone.
Rule #5 - You should be over it by now. “What, you’re still not over that? It’s been _______ months/years!” This is a variation on “Time heals all wounds.” When people say that, they don’t understand your loss. They are judging it by their experience, which is not the same as yours.
HOW DO YOU GRIEVE WELL?
Mourning is mainly attending to the emotional experience of loss - it’s expressing on the outside what you feel on the inside with the intention of healing. It’s an active process, not a passive one where you are just waiting for the passing of time. It’s the application of Love to the parts inside where you are hurting. Healing is the act of restoring yourself to wholeness. Only you can choose to heal yourself.
Grieving the loss of your marriage means that you will give yourself permission to grieve, time to grieve, patience and understanding to grieve. It means you will grieve in YOUR way, not the way everyone else thinks you should grieve. Break the rules. Make yourself available to the process of your grief:
- Slow down - Resist the urge to try and speed up through the uncomfortable feelings of anger, sadness, fear, etc. Give yourself all the time you need. Who is to say you’ve had enough time to heal? There is no timeline for being “over it.”
- Keep your attention on you (your thoughts, feelings, your process of healing) - when you allow yourself to feel your feelings, to express them, and release them, you will have more clarity about how to move forward in YOUR life.
- Leave your ex out of it. Resist the urge to ruminate over what he/she should be feeling/doing/ etc. Leave that alone. You have no control over it.
- Accept that it’s OK to feel really sad. Give up the urge to resist, stuff, or avoid your feelings. Crying is a necessary part of the healing process. Let the waterworks start. Go for it like it’s an Olympic sport.
- Take really good care of yourself - Grief is exhausting. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, feeding yourself nutritious food, exercise, getting outdoors, etc. Taking care of yourself mentally is watching what you are putting into your consciousness - is it negativity or positivity? Read uplifting material, watch TV programs that are inspiring. Do something creative that you love - artwork, cooking, gardening, etc.
- Journaling is a way to create a safe space to access your feelings, give them a name, express and release them, in service to freeing up your energy.
- Be authentic – especially with your children. Your kids know you’re struggling. You may want to consider the underlying message you are sending to them if they ask you, “What’s wrong?” and you say “Nothing.” They know instinctively that you are not being honest. I’m not saying you need to burden them inappropriately. If they ask what’s wrong, you can acknowledge that you’re not feeling ok right now, but you will be.
- Take a break from relationships - It’s so tempting to bypass the difficult inner work and set your sights on finding a new partner before the ink is dry on the divorce judgment. Give yourself time to harvest the learnings about your part in the marriage breakdown before rushing into the arms of another. If you don’t, you may just find yourself recreating the same problems in your next relationship.
- Reach out for support - It is so important to find a supportive network of friends, peers, professionals, etc. Coaching is very helpful for supporting yourself in the grieving process.
You don’t have to do this alone.
Blessings of peace to you on your journey,