Separation, Divorce and Grief

Arthur Wenk, Certified by OACCPP and EMDRIA

Theravive Counseling


Separation, Divorce and Grief

Conventional wisdom maintains that 50% of marriages end in divorce.  On closer study this turns out to be a myth.  The divorce rate in the United States peaked at around 41% in 1980 and has been declining ever since, with the rate standing at 31% in 2002, according to a study in the New York Times quoted in Wikipedia.  So let’s say that roughly one marriage in three ends in divorce.  That makes divorce practically normal, and yet it feels incredibly abnormal.  It feels not okay.  It’s probably the most traumatic event that we go through in life.  There’s no other event in life that brings such an array of losses with it. 

So what do you lose when you lose a marriage?  In addition to losing a partner, you may lose your home, your financial security, your partner’s family, and the friends that stay with your partner.  And you probably lost your sex life.

It’s important to recognize that there’s an enormous amount of loss and types of loss all hitting us at once.  This is where understanding the grief process is really important, because grief is simply the way that we manage loss.  It is a process in which the attachments to the lost person are not entirely given up, but are altered sufficiently to allow you to admit the reality of the loss, to cope with it, and to re-establish healthy relationships following the loss. 

Why is it so hard to grieve?  There are a number of reasons. 

(1)  In Western culture, grief is socially discouraged.  We’re not taught about grief, we’re not taught how to grieve, and we’re not taught why it’s important.  Generally the whole idea of pain and suffering tends to make others uncomfortable.            We gravitate away from people who have recently gone through this kind of loss, because generally people don’t want to hear about it.  So that tends to discourage you from expressing your feelings. 

(2)  Moreover, there’s actually a stigma attached to divorce.  If you hadn’t done something wrong, if you hadn’t been such a bad person, if you weren’t such a loser, somehow this wouldn’t have happened.  Most of us take our marriage vows seriously, and we’re kind of shocked that it didn’t work out.  We have this message in our culture that this isn’t supposed to happen.

(3)  The third reason is fear.  Very few of us are taught that it’s okay to experience negative emotions, that it’s a natural, normal healthy process, that it’s how we move from the initial shock of the loss to accepting the loss.  Grief is painful; it’s uncontrollable at times.  It’s not particularly predictable:  the kinds of feelings you experience, how long they last, the order they come in.  In fact, it’s pretty chaotic.  But if you’re a reasonably healthy person, grief is inevitable. 

Many people avoid the grief process by simply repressing their feelings, avoiding the opportunities and the natural feelings that come up.  This is not a particularly good thing to do.  Opting out of the grief process is not that uncommon.  We probably all know people who just bounce right back.  They have rebound relationships a month later.  They act as if nothing happened.  You ask how they are and they say, “I’m fine!”  They’re absolutely emphatic that they’re just fine.  They keep busier than you can imagine.  They’re doing something eight nights a week.  Generally, they are not going to grieve.  So what’s wrong with doing that?  Seems like a nice, easy out. 

What happens is that unresolved grief--which is really unexpressed feelings—doesn’t go away:  it just stays knotted up inside of you.  These feelings tend to affect our day-to-day life.  You might find that you’re short-tempered and less patient, or that you cry inexplicably at movies—these feelings will seep out in unexpected ways. 

Another problem with people who don’t experience grief is that they tend to repeat relationships if they don’t learn from them.  You’ve probably known people who, following the separation, marry or get into another relationship with someone who is virtually identical to the horrible spouse they married.  You just shake your head and say, “I can’t believe it; they married the same person but in a different body.”  I confess that I have done this in my own life.  My present wife insists that it doesn’t matter as long as you eventually get it right.  But not learning from mistakes is an awful waste of time.

The only way we resolve our issues is by experiencing the emotions and making meaning out of them, understanding them.  Why was I attracted to this person?  Why did I get involved?  Why did I marry him or her?  Why did I stay married for so long?  Why was it okay that he or she cheated, spent all of our money, whatever: you can fill in the blank.  Until you can answer those questions, you’re not really using the grief process to grow and learn. 

Now for the bad news.  The grief process takes about two years, following a divorce, on average.  We’d like to think that after a couple of nasty months it will be over, but it does take time.  That doesn’t mean that for the entire two years you’ll be depressed or in shock or having anxiety attacks.  Quite often there will be severe symptoms in the beginning, though it doesn’t mean that you’ll be stuck in this severe stage for the whole time.  But it really does take time.  Some people may get through it in less, but on the average it takes two years. 

But this process entails feeling what you’re feeling, actually experiencing the nastiness of some of those emotions.  It entails change:  going through those emotions to new ways of dealing with the world, new ways of thinking.  It requires acceptance of the process.  You can’t try to short-cut it or avoid it or cut out the nasty bits.  “I don’t mind feeling sad,” you may say to yourself, “but I’m sure not going to feel angry.  Anger’s bad—we all know that.”  Or, “I’m not going to feel sad.  I’m a man, and men don’t cry.”  We’re more comfortable with some emotions than with others, but acceptance of the process is the only way through it.  You may have heard the expression, “What you resist, persists.”  Without the acceptance of these feelings, you’re likely to take longer to get through it. 

It’s helpful if you know someone who’s been through it--it’s helpful if you have a coach—because there’s a tendency to get discouraged and think, “I’m angry again?  I was really angry four months ago and now I’m angry again.  This can’t be.  This isn’t working.  Something’s wrong.”  There’s a tendency to believe that if I still feel this way after a year and a half, I’m never going to get better.  But that’s not true.  There is an end, and you will integrate it all. 

The grief process is a normal, natural human process.  It’s an innate ability that we have that enables us to tolerate change and loss, to adapt.  My wife had two dogs, one of which died, and the remaining dog grieved.  It only lasted for a few weeks but my wife watched her not wanting to play, not wanting to be petted, not wanting to eat particularly.  The dog was grieving.

People say, “Are there books on grief?  How do I learn?”  You don’t have to learn how to grieve:  you will naturally do it in the precise perfect way that you are meant to do.  Just as we all have different learning styles and communication styles, we all have different grieving styles.  No two people have the exact same emotions for the exact same duration.  It’s going to vary from person to person.  One of the most important things in coming to understand this is being really patient with yourself and just accepting that you’re going to feel what you’re going to feel. 

Feelings are never wrong.  They can be nasty, they can be difficult, but they’re never wrong.  They just are.  The thinking behind the feelings is irrational:  “I hate her and I wish she was dead.”  That’s not something you want to act on, but there’s nothing wrong with the feelings.  Knowing that it’s okay--accepting your particular path through this process--is critical. 

So what are the stages and the tasks of grieving?  Essentially there are three stages.

(1)  The first is called evasion, when you’re in a state of shock or denial.  If you’ve ever been in an accident of any sort, quite often you have five or ten minutes before you realize that you’re injured.  That state of shock protects you in a situation of physical injury and often accompanies an emotional loss as well.  It’s actually a healthy defense mechanism that recognizes that you can’t take this in all at once—that you need a little time to deal with the reality of this loss.  If you’re the one who initiated the separation, the chances are you’re not in shock because you’ve been thinking about it for some time.  But if you’re the person who’s been left, there can be a period of shock and denial.  Then gradually you’re able to come to terms with what’s going on.  Some people describe it as feeling numb, or feeling as if everything is going in slow motion, or they may feel wired and they’re just busy all the time.  In order to get through this stage it’s important to be able to name the loss and to feel the feelings associated with it.  That will happen when you’re ready. 

(2)  The main stage in grief is called the encounter stage.  There you deal with your feelings.  It’s sometimes called the “going crazy syndrome.”  It’s where all the feelings come up and it’s where the real work of grieving takes place—the opportunity for growth and learning and transformation.  What do we know about these feelings?  We know that these intense emotions often come in waves.  You can have a period of intense anger, a period of intense anxiety, which may be followed by a period of calm or peace.  You say, “Whew—I’m glad that’s over.”  Then a new wave of anxiety comes.  These waves are often associated with the seasons.  You tend to be depression prone.  They can come with anniversary dates, or any celebrations that you and your partner shared:  Easter, Christmas—on such occasions the feelings will intensify.  But often feelings will come for no reason that you can explain.

A year after my first divorce I visited a friend—actually a psychotherapist.  We happened to go into a supermarket that I used to frequent when married and I suddenly found myself in tears.  He explained that there are ghosts lurking in unexpected corners.  You just have to get used to their coming out and spooking you.

I used to eat ice cream as a way of fighting off depression after this divorce.  I was living in Boston at the time, a city wonderfully equipped with both bookstores and ice cream parlours.  I wrote a poem called “The Ice Cream Blues” which began

It's harder to be sad

When you're eating ice cream,

But sooner or later

You've got to stop eating,

And the blues will come and get you just the same.

After my second divorce I entered a new relationship and found to my dismay that my feelings would not support a commitment.  Up to this point in my life I had always thought of myself as a responsible individual:  when I made a pledge, you could count on my keeping it.  But in this “going crazy” time, you’re well advised to avoid any commitments based on feelings, because there’s a pretty good chance you won’t be able to keep them.

An initial response to the news of the loss is anger.  Anger, hatred, revenge—they’re all variations on the feeling of anger.  Anger is interesting:  it’s like the little red light that goes on in your car that tells you that you need to check under the hood.  You may have no idea of what’s going on under there—you may know enough to drive to your local car dealers and ask them to look under your hood.  But it’s a warning—it tells you that something’s not okay.  So anger is really important. 

People who don’t feel anger often are not in touch with the pain and hurt and the emotional issues that are going on inside.  Anger points a finger at what you need to look at.  So it’s important to express and to feel anger.  Some people get stuck in anger—they never get beyond feeling angry.  They never feel any of the more subtle feelings of sadness or hurt.  Other people, on the other hand, are unable to feel anger.  And both of those extremes are unhealthy.  Probably it’s a good idea to seek professional help if you find yourself stuck in either of those emotional extremes in the anger department. 

Another interesting thing that can happen during this encounter stage is that you can trigger earlier unresolved grief.  So if you have a series of losses, or another major loss, prior to the separation, you may find that the intensity of your grief is much greater than you would have expected.  As I mentioned earlier, unresolved grief, or grief that you don’t work through, doesn’t go away:  it sits inside, waiting to pounce on you the next time something bad comes along.  It’s not uncommon for people to just fall apart if they’ve recently lost a parent or a job or lost their health, or some other loss.  Then the separation piles up on top of that.  The two divorces I mentioned were both accompanied by the loss of a job.  But I was a man:  I just blocked feelings and soldiered on.  (I don’t recommend this, mind you; I’m just trying to be honest.  Much better to let the feelings in.)

In this stage of encountering feeling, what do you need to do to get through?  You need to feel reality.  In our society, as I mentioned, we’re really not happy with bad feelings.  We want to have just good feelings, and nice feelings, and happy feelings, and peaceful feelings.  We have this belief that that’s all there should be, and that any negative feelings are bad and we should get rid of them.

One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons has Linus, the philosophical character in the series, consoling Lucy, who is complaining about some recent disappointment.  “Life has its ups and downs,” Linus tells her.  “Not my life!” Lucy insists.  “My life is ups and ups and ups!”  This is a really limited view of what it means to be human.  To be human is to have the full range of emotions.  If the proportion of negative emotions is much higher than that of positive emotions, day in and day out, you might have a problem.  But to say that you want to get rid of the negative feelings and refuse to feel them is quite unrealistic.  During the grief period, you may have a majority of hours in the day, or days in the week, when you feel the pain and the hurt.  This can manifest itself in depression or anxiety.  (We’ll talk about those a little bit later.)  So it’s really important to acknowledge, and process and discharge these feelings as they come up. 

It’s a big job, one that requires a lot of energy and work in dealing with the feelings.  We imagine that we can do it on the side, while we’re doing something else, but it doesn’t work that way.  It takes time, effort and commitment.  You need to take a bit of time every day to consider what you’re feeling, and to express this to yourself (writing in your journal, talking to yourself, talking to your dog while you’re taking it for a walk, or talking to a friend).  Discharging these feelings is really important.  It’s important to have a plan of how you’re going to process these feelings.  Pencil it into your schedule; make time for it.  Don’t just assume that the feelings will take care of themselves.  They won’t. 

I’ve talked a lot about discharging feelings, but I want to be clear that venting or discharging does not have the word “at” after them.  You don’t vent “at” somebody or discharge “on” somebody.  This is a therapeutic technique that you’re going to use alone.  You might have a support person, like a therapist or a close friend who listens to you.  But it’s not a matter of expressing your feelings to or dumping them on somebody.  It’s all about self-learning and self-understanding.  It’s a very personal process.  If you’re angry at somebody, that person does not need to know it.  I’m not saying you should never communicate with your ex.  But I’m saying that you want to experience your feelings first, for you.  You want to get the juice out of them; they’re yours.  You want to understand them, process them, and learn from them.  You don’t want to be just dumping them on somebody else.  I’m not suggesting that you never communicate your feelings, but you communicate them after you’ve felt them. 

For example, if you’re really angry at your ex for some reason, instead of calling him up and screaming at him, sit down and journal, or write a letter to the ex as if you were talking, but get in touch with the feelings yourself.  You will find that there is always a more subtle feeling under the anger.  The anger is like one of those plate covers that they bring you in fancy restaurants.  You lift the plate cover up and there’s this beautiful plate of food.  The anger is just a cover, and when you lift it up there’s an array of other emotions, typically emotions that would relate to pain, fear or hurt.  These emotions are often difficult to face, and so we hide behind the anger because it’s a lot easier to feel, but it’s important to get past the anger to the deeper feeling that lies underneath.  Then the next day, when you’re calm, when you’re in your rational mind, you might try communicating with your ex if it’s important.

What you don’t want to do is turn the anger inward:  this only leads to depression.  When I was young I considered my father too powerful to be angry at so I turned the anger against myself.  Bad move.  It took years of therapy to deal with the resulting depression.  So express that anger.

We’re trying to get to a point where we accept feelings and accept what we learn about ourselves from our feelings.  For example, if you find that you’re scared, you might realize that you’re very dependent on your partner—perhaps more dependent than you want to admit—that you’re very scared to be alone, and that you’ve never really learned to live all by yourself.  This might be the first time you’ve ever lived alone.  You need to accept this.  That doesn’t mean you won’t change it.  But you can’t change something until you have compassion and acceptance for that trait within yourself.  This is all part of the personal growth that comes from the grief process.  The feelings teach you about yourself.  You learn things about yourself, and as you learn things about yourself I hope that you begin to learn compassion for that person, that person who feels great sadness at life turning out the way it has for you.  You want to have the same kind of compassion for yourself that you would have for your own child:  to sit and listen, to care and feel empathy.  You need to feel that for yourself as well.

To go through this process, to make your feelings a priority, in order to understand and accept them, you have to learn how to look after yourself, to nurture yourself, knowing that you are Number 1.  Many people, when I say that, kind of recoil in horror.  “Oh, I’m not #1.  That would be selfish!”  There are two extremes, there’s selfish and there’s selfless, and many people fall into one category or the other.  If you believe “I should never be #1—that’s selfish,” then there’s a good chance that you might be selfless.  Selfless means that you’re really not very good at looking after yourself.  Any time you have an opportunity to do so, you tend to feel guilty.  The middle ground, which I call self-interested, or self-loving, is where we need to be.  You don’t have to be selfish, but you can be self-loving, and by nurturing yourself you’ll have even more love and more energy to give to others.  If you haven’t learned this lesson, then this is a really good time to do it.

The final portion of the encounter stage, when all these feelings are coming up, is adaptation or adjustment to your new life, which really means adjusting to the loss.  A tip for helping you do this is to realize that you’re going to begin a very unstable grief process for awhile and to avoid making big decisions.  Right now you have to find somewhere new to live, to separate finances, and to deal with all those other decisions, but try not to jump into a rebound relationship.  Try to make new friends; try to realize that there’s a whole world of singles out there.  You’re a part of it, and it’s important to tap into that world.  Otherwise you’ll continue to try to live in a world of couples, and you’re not one.  It’s a very stressful period.  It’s important to understand stress management and find ways to cope.  Get plenty of sleep, etc. 

Let’s consider this feelings a bit further, starting with anger.  There are typically two problems you have with anger.  One is having too much and the other is having too little.  If you have trouble controlling your anger, look for opportunities to vent or discharge anger when you’re alone.  When you do vent, don’t stop with anger:  find out what’s under it.  Always ask yourself, what’s the hurt or pain under the anger?  Don’t let yourself off the hook until you find it, because then you’re getting down to the real issues.  Physical exercise is often helpful when you have an overload of anger, but it’s important to understand that you can’t sidestep anger.  You can’t vent anger just by running or by hitting a punching bag or by screaming:  you have to attach the activity to the actual hurt.  You always have to figure out what you’re angry about.  Otherwise, it actually builds more anger.  You’re compounding the anger by teaching yourself to stay angry. 

If, on the other hand, you have trouble getting angry, you need to find a way to stir up the anger.  You can do that by saying to yourself, “I am angry,” and then saying it louder, “I am angry with you.”  Sometimes just making yourself express it verbally will help you get in touch with the feeling.  Getting your body involved can be helpful.  Punching or smashing a pillow, or whacking a pillow against a sofa, will sometimes get the body involved in such a way that you start to stir up some anger.  Assuming that something’s been done to you that would make a “normal” person angry, if you’re not feeling angry, you should be.

Sometimes it may be inconvenient to vent your anger in the house, especially if you’re still living with the person you’re angry with.  In getting in touch with anger against a woman I eventually divorced, I drove around town until I found a semi-industrial area where I could go at night and shout to my heart’s content without fear of being overheard.

The grief of separate or divorce frequently brings on depression.  Physical symptoms of depression include changes in eating and sleeping habits, changes in energy, change in mood (sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, a sense of not caring, a sense of not being worthwhile), a loss of interest in things that you used to enjoy doing.  If these symptoms hang on for a long time, you really should talk to your doctor. 

What can you do to cope with depression?  One of the best ways to cope with depression is to express the feelings, to process them, and to understand what’s driving them—to understand what those feelings are and why they’re there.  Intense feelings usually arise from intense childhood experiences and this is an opportunity to heal those childhood wounds.  Find ways to move on in spite of the loss.  Basically it’s a matter of learning how to take care of yourself by understanding your emotions.  With depression there’s always a skewed way of looking at the world.  It’s called depressed thinking.  It has to do with feeling hopeless, thinking that the situation is hopeless, thinking that you’re helpless and that there’s nothing you can do, thinking that you’re bad and you deserve this.  If you find yourself thinking any of those things, it’s really important to realize that it’s the depression talking.

Sometimes you can rescue yourself from depressed thinking.  I used to maintain a list of what I thought of as lifelines that I could draw on to pull myself out of the rusty pool of depression.  These were activities like listening to music, going to the movies, eating chocolate, or going for a run, that I could count on to change my mood.  Of course, if you’re really depressed, you don’t even want to pull on the lifeline:  you come to enjoy your depressed thinking.  At that point you probably need to seek counselling.

The grief of separation or divorce can also provoke anxiety.  Anxiety is even more physical than depression.  Essentially it’s the fight-or-flight response in the body that’s being triggered by the fear that comes up as a result of all the changes you’re going through.  Some anxiety symptoms include a lump in the throat, trouble digesting, trouble swallowing, upset stomach or butterflies in the stomach, diarrhea, and constipation.  Your breathing tends to be shallow; your heart may race.  You might feel shaky.  Anxiety will often affect your ability to sleep, so it’s important not to let severe anxiety go unchecked for a long time. 

If you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s really important to understand relaxation techniques.  There are excellent breathing techniques that you can learn by picking up a book on stress management.  Yoga teaches these same breathing techniques.  It comes down to looking at your thinking as well as looking at your feelings.  Essentially you’re scaring yourself.  You’re telling yourself, “This is catastrophic; I can’t handle it; it will never get better.”  It’s important to pay attention to the messages you give yourself.  Tell yourself, “This is really tough, but I can get through it.  This is really frightening, but I’m going to learn from it and end up on top.”  Talk to yourself positively.  Ultimately, do not let anxiety stop you from moving forward.  You cannot let anxiety or fear win.  If you find that you’re freezing or not acting because you’re so afraid, you probably need some support or some help. 

(3)  The final stage of grief is called reconciliation.  That doesn’t mean reconciling with your ex!  It means that you’re reconciled with the loss.  Essentially, the intensity of the feelings decreases.  You’re no longer looking back but you’re beginning to look forward to the future.  Your energy returns, along with a sense of enjoyment and happiness.  You know you’ve made it through. 

comments powered by Disqus