Grief of Divorce: Steps to Cope and Overcome it

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There is research  that ranks divorce as one of the most stressful life events, second only to loosing a long term spouse or life partner to death. (Dohrenwend et al., 1978; Holmes and Rahe, 1967; Gahler, 2006).

The end of a relationship can feel like the end of life as you knew it. It is common to experience a sense of chaos, a lack of control over your own path. There are different circumstances that will impact how you experience divorce; the length of the marriage, whether there are children from the relationship, the reason for the relationship ending, if you are the one who is making the decision to end it, whether it was unexpected or the divorce is coming after many years of the couple experiencing ongoing struggles in the relationship.However, everyone will experience a grieving process after the end of a long term relationship, even the person who is choosing to leave the marriage.

According to Elisabeth-Kubler-Ross there are 5 stages of grief –Denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance- In my work with people who are dealing with the impact of a divorce I have noticed that like with any type of grief, each person has their own time frames and pace as they go through these stages however most people will experience all five stages at least at some point.

The sense of grief is more far reaching than what we anticipate. People describe feeling like they are going through different grieving processes at once: they are grieving the relationship, the loss of a best friend, partner in parenting, the loss of the family unit, the loss of a future they had anticipated – what life was going to be like as they grew old together. There are other secondary losses such as loss of the family home. There is often a loss a friendships with some mutual friends, a loss of family –as in  you no longer feel you are a part of your partner’s family. This list goes on. In truth, there is also a loss of your own identity; and before you get to a place where you can re-build yourself, you go through the impact of the losses and its accompanying grief.

Just like with other grieving processes there are certain things  that you need to understand and that you can do to help along your healing:

Be Patient with your process-

There is not a  set timeline and not a single way to go through the grieving process, as a matter of fact, the five stages we mentioned earlier, don’t happen in a linear fashion, you can go through the anger stage multiple times and each time it might have a different duration and intensity, there were days where clients cycled through all five stages in about half an hour and it repeated itself multiple times in that same day, other times they felt they were firmly planted in denial or depression for what felt like weeks.

I find it helpful to think of grieving as a layered process. The initial layer is one where the emotions are more intense. After the shock wears off, later layers feel like the emotions are sometimes very intense but dissipate faster, and sometimes they are longer lasting but very faint in their intensity.  Just accept that for now, you will be experiencing waves of emotion that will hit and then leave. They will hit like a wave sometimes in the least expected moments. This brings me to the next point… 

Accept the emotions, don’t try to avoid them or push them away.

The emotions you are going through right now can be overwhelming. As matter of fact they are sometimes accompanied by physical sensations and even physical pain. It is a natural response for it's okay to feel sad grief of divorce separation break upshumans to try to avoid pain. However, one of the causes of anxiety during the process of grief comes from us trying to push away what we need to allow to be there, even when it is unpleasant and overwhelming.

Think of emotions as intense energy. If you try to push it away it will find a different channel to come out and sometimes with greater force. When you feel a wave of sadness, don’t push it away, don’t  try to ignore it by distracting yourself. Instead, allow yourself to feel what sad feels like. Pay attention to how your body is feeling. Is it your chest? Your stomach? You can choose to give that emotion a name. Perhaps right now it feels like despair. Just let it be there. If tears come, let them flow. People resist the emotions and tears out of fear that if they allow them to start they will never stop, and they will be consumed by them. This is a normal fear. Allow yourself to feel it. Start allowing your emotions right there with the fear itself. Know that emotions DO pass. They have a beginning, a peak, and an end. It will dissipate, and as they pass through they will start losing their fierceness.

Be aware of not judging your emotions. Accept that it is there and let it be there. This also means that you do not judge yourself for having these emotions. You are NOT your emotions. Get curious about them, accept them, and let them pass whenever they are done.

With anger, there is a  significant difference between allowing the anger to be there and acting on the anger. If you are feeling angry you can hit a pillow, you can scream out, write  about it, or find different safe ways for the anger to have a positive outlet. During a divorce it is easy to fall into turning the ex-partner into our receptacle for all our anger. That only serves to make things more complicated. This common trap only brings us very temporary relief, and long term damage and hurt.

DON’T Isolate yourself

One of the common reactions during times of sadness and depression is to go into what feels like our protective shelf. However we need the exact opposite. During these trying times we need community,

support friends family fun community

we need human connection. Reach out to the people who love you. During the divorce you might have lost part of that community, but get close to the people who are still here for you. It is also a great

time to start building a new community. Look for support groups for people who are grieving or who are going through the end of a long term relationship. Look for groups of people who share one of your interests and meet with them on a regular basis.

For the sake of clarity, I am not recommending that you join a dating site –not just yet- or that you initiate a new relationship at this point. I actually suggest you hold off on starting a new relationship until your grief process is at a later stage.

Take care of yourself 

Many of my clients come in and tell me they forget self care. They share how they are struggling to eat, sleep, and just get through the basic functions of the day. The problem is that if you don’t start forcing yourself to make strides, even if they are small steps at first, the harder it will be for you to get back to regular functioning. Make sure you are forcing yourself to have regular food intake –even if they are smaller somewhat healthy nibbles and not full meals. Try to get to bed at the same time every night and don’t fall into looking at your cell phone once in bed. Add exercise at least 4 times per week and add any other activities that have helped you get through difficult times in the past. These can be anything from journaling, creating and listening to a specific play list of happy music, deep breathing, using mindfulness throughout your day, having meaningful moments with friends and loved ones, meditation, yoga, etc.

 

I know that it is hard to believe at this time, but I know that many of my clients have found it helpful to remind themselves that this is one more experience in life and they trusted me when I tell them that I have seen plenty of people come out of it. So tell yourself: this too shall pass. In the meantime, remember that there is help out there, reach out. There are many options from individual to group therapy that can help you get through this.


Learn about the therapist  Rina Podolsky, AMFT #94077:

Rina Podolsky Associate Marriage and Family Therapist - San Diego Couples Counseling

 

Rina Podolsky is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist at Estes Therapy.  She works with individuals and couples facing loss, grief, and relationship struggles.  She also works with grieving marriage loss. Rina has advance training in Emotionally Focused Therapy with couples, and offers therapy in both Spanish and English. Learn more about Rina.

About Rina Podolsky