Separation is a time when we need to recognize the need to make a conscious effort to look after ourselves first - both physically and emotionally. Research shows that a child’s ability to positively adjust to a separation is strongly related to the psychological adjustment of his or her parents.[i] Without learning effective coping skills for divorce grief and putting ourselves first, it can be so easy to lose sight of our own physical and emotional health and well-being.
To paint a clearer picture, think of the analogy of an airplane’s oxygen mask warnings. You hear the flight attendants repeating this at the onset of every departure: “It is necessary to put on your own mask first, before assisting others.” Essentially, if you go through the motions of each day in a mental blur, carrying emotional and physical baggage that has drained and exhausted you, you will immediately become a less effective parent when your children need stability the most.
It is normal and quite healthy to feel a range of emotions from the loss of a marriage or relationship. It isn’t just a loss of close proximity with someone; it’s also the loss of intimacy, familiarity, security and friendship. These losses, what-if’s and regrets combined with the intricate process of physically separating your life from your ex’s, may make recovery seem like a monumental challenge that cannot be overcome.
If you were the initiator of your separation, you may have already gone through the “rollercoaster” of emotions and be ready to move on. Or, you may be finding the emotional aftermath of separation much harder than you initially expected, and now you’re beginning to fully feel the brunt of the emotional upset.
If your separation was unexpected or unwanted, you may still have to process the full scope of your post-separation emotions. This can be challenging, especially when it appears that your ex seems to be coping much better. As a result, you may find yourself fluctuating between strong emotional states of acceptance and denial, guilt and shame, fear and despair, and anger and resentment. Everything may seem to be overwhelming, daunting, and uncertain. Moving forward may feel like an impossible task.
Regardless of whose decision it was to separate, the best thing that you can do for yourself and your children is to allow yourself to sit with the despair. Allow yourself to feel the gravity of your loss. It doesn’t matter what that loss is - the loss of your best friend, the loss of the one person who vowed to be with you through the good times and bad, the loss of a father to your beautiful children, the loss of financial security and stability, or the loss of something else.
As you allow yourself to experience the pain of the grief, you are paving the way towards recovery. Remember that emotions fluctuate from day-by-day to hour-by-hour, and even minute-to-minute. Know the emotional pain doesn’t last forever.
However, if you find yourself becoming too overwhelmed with painful emotions, learning grounding techniques can help. Grounding techniques are simple exercises you can perform to center yourself and connect to the present moment. Grounding skills can also be used to help manage daily stress and anxiety.
1. In a standing position, gently rock forwards and backwards. Feel the weight of your body, moving from your heels to the balls of your feet. Push your feet down into the firmness of the floor — notice the floor beneath you, supporting you. Feel the muscle tension in your legs as you continue to rock back and forth. Then, slowly rock your body from side-to-side, transferring your weight from one foot to another. Notice the pressure points on the soles of your feet as you do this.
2. Either in a seated or standing position, become aware of the sensations in your entire body by quickly scanning yourself from head-to-toe. Notice any areas of tension. Take a mindful stretch by interlocking your fingers and fully extending your arms out in front of you. Notice how your body feels when you do this. Then slowly stretch out behind you, holding the pose for a few seconds. Again, notice any new sensations in your body (possibly in your shoulders, arms, or chest area). Gently shake your hands and arms in a spiral movement.
3. Take a slow deep breath - inhaling and exhaling through your nose. As you inhale, notice your lungs refilling naturally. While exhaling, make sure to empty out your lungs completely. Continue to take 6 more slow deep breaths. Notice your rib cage rising and falling, or the air moving in and out of your nose with each breath.
4. Turn your attention to your environment. Notice your surroundings in detail. What are 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch (notice the temperature and texture as the objects contact your hands), 3 things you can hear (perhaps a sound from your computer, cars outside etc.), 2 things you can smell or like the smell of. Finally cross your arms over your chest, giving your arms or shoulders 1 firm, but loving squeeze.
The exercises above can be performed as one long sequence or as individual parts. That is, each step can be used as a short stand-alone grounding tool. Repeat each step more than once if needed and experiment with each technique in different situations. It’s also best to practice these techniques when in a calm state, so when emotional storms do arise, you can draw upon them as needed.
Moving forward, memories, worries, fears, self-criticisms, and other unhelpful thoughts will no doubt pop up again. Grief doesn’t just suddenly end.To deal with the emotional impact of loss, and embrace your new beginnings, you may need to learn to let those feelings flow freely through you, without getting swept up or overwhelmed by them.
[i] Amato, P. R. (1994). Life-span adjustment of children to their parents' divorce. The future of children, 4(1).
Hetherington, E. M. & Stanley-Hagan, M. (1999). The adjustment of children with divorced parents: A risk and resiliency perspective. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 40(1), 129-140.