Life After Divorce: The Grief You Didn’t Count On
There comes a stage in our life after divorce that we’re often not prepared for. It arrives after the legal issues are settled, most of the fighting is over, and we accept the fact of the divorce and its outcomes, they are what they are. At such a moment, we might be thinking we should be finding bliss now, but instead we feel sadness (again). Memories and dreams come back to haunt us at the same time “negative” emotions circle up. This may be a natural part of our life-after-divorce grief and healing.
Of course, holidays like Valentine’s Day don’t help.
It’s time to welcome your post-divorce grief.
Divorce is one of the top reasons for grief in virtually any conversation about loss. Divorce can cause us as much distress as the death of a loved one or a treasured pet. But with divorce, we very often lose multiple things at the same time: a partner, a friend, and a home. If we look at the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale that lists events that cause us to feel grief, we can appreciate that divorce gives us several stressors, not one. You are not crazy or weak if you feel sad or overwhelmed because these are indeed tough times.
Post-divorce grief can be aggravated by wrong expectations – namely, the idea that it should pass within 6 to 12 months after a divorce document is signed. That’s the general timeframe we expect close friends to be sensitive to us. After 12 months, it seems, we should be “getting on with it.”
Another incorrect expectation is that the person who initiated the divorce should be happy and relieved rather than bereaved. That was my experience.
And there’s a term for this phenomenon, this experience of grieving the separation with a spouse who was abusive, or who was highly unpleasant for at least some of the time married. Such sadness is called “disenfranchised grief”, a term coined by Kenneth J. Doka. Disenfranchised grief is not openly acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly mourned. The danger of it is that “the lack of support you get during your grieving process can prolong emotional pain.”
Welcome your more difficult feelings
The inability to be open about our life-after-divorce grief can lead to shame, confusion, and feelings of guilt for letting yourself down. It can develop into depression with the sufferer not recognizing that they need to ask for help.
You are not alone.
However, there is good news. Once we look grief in the eye and process it, we can make room for a new life with new routines, rituals, and — if we want to and are ready for it — new partners.
To help ourselves through the tough times and process the loss, we should remind ourselves that however bad the end of the marriage was, there were always good things to grieve about.
Letting go of past love
Usually, when we are living through it, we see divorce as a sequence of legal, financial, and children-related processes and negotiations conducted in a lengthy and sterilized manner. It’s easy and even pleasant to demonize your Ex. For some of us, anger is necessary to give us the courage and energy to separate and break the system. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to get stuck in anger and hatred; they serve as a backdrop for our own self-righteousness. However, staying angry and blaming him* is not the path to closure, but a waste of our time and energy keeping us more often in a spin cycle of repeating and repeating the narrative we tell ourselves.
In the grander scheme of things, divorce is the loss of love. It’s broken promises. It’s the loss of companionship, the meals, the walks, the trips, the lifestyle. Overall, it’s the loss of sharing and an end to a valuable human connection. Without the support of the former structure, we can be left lonely and confused.
Admitting that love existed and died is harder than being angry. While the earlier stages of marital rift can make us think of a reconciliation, after divorce we definitely know that we can’t do more. We feel sad and helpless.
For some people who like order and control, being helpless is the hardest feeling to endure.
However hard it may be, accepting the inevitable and our helplessness can take us to a new level. An English theologian Thomas Fuller said, “the night is darkest just before the dawn.” He added, “But keep your eyes open; if you avert your eyes from the dark, you’ll be blind to the rays of a new day.”
It’s only a dream
It often appears in relationship advice columns that what we are mourning is not the relationship itself, but the dream of a happier life. However, that doesn’t make sadness any easier. As Dr. Ann Gold Buscho writes in Psychology Today “the loss of the hopes and dreams you had on your wedding day is like a death. Allow yourself to feel that grief and trust that it will pass”.
The importance of hopes and dreams is that they cultivate our future. They give us the strength to carry on through hard times. Many of us dream of growing older with our man, seeing the kids off to college, downsizing, maybe moving to a different town, getting a bed-and-breakfast, or opening a café by the ocean. I did. Now that the person is no longer your partner, it may feel like there is no more future, nothing to work for. Even if a new man arrives, I will never have another chance to marry someone I met at 20. I will never have a chance to grow old with the father of my children, who loves my kids as much as I do.
Acknowledging the life-after-divorce grief is one step towards laying to rest the old dreams to make way for new ideas and hopes.
Goodbye, my friend
Divorce is highly likely to affect our circle of friends. Frankly, I was even looking forward to saying goodbye to a judgmental toxic woman or two. In reality, after divorce, we can pursue those who are more in sync with us. They may be especially funny, intellectual, or spiritual. Childhood friends may reappear or disappear. The loss of the familiar is worth acknowledging and grieving about. But it’s helpful to remember that with each loss comes a new space and opening for new people, experiences, and things.
Find a helping hand
Therapists suggest asking for help and accepting help during grieving. I’ve found it helpful to ask for support, whether it’s accepting invitations to dinners or watching a film together just to feel someone’s presence. But let’s remind ourselves of whom we are turning to for moral support and words. In my experience, it was exactly my poor understanding of my grief that drove me to hide from some friends. And elsewhere, I discovered that even some friends who had been through divorce themselves (and had the best of intentions) hurt me as they wanted me to get over my sadness or dark emotions quickly.
With all you’ve been through, do you wonder if happiness is even possible after divorce?
Some cultures and social groups are better at managing negative feelings than others. If you are part of a culture where you are supposed to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with it, I encourage you to look outside your usual social circle for support.
Grief is personal and lonely
In our precious life after divorce, let’s do our best to steer clear of labels and boxes we put ourselves in. Let’s accept that grief is personal in the way we experience it, how it impacts us and how long it takes. It’s normal that it should make us feel very lonely — like we are the only people in the world experiencing such pain. That is why joining groups of women in similar situations is so important.
My personal divorce journey included learning to deal with loneliness, becoming my own companion, and learning not to fear being without a partner. I am very glad I took that journey. It gives me a feeling of strength and of heaving a choice whether to be on my own or with someone I chose.
Is it possible to grieve together with your Ex?
You can try it! I planned and offered to my former husband an invitation to gather and give ritual to the good things in our marriage, say our thank yous, and grieve together the breakup, but he wasn’t interested. This may be because we are in different places emotionally. I also discovered that my suggestion to grieve together could appear to be a reconciliation proposal.
Things will never be the same again
As we move forward with our life after divorce, one thing that will never be the same is us. We need to say goodbye to our old selves, mourning the choices we made, the sacrifices we undertook for the benefit of the marriage and our family.
As we say goodbye to the younger, more naïve version of self, we acknowledge how much we have been through, how much we had to lose, and how important these losses were. That self-care and respect may be something we have forgotten in the process of divorce. Now we are rediscovering it as we process life-after-divorce grief. And the good thing is that this self-respect skill can now stay with us forever.
By letting go of the old structures and dreams we create space for new traditions, new rituals, and new versions of ourselves on the way to the future.
Anna Ivanova-Galitsina is Russia-based communication and storytelling expert. She is rebuilding life after divorce and misses international travels. You can reach her at email@example.com
Since 2012, SAS for Women is entirely dedicated to the unexpected challenges women face while considering a divorce and navigating the divorce experience and its confusing afterward. SAS offers women six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists, and support strategies for you, and your future. Join our tribe and stay connected.