Divorce is a death of a relationship. Grieving is a natural response to the loss.
Two years after my ex-husband and I separated and divorced, I sat on the floor of my living room going through some old boxes of cards, notes, and pictures the kids had drawn over the years. I couldn't even touch those boxes before then, knowing what was inside would open up so much sadness, and was afraid that the tears would never stop flowing. Each note, letter, card, etc., saved as memories of a life now changed. I found beautiful love notes we had written each other over the years, crayon stick-figure drawings the kids had created for Mother's Day, Father's Day and birthdays. Some made me laugh, most made me cry. Some tears were for the gratefulness of having been loved as a wife and a mom, and some for the pain of having been hurt, and how we had hurt our children through the divorce process--collateral damage to our unresolved conflict. We both were hurt during our marriage, often, sometimes intentionally and most of the time, unintentionally.
I set aside the things I thought my ex husband would want, but wasn't sure of, as it wasn't my place to decide--cards from me to him over the years, drawings from the kids (who are now grown) and I neatly placed them in a bag to give to him when he picked up the dog (we share custody of our little Westie and exchange him every couple weeks--ya, I know it's funny and strange, but he is the love of our family's life!).
I let myself feel all the losses, the dreams I had on my wedding day, the feeling of being "the one" during our engagement, the shame I felt of being a divorced couple's therapist, my perfectionistic approach to motherhood, all of it...I was humbled and I grieved it all.
In the beginning, after we separated I filled my calendar with so much busyness, frantically trying to fill the gaps of time alone with friends, family, loneliness, fear of being alone (my biggest fear in life)...like a treadmill that wouldn't stop. I was often exhausted, but had to stay ahead of the feelings, right? Wrong! I made some poor decisions during that time, rushing into the dating world, pushing my kids to feel a certain way, going to bed later, getting up earlier...exhausting. My therapist (yes, therapists have therapists and that's a good thing if you are a client!) said I needed to feel the grief and sadness and pain, and I told her I was good, that I was an instrumental griever and busyness helped me get through it (therapists can be know-it-alls at times, except when it comes to their own emotional life). She was right. I was like a pressure cooker and without letting off a little steam, I was going to either explode or implode.
It took some time, but I began to tolerate nights home alone, read and write again (passions of mine), and let myself cry. Surprisingly, it didn't last more than a few minutes, but letting myself go there, helped. I thought that once I allowed myself to feel, the dam would break and I would never stop crying. Surprisingly, this wasn't the case...I cried, and allowed the feelings to pass through me. I learned to slow down my reactivity to my ex-husband as we disagreed on things during the legal part of divorcen(more on that in the "taking the high road" blog coming next). I wasn't perfect, but with each mistake, there was also growth, and slowly I began to feel less reactive and more grounded...which is a much better place to be sad from--TRUST ME!
So, how should we grieve? What does that look like? (I get asked these questions in my office all the time). While there is no pat answer to this and no "right" way to grieve, we can facilitate a process that allows us to move forward.
The traditional stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, are more linear and don't really fit, in my opinion, because they assume you leave one stage and enter another. I have found, in grieving the significant people in my life who have died, and my divorce, that it is nothing close to linear. You can be feeling the pain of the loss one moment, feel a connection to the person that allows you to move forward in another and be right back feeling the pain--all in a span of 5 minutes! It's the same with divorce.
I float back to my days as a Grief Counselor at San Diego Hospice and find that Worden's tasks of grieving can provide a more accurate road map to this journey. There is no time limit to grieving and each grieving journey is unique. Don't rush through it and let it happen organically. One day, you will all of a sudden say, "woah, I feel sad, but I'm not swallowed by it."
There are multiple losses: dream of lifelong partnership, sharing the children, losing friends, family you bonded with, companionship, the rituals you shared as a couple/family, income, lifestyle, to name a few. For some of you there are more benefits, but there are still some losses involved.
Let's look at this road map:
Task 1: Accept the Reality of the Loss
For those of you who did not want the divorce, this can be the hardest stage. Your partner started detaching long before you or you weren't even aware that divorce was ever an option. There are a lot of "whys" during this stage--> "why didn't I see this coming?", "why won't he/she work things out?", "why did I marry this person?" And a lot of wailing. Underneath every "why" question is an emotion--sadness or fear. Identify these and how they are driving the why's. Talk to a therapist or grief group to say these things out loud--it reduces some of the energy and intensity we may feel when asking "why" by saying it out loud and sharing with others who may relate. for those of you who wanted the divorce, accepting the reality is still a process...sometimes those losses come up later when you realize you no longer have the relationship you wanted with your children and others. This task does take time. Notice the changes, talk about them with others, and realize that many, many others have felt or feel the same. you are not alone.
Task 2: Work through the Pain of the Grief
This is a task that requires NOT intellectualizing your divorce, but to FEEL the feelings that come and are natural. Sadness, fear, perhaps some relief. Mindfulness (a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique) allows the feelings to be present, to actually feel them, notice where you feel them in your body, share them with safe others, and let them pass through without judgment. Just notice them. Most of the time we judge feelings as to whether or not we should or shouldn't be feeling them. All feelings during this process (even joy or relief) are ok. Again, a therapist can help you with any of these tasks in processing the grief of your divorce.
Task 3: Adjust to an Environment where the family structure has changed. These changes are incremental. Living alone, moving to a new space, trading the kids back and forth which can leave you alone for days at a time, are just a few. It might be checking the "single" box or "divorced" box on applications, no longer being invited to "couple" events and losing connection with your exes family...all part of adjusting to a new family structure environment. Journaling, connecting with a divorce support group (DivorceCare.org), talking to a therapist can all be ways to connect with others who understand and can help you through the rough spots.
In addition, as each developmental stage occurs for your family (remarriage, kids weddings, graduations, birthdays, to name a few), you will have contact with your ex and the grief can resurface. Seeing your ex with a new significant other can trigger adjusting to family structure changes.
Even what you call your ex..."the kids mom/dad," "my ex-wife/husband." I've heard some pretty awful terms for an ex-spouse and while this may feel good momentarily, it only. makes you look bitter and angry and can be damaging to your children. And it can prolong the grief by holding on to the anger and bitterness from your divorce.
Task 4: Find an Enduring connection with your ended marriage relationship and life that allows you to move forward.
This task can require internal, external and spiritual adjustments to get there. It encompasses the other tasks above as well as finding present joy in new activities that bring pleasure and joy, finding gratitude in the present life and creating new connections with familiar people and new friends. It requires connecting with your emotional experience during divorce...acknowledging that you cared about this person, they once cared about you and that you can insert this chapter of marriage as part of your life story. If we halt the process of grief by trying to go around it, not feel the pain, hold onto bitterness and anger, it will only delay the grief, complicate it, and it will come out in other unhealthy ways.
Your life is not over, despite how scary divorcing can seem.
Everyone's divorce journey is different and the time it takes to work through the grief unique, and I hope this sheds some light on the general things you can expect in the grieving process.
Getting support individually or through a group can help you feel less alone.
You are not alone,
Kimberly Sandstrom, M.A., is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, mom of three adult ladies, Relationship Facilitator, in San Diego, CA. You can find more information about Kimberly's workshops and practice here.
The opinions, views and perceptions expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect the opinions, views or perceptions of other persons mentioned or implied.