There is a lot written about grief when there’s a death; not so much when there’s a divorce. There’s a lot of support for the grieving widow or widower when the loss has been through death, but less so for the newly divorced (or divorcing) because so often their grieving goes unrecognized or is masked by their anger, betrayal, hurt, or worry. And while they also will look and sound sad, their grief can easily be overlooked. But one of the most dominant experiences in the divorce process is grief because the essence of divorce is loss.
Types of Losses
When someone gets married, we know that at some point along the couple’s lifeline there will be a loss due to death. But no one marries with the expectation of getting divorced and when it happens, for many men and women a dream has died, often unexpectedly. The dreams of young newlyweds and a young family that made plans for the future fade away when that intact family ends. The retirement goals of travel or rocking chairs on the front porch disappear as the marriage ends, and your hopes disintegrate as you watch your ex-spouse share those dreams with someone else. There are few things as painful as having to let go of life-long dreams and yet that is exactly what happens when there is a divorce. Then there are the very real and concrete losses: loss of money and financial security; loss of time with your children; loss of your family home; loss of stability—talk to anyone who has experienced divorce and they can tick their “losses” off for you without hesitation. And when there is loss, there is grief. But because grief is such a broad and undefined concept, in divorce we can easily miss it and instead respond to the overpowering emotions of anger and hurt.
Importance of Grief
Grief is a process; it is not a static moment in time, but rather an evolving emotional matrix that has many twists and turns. Grief cannot be turned on or off…it simply is, and needs to be allowed to be. Grief cannot be rushed…it follows its own timeline and ebbs as flows as you heal. Unlike grieving in death, grieving in divorce does not follow a series of stages. Instead it manifests in different emotions that bounce around like a ping pong ball on an ocean wave, often moving in and out of denial, anger, love, hurt, hope, resignation, until finally you reach acceptance.
Why does this matter? Because you need to allow yourself to grieve the losses you are experiencing. You need to accept that divorce IS loss and it is okay to feel the myriad of emotions you are likely to experience and that often do not make any sense. And you need to recognize them for what they are: manifestations of grief. And even more, you need to recognize that even if you did not initiate the divorce, you are not alone in your grief. Your partner, the one who is leaving you, is also grieving—he or she is also experiencing loss, even if they are initiating the divorce. And their grief will follow a different timeline and process than yours, which means that your ping pong balls will not be in sync and instead they will bump into each other as you experience and show your grief differently.
What To Do
First and foremost you need to be willing to “sit with your grief”. Many religions have rituals when someone dies to allow the grieving process a place to be: people visit, bring food, and offer support and compassion. While there are some rituals for divorce, they are often not discussed and even less used. Perhaps developing a ritual to mourn the loss of your marriage, your dream, will aide the letting go process.
Reaching out to others for support, even when it is difficult, is critical to the grieving process. Many people don’t know what to say or what to do. Oftentimes grief just needs to be shared—you may simply just need to ask someone to come and sit with you and just allow you to have the mess of feelings you are experiencing.
Therapy always provides support for grief. While grief is normal and expected, talking to others can help, but if you find that it is unremitting or intensifying over time it is important to seek the help of a professional.
And finally, exercise good self-care and allow yourself the time and space that you need.