Healing from your divorce will teach you a lot about yourself – if you’re willing to learn.
It doesn’t matter which side of the divorce decision you’re on or the reason for the decision. The end of a marriage that began with dreams of happily ever after is heartbreaking.
It’s OK to experience grief after a divorce.
Grief after a divorce is profound because the end of your marriage means your entire life must change – whether you want it to or not.
Grief is also incredibly confusing. One minute you’re feeling hopeful about making a new life for yourself. And the next you’re crushed by the fact that your old way of living is over for good.
Of course, you’re also faced with uncertainty about how you’ll cope with creating new rituals and routines, so your life (and the lives of your children) can run smoothly.
You’re shouldering expanded responsibilities now that you’re on your own. And even having to learn how to do new things so your life can move forward in some fashion instead of simply falling apart.
Divorce means that your relationships change too – all of them. Obviously, your relationship with your former spouse changes. But so do your relationships with your children, your former in-laws, your extended family and even your friends.
All of this forced change is exhausting, overwhelming and extremely depressing.
Yet all of this confusion and upset is a normal part of grief after a divorce.
What is grief after a divorce really like?
At its core, grief is a process of transformation. It’s about accepting the full depth and breadth of all that comes with getting divorced. As you come to terms with what’s happened, you can work through the pain to make space for healing. This sets the stage for you to be able to create a new life for yourself.
And the strange thing is that you must want to create a new future for yourself in order to heal.
This seeming back and forth of the transformation brought about by grief is pretty typical. That’s because grief is a nonlinear process.
To make things a bit more complicated, grief is also unique for everyone and every situation. Even if you’ve grieved before or been divorced before, the grief you experience this time will be different. So, no one can tell you how long it will take you to heal from your divorce.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t signs you can watch for to know you’re making progress in your transformation.
It’s fairly common to experience six different types of emotions as you heal from grief after divorce.
- Shock and denial are powerful emotions that keep you from experiencing too much pain at once. Most associate them with the initial phases of divorce. However, it’s common to experience both shock and denial when you face any unpleasant or unwanted task or realization throughout your healing journey.
- Pain and fear are other feelings associated with a desire to cling to the past and a reluctance to move forward into the new and unknown life waiting for you.
The interesting thing about these feelings is that you can use them as motivation. You can use your pain to motivate you toward healthy ways of feeling better. And you can use your fear to help you make plans and take steps that reduce the risk of your fears becoming reality.
- In all likelihood, you’ll experience some type of anger as you heal from your divorce. You may find yourself filled with rage about the situation you’re in. You may be frustrated with yourself for the part you played in the end of your marriage. You may be flat out angry at your ex for not being the person you want them to be.
The great thing about anger is that it’s an energizing emotion. You can use your increased vigor to productively move your life forward. You might even use your anger energy to begin a new exercise routine or go back to school. The possibilities are endless.
- Guilt is another highly uncomfortable emotion you may experience during your divorce journey. It’s common to feel guilty for what you did or didn’t do as a way of attempting to make sense of your divorce.
On the one hand having some guilt about your part in the end of your marriage is good. It means that you’re starting to take responsibility for what has happened instead of feeling like a victim.
Taking responsibility for your own actions is empowering. However, taking responsibility for your ex’s actions is detrimental. This is the challenge of experiencing guilt. You must maintain awareness of what is your stuff and what isn’t.
For the stuff that’s yours, you must forgive yourself and, if appropriate, make amends before absorbing the lesson from your poor behavior and moving on with your life.
- Experiencing situational depression is also common when you’re grieving the end of your marriage. This just means that the funk you’re in isn’t chronic. It’s due to your divorce. As you continue your journey toward healing, you’ll feel less sad and listless and more like yourself again.
However, if your depression feels too intense or uncomfortable, immediately consult with your doctor.
- Throughout your journey, you’ll begin noticing moments when your divorce and the changes you’re dealing with aren’t such a big deal. Things will feel alright. Definitely different, but alright. This is how you know you’re putting bits of your grief behind you.
This list of six common emotions of grief after a divorce can be misleading.
It can seem like you’ll move from one emotion to the next and be done with your grief.
The truth is grief after divorce is tumultuous. Your emotions will twist and turn. Many people describe the experience as an emotional rollercoaster.
You won’t feel like yourself. You will yearn to feel “normal” again. You may even wonder if you’re still sane because of all the unfamiliar emotions and thoughts you’re having.
And all of this is the grief experience. It’s a lot to go through. And unfortunately, some people do get stuck in grief after a divorce.
However, that’s not how it has to be for you. You can fully complete your journey through grief and on to living a good life again.
Prepare for your grief work.
The first thing you must do is search for the best resources for you to help get through everything you’re facing.
You’ll also want to build a strong support network. One that’s filled with people who love you, can tell you the truth, and be there for you however long it takes for you to reclaim your life. Often the best people to do this are those who have themselves successfully healed from grief after a divorce.
Joining a divorce support group is a great way to find the support and community you need. The people in these groups are all on the same journey of wanting to heal from grief after a divorce. The camaraderie in these groups can help ease the intense feelings of loneliness and isolation that commonly accompany divorce.
Journaling is another great tool you can use to process your thoughts and feelings as you find your way back to feeling “normal” again. Scientific evidence shows that journaling provides benefits like helping you clarify your thoughts and feelings, reducing stress, solving problems more efficiently, and resolving disagreements.
How to process your grief.
After you have identified the first of your supportive resources, you’re prepared to begin working through your grief.
Knowing what grief is doesn’t really prep you for the up close and personal experience you’re having with it now. So, it’s important that you allow yourself to grieve without judgment. Judging your experience will just prolong your grief.
Instead, take the time to identify and acknowledge how you’re feeling even if your emotions and thoughts are rapidly changing. It’s by acknowledging what you’re going through that allows you to process it.
If you choose to instead ignore your thoughts and feelings, they’ll fester. They’ll also continue appearing – sometimes at inopportune or inappropriate times – until you deal with them.
As uncomfortable and unfamiliar as your thoughts and feelings are, it’s OK to have them.
Your brain is a problem-solving machine. And it’s trying to solve one of the biggest problems you’ve ever faced – grief after a divorce.
Because it’s trying so hard (and you’re probably not sleeping as well as you’d like), it’s throwing out every possible idea to help you feel better. And, frankly, some of the ideas are just horrible.
Then there’s an interesting connection between emotions and thoughts. It’s often a question of which came first an emotion or a thought.
So, as you’re going through your grief and not feeling like yourself, you’ll have strange thoughts. And as you have strange thoughts, you’ll have strange emotions.
With all of this going on, you’ll find that you may not be able to do things that used to come easily to you. It’s exhausting mentally, physically, and emotionally to grieve. Judging your diminished capacity as you grieve will only trap you deeper in your pain.
Instead, allow yourself to express what you’re feeling. Cry. Rant. Howl. It’s OK to let it out. In fact, it’s therapeutic.
And if you’re concerned that you might get lost in uncontrollable grief, set yourself a timer. And know that when the timer sounds, you can blow your nose, wipe the remnants of your tears, and pack up what’s left of your grief until the next time you choose to express it.
But as you continue to rely on the resources you’ve gathered, the strangeness of your thoughts and emotions will subside. You’ll begin to feel more like you again.
You must also set the intention of wanting to feel better and move on. Setting an intention like this will help you to stay focused on moving toward acceptance and creating the life you want. It will also make it less likely you’ll get stuck in negative, destructive, or painful emotions.
The intention you set initially might be small, like I just want to get through this afternoon without crying. As you achieve each of your intentions, continue setting them to be a bit more ambitious. And soon you’ll begin hoping and dreaming of all the wonderful things you want to experience and have again.
As long as you’re breathing, there’s still hope.
This is when you can truly begin planning for and creating a new, fulfilling life for yourself.
Because grief is so exhausting, it will leave you physically and psychologically vulnerable.
So, you must take very good care of yourself to most easily weather your journey of healing.
Physically, dealing with grief after a divorce is much like dealing with an illness like walking pneumonia. You’ll want to get plenty of rest, decrease unnecessary stress, drink plenty of water, eat healthy meals, and even decrease your workload if possible.
You’ll also want to nurture yourself daily by doing things that calm and soothe you. Consider spending time outside in nature, listening to music, meditation, getting a massage, watching your favorite movie, or reading your favorite book.
When you feel up to it, you’ll want to start exercising. Exercising, even going for a walk, can help you start dissipating troubling emotions like anger and sadness.
Learning how to truly care for yourself physically is one of the best lessons you can learn from your divorce.
Grieving takes time, so the gentler you are with yourself while you’re recovering, the easier time you’ll have getting through it. However, that doesn’t mean you should cloister yourself. You’re not contagious.
To help yourself recharge, spend as much face-to-face time as you can with those people who will go the distance with you, who support, energize and value you without judgment, criticism or directives. In other words, use your support group and reach out to a therapist or coach for extra help if you need it.
Pay attention to what you need. And speak up to express your needs even if others (including your friends or your ex) want something different. This is important because it’s a way to honor yourself and become more empowered.
Oftentimes, paying attention to what you need means saying “no” to someone else. You might find denying someone what they’re requesting of you an uncomfortable or guilt-ridden experience. But, if doing what they request isn’t in alignment with what you need and you’re not just being difficult, then you must say “no” to honor yourself.
As you heal more and more from your grief, you’ll want to broaden your social circle and begin building new friendships. Some of the ways you can find interesting people are by joining divorce support groups, networking groups, or Meetup groups. Taking a class, getting involved in your community and volunteering are other great opportunities for meeting people with similar interests.
You can also help yourself to psychologically get through your grief by developing a daily routine. The sooner you can develop a sense of structure and normalcy, the more comfortable your life will seem because you’ll have stopped at least some of the turmoil your divorce has created.
With the bolstering effect of the external support, you’ll be more effective at doing the internal work of healing from grief after a divorce. And this internal work is best done by being willing to learn and grow from your experience.
How to learn and grow from your divorce experience.
The hardest part of grief is coming to terms with the part you played in the end of your marriage. But when you do, you’ll have learned from your mistakes and be less likely to repeat them in the future. And it’s through this learning and growth that you’ll be able to confidently move on to the next phase of your life.
HelpGuide.org suggests asking yourself these questions to help you understand how the choices you made impacted your marriage:
- Step back and look at the big picture. How did you contribute to the problems of your marriage?
- Do you tend to repeat the same mistakes?
- Think about how you react to stress and deal with conflict and insecurities. Could you act in a more constructive way?
- Consider whether or not you accept other people the way they are, not the way they could or “should” be.
- Examine your negative feelings as a starting point for change. Are you in charge of your feelings, or are they in charge of you?
Whatever your answers are to these questions, be willing to forgive yourself for your part in the end of your marriage. You can’t change the past. You can only learn from it.
Don’t get stuck in your grief.
Even though you take care of yourself physically and psychologically as you’re dealing with your grief, you can still get stuck along the way. Some of the most common ways people derail their healing after divorce are:
- Rationalizing their grief away by saying/thinking things like “I wanted it” or “S/he cheated”
- Pretending they’re OK, when they’re not
- Wallowing in self-pity
- Replacing the lost relationship with a new one to avoid the pain
- Making major decisions that aren’t legally required before they are less emotional and can think clearly
- Using alcohol, food, drugs and/or sex to cope
- Believing that the time they were married was wasted
- Going through their grief alone
The truth is healing from grief after a divorce is a process. It can’t be hurried or side-stepped.
Your grief will take as long as you need it to take. No one can tell you how long that will be, but you can certainly help yourself to get through it as thoroughly and completely as possible by following these recommendations.
You owe it to yourself to heal your broken heart and the only way to completely heal it is to work through your grief, and discover a new happily ever after for yourself regardless of whether you ever marry again.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and personal life coach who helps people just like you who want support in healing from divorce. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. And if you’re interested in taking the first step toward working with me, you can schedule an introductory private coaching session.