Grief After Divorce: How to Recognize and Move Past It
After Divorce or Post Divorce are words society uses to capture that phase coming after you’ve signed the divorce document. You know, when so many people say, you should be “moving on”? We call this phase Stage 3 (of 4) of Divorce, for indeed it represents all that comes after the contemplation and court proceedings; but it is its own tricky stage to be in, full of extreme highs and lows, discoveries, and challenges. Stage 3 also has a lot to do with understanding grief.
We wish we could tell you what to expect while you go through your own Stage 3, what to prepare for with your particular brand of grief (and all the other complicated feelings that will come along with it), but we can’t. Grief is supremely personal, and how it manifests itself is organic to each of us. What grief looked like for us (Kim and Liza) during and after our divorces will look very different for you.
We recognize that you may not call what you are going through or what you are feeling grief. We know this because we didn’t either—at first. Kim found the “after divorce” feelings she was experiencing to be really confusing:
“I wanted the divorce. I initiated the divorce. I knew the divorce made the most sense for a ton of reasons. So, who was I to grieve it or anything when I’d brought the divorce upon myself, upon us? And yet, grieve I did.”
“I would not have called my feelings of relief, of elation, of freedom as bearing any semblance to grief,” laughs Liza, mostly at herself:
“And yet, I know there were — and continue to be even today — profound moments when the loss is there. I feel it deeply, like some delayed response. When I come across a photo of myself—early on in my marriage—I can see that young girl, the person I was trying to be. I was trying so hard to be ‘right,’ to be all the things he said I wasn’t. There’s a part of me today that wishes I could take that girl into another room and just talk to her quietly. I wish I could save her. But then again, I am what I am now because of her failings. And to be honest, I have no regrets.”
We think you are getting the picture, too. The after divorce stage is complicated, rife with the inchoate and very real feelings of loss. If you don’t feel it yet, trust us, you will. We recommend you read The Grief Recovery Handbook to begin to understand your grief after divorce and how you can think about it differently. But right now? We urge you to keep reading, prepare for what comes next, and take measures to understand your reality.
What is grief?
Let’s break down the idea of grieving a bit. Our first instinct is to think grief = sadness, like the death of a loved one. And that’s true of course, but it’s a lot more complex than that. Using the Grief Recovery Institute’s definition of grief, we know that grief is “all of the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.”
Using this lens, we can certainly see how divorce and the accompanying changes it brings into our lives is a time that’s full of grief. The familiar we know and rely on are no longer, putting us in a state of confusion and pain. So, for example, while you were in a dysfunctional marriage, it was the only marriage you’ve ever known. You may be thrilled, sad, and terrified that it has ended because you don’t know what lies beyond. The loss of the familiar, the dreams you’ve held close, or what you thought would be—that’s what you’re missing. That’s what you’re grieving.
Does it make sense, if we say that your head and heart are at odds with one another?
Perhaps your heart wanted the family to stay together for the kids, while your head knew that his anger was toxic to the family and out of control. Your heart may have wanted to believe that he was going to land that next big job and all would be fine, while your head knew that he hadn’t held a job in 10 years. Looking at the situation now, he had financially ruined your family. Your heart may have wanted him to say “I love you” with that sparkle in his eyes like he used to, but your head knew that he had checked out of the marriage a long time ago. It’s a tough struggle because your head and your heart are both very powerful, so you find yourself in an internal tug-of-war.
You can engage in that tug-of-war indefinitely. Grief can cripple you if you let it. And yes, sure, we can recommend more books to read and videos to look up and support groups to go to—but honestly? None of that is going to help you move through the grief.
Have you ever read the children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and gotten to the line, “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it”? Well, what you are facing is not that different. Your grief seems enormous. It seems to have no end. But you must move through the grief. You have to work at it.
How do you work through grief after divorce?
1. Choose to recover. You have to literally make the choice in both your head and your heart that you are going to wade through your grief with purpose. You have to be determined, focused, and persistent in your choice. Once you decide that you have to push through your grief as opposed to letting it drown you, your whole experience shifts, and you take the power back.
Grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss, so if you know it’s coming and you remember that you can help yourself get through it, you’ll come out the other side. If you do the work, you will be wiser and probably more compassionate to yourself and others as a result.
This is a little simplistic, but we think you’ll get what we mean—think of it like a cold. We all get them occasionally, and once the illness has taken hold of us, there is no quick cure. You have to let the cold run its course. However, most of us don’t simply go to bed and wait for the cold to pass or allow it to worsen and turn into something like pneumonia or bronchitis. No, we take steps to make ourselves more comfortable, to lessen the symptoms, to shorten the duration, and to make sure our body has the tools it needs to kill the virus. Grief can be a lot like that—there are tools you can use to give your heart and mind what they need to resume a healthy balance.
2. Find community. Don’t make the mistake of trying to push through your grief alone. If you’ve read even a few of our articles, this is a drum we beat often. There are so many ways to connect with people—other women out there who know exactly how you feel and can offer you an empathetic ear and a shoulder to lean on.
Lately, we have had quite a few clients who are young mothers, meaning they are relatively young and their children are young—like babies! This is a particularly challenging time to be going through a divorce. There’s the intense physical labor of caring for young ones but also the feeling that no one in their right mind could be experiencing divorce at this juncture of parenthood. It’s a painful, isolating time. They can’t confide in their peer mommy groups. What a relief it is when they found other women in their same shoes!
One word of caution is that if you choose to look for a support group, try a few before you decide to stick with it. Our experience is that some support groups can be pretty depressing, with people telling stories every week but no real help being offered. Hearing each other’s stories can be one way to feel like you aren’t alone, but without taking the next step, without doing something to feel better, mere talk can keep you at a standstill. Understand what you are looking for and try targeting a group that is led by either a coach, a grief recovery specialist, or a therapist who can offer you concrete steps to take in-between meetings.
3. Take action. Take action in new, tried-and-true, or inspiring and challenging ways. Your goal is to put into place a few new behavioral patterns. A great way to do that is to search meetup.com for things you love to do or things you’d like to learn. Go to a meeting and see if you get hooked—or if you meet someone who is looking at the scenario as irreverently as you are. Try volunteering, take a class, start a journal, or plan a trip. The idea is to do something different.
Taking action and moving through your grief isn’t about staying in that dark place in your head; it’s about bringing your head and heart into the light. Moving past grief after divorce is possible for you, but remember: overcoming your grief is a choice. Are you ready to find out what comes after divorce?
SAS women are those amazing ladies you meet who are entirely committed to rebuilding their lives after divorce — on their own terms. If you are discerning, newly divorced and independent, you are invited to experience SAS for Women firsthand and schedule your FREE 15-minute consultation. Whether you work further with us or not, we’ll help you understand what your next, black and white steps are for walking into your BRAVE unknown.