Recovering and Healing from Divorce Grief
Divorce is the second-most stressful life event you can experience, according to the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. It’s topped only by the death of a child or spouse. But even this acknowledgment fails to capture the particular grief and sadness of going through the divorce process yourself.
A divorce is a very particular kind of loss. Sometimes called an ambiguous loss, divorce grief can be exacerbated by a lack of closure. Your former spouse is still alive but no longer in your life in the ways you’d grown accustomed to.
Grieving the end of a relationship can feel especially complicated if you initiated the divorce yourself or when you know it was the right choice. These situations can make you feel like you don’t have the right to grieve. But you always have the right to however you’re feeling. And grieving a divorce isn’t just about the loss of the relationship; it’s about letting go of the expectations you had for your future – and that can configure more painful feelings than transitioning a partner out of your life.
Grieving is natural
The first thing to know is that the grieving process is real for everyone, even those who instigated the divorce and are intent on moving forward. Grief is a natural response to any loss, regardless of the circumstances. It’s also a complicated emotion, one we sometimes tell ourselves we don’t have the right to feel. Our internal voice may say that the situation isn’t bad enough to justify what we’re feeling – but listening to that voice only adds shame on top of grief. So remember that your grief after divorce is valid, and you’re allowed to take time to process your emotions.
The stages of grief
By now, pop culture references have made most people loosely familiar with the five stages of grief. (Check out the five siblings in Netflix’s adaptation of Hill House if you’re skeptical.)
Originally developed for the book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross named five grief stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although many psychologists have adjusted or expanded this framework over the years, it’s still a useful way to understand that grief isn’t just one thing. Like many complex emotions, grief is an umbrella term that can hold countless feelings. But here’s the thing: You don’t move through the stages in an orderly fashion, like riding a grief train from one station to the next. Rather, the grieving process can feel like a jumbled mess, jumping from one emotion to the next faster than you can keep up.
While moving through these stages is a natural process that looks different for everyone, you may notice yourself sleeping more or less than usual. You may have no appetite or turn to food for comfort. And, you may feel distracted and have difficulty focusing on tasks. Often, people experience thought spirals and give in to bouts of guilt, blame, or shame. Eventually, when reaching the acceptance phase, you should rediscover self-compassion.
Physical and emotional repercussions of grief
It’s well-established that grief, like other mental states, can manifest physically. In fact, emotional pain shows up in the same regions of the brain as physical pain, with grief being even more potent than other forms of sadness.
When looking for signs of grief manifesting in the body, you can expect a range of symptoms, including inflammation and a lowered immune system which, in turn, can lead to other ailments. Symptoms of ongoing grief can also look similar to chronic stress, which can lead to high blood pressure.
Medical experts recognize two types of grief: acute and persistent. Acute grief is felt immediately after a loss and usually reaches manageable levels within six to twelve months after the instigating event. But for some people, grief persists much longer and may evolve into what’s known as complicated grief, a more stubborn and severe form of grief that makes it feel nearly impossible to heal and move on.
Complicated grief is characterized by an inability to focus on things beyond the loss and may include focusing on reminders of the relationship, such as looking through photo albums or social media posts. Many of the symptoms mimic those of depression, such as feeling numb or unable to enjoy things.
Although there’s no universal timeline for processing grief, if you’re still feeling overwhelmed to the point that it’s difficult to function a year after your divorce, you could be dealing with complicated grief and require professional support to help you cope in a healthy way.
Who feels divorce grief?
You don’t need to look any further than media headlines to know that a wide circle of people can feel invested in someone else’s relationship. But it’s not just celebrity breakups that cause a shockwave. Close friends may feel shaken by a split, unsure of how to offer support, and anxious about repercussions to the social circle. This can compound feelings of grief if you’re fearing the loss of friendships in addition to the end of a marriage. It can also make it difficult to rely on your usual support network when friends are at a loss for how to process the divorce themselves.
In addition to friends, family members will also need to process feelings related to a divorce. From in-laws navigating what connections look like going forward to children of all ages grappling with a new normal, divorce grief spreads far beyond the splitting couple.
Recognizing grief in children of divorce
Having children at home while processing divorce grief can be especially difficult. You may feel compelled to put on a happy face for their sake, but it’s okay to be honest about how you’re feeling. Think of this as an opportunity to model healthy emotional processing. Let your kids know it’s okay to cry. Give them space to feel their own emotions as well, even though some of it may be difficult for you to watch.
Children will move through their own stages of grief, and stages like anger may sometimes feel aimed at you. It can be challenging to validate their emotions while feeling hurt or even defensive in response to things children might say or do. This can be a great time to bring in professional help, such as counselors or therapists who specialize in working with children, so they have a safe space to work through the stages of grief.
For supporting children at home in their life after divorce, the Cleveland Clinic offers a number of tips, including keeping routines intact, reassuring your kids that everything will be okay, and avoiding saying negative things about their other parent.
Grief in adult children of divorce
Even adult children will have intense feelings to process when their parents divorce. Like watching the sale of a childhood home, it can feel unsettling and even life-changing when your emotional home base seems lost or feels less stable. Adult children may be left wondering what this change means for family gatherings or for connections to other family members when one parent was the main point of contact.
To navigate these feelings, it can help if parents and adult children save their most difficult feelings to be processed elsewhere so interactions together can be positive and supportive. And, as with young children, maintaining a sense of normalcy can help.
Tips for healthy grieving
The grieving process looks different for everyone, but there are some general dos and don’ts that may come in handy:
Keep a journal
As you experience grief, writing out your feelings can be cathartic and can also give you perspective on the process. If it feels like nothing is changing or getting better, you can flip through the pages for evidence of how far you’ve come.
Lean on your support network
Asking for help is difficult. However, most people have folks in their lives who are eager to help but simply don’t know how. Whether you need someone to talk to or someone to bring over groceries, grab your phone and make a call. You may be surprised how many people jump at the chance to be there for you.
Commit to self-care
Remember, self-care isn’t all bubble baths and smoothies. Sometimes, it’s just getting enough sleep … or getting out of bed and taking a shower. Create your own self-care plan with this helpful worksheet.
Focus on healthy foods
For a while, simply getting any food down might be all you can manage. But when you can focus on a balanced diet and plenty of hydration, you’re likely to feel the benefits of nutritional wellness.
Move your body
Start as small as you need to, but remember that moving your body can make a huge difference in your mood. Try 10 minutes of stretching at home or going for a walk around the block, and increase time and intensity as you feel able.
Avoid irreversible decisions
Deciding to change your hairstyle is one thing, but big decisions like leaving a job or selling a house should wait, if possible. We’re not always thinking clearly during the grieving process, so it’s important to wait on life decisions you may come to regret.
Don’t rush to move on
Try something new
Learning new skills or picking up new hobbies can help focus your mind in productive ways and can also help set the tone for your post-divorce life. Consider cooking classes (or learning from videos) so you’ll have a skill that contributes to your own well-being and that you can use to treat friends and loved ones.
Provide help to others
When we get stuck in a grief rut, it can be helpful to focus on supporting other people in need. Consider volunteering at shelters for people or animals so you can feel useful and productive. Volunteering as a shelter dog walker can also double as great exercise!
There are limits to what self-care and supportive friends can do for you. Sometimes, the assistance of a mental health professional is necessary. Therapists, coaches, and support groups are available if you find yourself unable to move on from grief on your own.
Seeking professional help isn’t a failure. It’s simply bringing in the right professional for the job – no different from hiring a plumber or carpenter to help solve a problem around the house. Look up options in your area, and find the right fit by asking questions. You can be as choosy as you want; the process only works if you trust the person you’re seeing. And remember, no matter how deeply you’re feeling grief right now, it’s part of the healing process, and it does get easier over time.