An emotional support system isn't all you need to get over your grief.
Divorce is said to be one of the most profoundly painful experiences that a human being can survive. It's often tied to a profound fear that the pain will never end. It's been compared to the stages of death because the experience is often one of not only losing your marriage, but also, yourself. It reaches out and changes not only the couple, but also the children, family, friends, business associates, and overall community that make up the interwoven support system of the couple. As a marriage and family therapist and a divorce survivor, this article comes from firsthand personal and professional experience with divorce recovery.
There is no right way to grieve.
According to Fredda Wasserman, Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at Our House Grief Support Center, "Absolutely nobody grieves correctly, according to everybody else." Similar to other types of grief experiences, the death of a marriage is not just a moment in time, but a process that is filled with many different feelings. Grief is not linear! In other words, you cannot just pass through the stages of shock, denial, anger, and acceptance in a well-defined order. Divorce, like grief, is chaotic and circular, with the stages changing daily or moment-to-moment.
It is normal for the initial stage and the first emotion to be one of shock. Psychological shock in response to an event or situation can cause great distress and disruption in our lives. People react differently to shock. Some turn inward and retreat socially, withdrawing from friends and social contacts. "Psychological runners" ,as they are called, might have a difficult time acknowledging that this is really happening. Other people might reach out and spend time telling anyone who will listen every detail of how they have been hurt in their divorce. This becomes the "story" that they use to define them from this point forward while they are grieving. They might increase their social interactions and create even more chaos in order to numb the pain and reality of this experience. Interspersed with shock comes the denial and anger.
When my husband left me suddenly during the holiday season, there seemed to be no warning. After the initial shock, my grief experience was one of intense anger woven together with denial, guilt, shame, and a loss of my identity as a wife. It is normal to experience depression during the initial stages of a divorce. A marriage is a support system that helps define us in the world. With the loss of a marriage, our world is suddenly smaller. We not only lose our partner, but also might find that our social system is shrinking. Loss of family members and friends can force us to redefine our sense of how we identify ourselves in the world. This "letting go" of the world we knew can have a profound influence on our sense of security. The inability to accept these sudden changes can challenge even the most positive individuals.
How long will the sadness last?
Since the grief experience is not linear, and there is no right way to grieve the loss of a marriage, it is difficult to know how long the grief will last. I have heard that for every 10 years of marriage, it takes one year to recover. If that equation is correct, then my 30 year marriage would take approximately three years of divorce recovery work. In fact, about a year into my recovery process, I moved into the stage of acceptance and forgiveness. I decided that the only way to move forward was to let go of the anger.
Change involves letting go, and requires a psychological and physical "movement" in order to begin the healing process. This shift in my thoughts contributed greatly to lifting my depression and sadness over the loss of my marriage. When this stage occurs depends on many factors, such as, who wanted the divorce, was there another party involved in the failed marriage, how much bitterness is there between the couple, are there children and custody issues, who get's the dog, and the legal system. The worst thing about a divorce is coming home to an empty house at the end of the day. Loneliness can intensify the depression and sadness. Even though most marriages were "broken" long before the time of the divorce, there was still the companionship of having the physical presence of your partner.
After overcoming the shock of divorce, I encourage you to try these steps:
- Turn toward a renewed relationship with God, a higher power, or spirituality.
- Find a few friends and family members to form an emotional support system.
- Make a list of your challenges and resources.
- Contact an attorney to assist you through the legal process.
- Find a Divorce Recovery Support Group or individual therapist to help you process your feelings.
- Be kind to yourself and set aside time for journaling, deep-breathing exercises, or any practice that allows you to relax and collect our thoughts.
- Remember that there is no right way to grief the loss of a marriage.
Finding a new identity is an important part of the healing process.
Learning to be alone, forming new friendships, and finding a new home can be both frightening and exciting. Some people go through this process quickly and others never make it. If the depression is not lifting and the grief is long lasting, you might be experiencing complicated grief. It is important to listen to your "self-talk" and question if your depression prevents you from moving into the stage of acceptance. You might want to seek counseling to help you determine if the sadness you are experiencing is more serious and needs professional treatment. There are divorce support groups offered at local churches, synagogues, and community centers, or you can seek help from a professional therapist who specializes in divorce recovery.