Say the word ‘grief,’ and chances are those listening will wonder who died. We expect the dark, flooding overwhelm of emotions after a loved one dies. And we tend to be compassionate and patient with a process born out of loss that no one could control. But when you or someone else is dealing with grief after a divorce, the expectations are often less compassionate, patient…and understood.
There are several types of grief, and only bereavement is a specific response to death. That means that loss in a myriad of forms can start the clock on the grieving process. It’s a natural process, despite how foreign, complicated, and oppressive its emotional grasp can feel.
Since grief is such a natural process, and everyone experiences it at different times, in different forms, it’s worth talking about how to get through it.
Dealing with grief after a divorce is no different. Nearly 50% of marriages (and 41% of first marriages) in the United States will end in divorce or separation. Divorce grief is, therefore, a high-odds reality.
Depending on your source of information, grief will be outlined in five or seven stages. They are not absolutes, nor do they map out a linear journey. They are a framework for responding to loss, no matter the nature of that loss.
(Subsequent publications of longer lists add pain and fear after denial, and guilt after bargaining.)
When dealing with grief after a divorce, a lot of the things you might think matter actually don’t. Who initiated the divorce doesn’t matter. Why the divorce happened doesn’t matter. Sure, you will have specific feelings in response to these topics. But they won’t change the fact that there is going to be a grieving process.
So, it makes sense that the first step in dealing with grief after a divorce is accepting that there is going to be grief. You may even (think you) hate your ex and want nothing to do with him/her. And yet, you will still find yourself trying to claw your way out of all those painful feelings like anger and depression.
You have, after all, lost more than just ‘a marriage.’ You have lost your right to access and believe in all the little pieces that made it up. You have lost your long-held dream and vision for the future as a couple or family. You have lost your routine, your unregulated time with your children, and perhaps your home, financial security, and self-confidence.
Strategies for dealing with grief after a divorce rely on one constant from you: that you allow yourself to feel. You will be tempted to avoid, distract from, and even deny your feelings as they come out of nowhere, screaming for attention. You will be tempted to simply move on, find someone new, forget your ex exists.
But your feelings are your reminder that you are alive, that you lost something important, and that you are capable of loving again.
Here are 12 strategies for dealing with grief after a divorce:
1. Accept that your marriage is over. This acceptance isn’t comparable to the final stage of grief that allows you to move forward with your life without lamenting the past. This is simply an acceptance of a new reality and a willingness to step up and embrace the process ahead.
Usually, it is just a cognitive acceptance until your heart gets around to fully accepting the divorce, too. “My marriage is over. I’m still shocked, confused, and numb. I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen or what my life is going to look like. But I’m now divorced, and I have to face the painful process of grieving and healing.”
2. Consider professional, expert help. There is no better time to reach out to a therapist, divorce or life coach than when your own life feels completely unfamiliar. The road ahead is going to be long and twisted, and having the objective help of an expert can keep you on course.
3. Create a support system. In addition to having a trusted professional on your divorce journey, surround yourself with supportive friends and family. It’s not uncommon for friendships to divide when a marriage divides. But that loss will only serve to make your true friends and allies stand out. Keep them close, and allow them to help rebuild your self-confidence and self-worth.
4. Don’t intellectualize your divorce. We all know what it’s like to escape into our heads where we can analyze a grain of sand to death. Intellectualizing is a convenient way to avoid feeling.
When dealing with grief after a divorce, it’s essential that you embrace your feelings as they present themselves. Trust yourself to handle the discomfort. And remember that you have the back-up of your support system.
5. Let the grieving begin. Knowing ahead of time what the grieving process entails can help you get to the starting line. Trust that your feelings are natural. And trust that you are moving through something, not dancing around something that will never end.
6. Look for the lessons in your feelings. Even the most negative, painful feelings come bearing gifts. They all carry messages intended to help you heal and become the best version of yourself.
Trusting your feelings is just another way of trusting yourself. And now is when you need to trust yourself more than ever.
7. Let go of negative emotions. This doesn’t mean “don’t feel them.” It means “don’t let the ugly emotions stick around indefinitely.” Feel them as they arise. Ask them what they have come to teach you. Meditate on and journal about the answer. Then release the emotions.
This will be a repeated process of baby steps, so wash, rinse, repeat. (Emphasis on the rinse.)
8. Rise above blame. Every relationship involves two people working out their own stuff in the company of a partner. And everything that happens in that relationship is the result of what both people bring to the issue or event.
You are moving into a phase of your life where you won’t be able to turn and blame your spouse because s/he won’t be there. You can only work on yourself. So start now. Brave the inner examination that will reveal your own responsibility within your marriage — the good and the bad.
This will push you ahead faster than just about any other strategy for dealing with grief after a divorce.
9. Forgive your ex. Forgive yourself. One disappointment, betrayal, and hurt at a time.
As you work on taking responsibility for your own contributions to your divorce, forgiveness will become easier.
10. Take great care of yourself. Grief isn’t simply emotional. It has physical effects, too. This is a time when it’s especially important to get enough sleep, eat nutritionally, exercise, and find sources of positivity.
Be kind to yourself. How would you nurture a friend whose world had been ripped out from under him/her? Embrace yourself with the same TLC.
11. Don’t fill the void with another relationship. Grief is a very personal journey, even when you have others to help you through it. And dealing with grief after a divorce can be especially difficult when you want nothing more than to be in a committed relationship.
But the fluctuating emotional context of grief is no foundation for a new relationship. Work through your stuff. Get comfortable being on your own so you can distinguish between wanting and needing a relationship.
Besides, you owe it to any potential partner to be your best self and to have a lot to offer.
12. Envision a new future.
Remember that future you lost sight of when you were going through your divorce? It’s time to envision a new one.
But now the slate is clean. You can fill it however you want. And you can do it a little at a time and change it as you go. What matters is that you start seeing happy possibilities for your life.
Dealing with grief after a divorce can seem like an unfair burden on top of an already crumbled world. But you have the choice to accompany your grief with gratitude. Be grateful for all that has been and for all the lessons your feelings have to teach you.
Most importantly, trust yourself to get through the grief, even when it circles back around (which it will). When you realize, little by little, that you are the person you can trust to get through anything, you will get through everything.
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