“At the Grief Recovery Institute, we have no moral, legal, religious, or social position about divorce. We have a very simple belief: that everyone involved in a divorce is a grieve. That includes children, parents, siblings, and friends of the couple. This attitude makes it easy for us. We always know that the presenting issue is unresolved grief.
“Divorce and all other broken romantic relationships produce grief. This can become a life-limiting reality that negatively affects future relationships. Incomplete grief regarding a former spouse will dictate fearful choices. Incomplete grief will create hyper-vigilant self-protection from further emotional pain. Sadly, this excess of caution limits the ability to be open, trusting, and loving, dooming the next relationship to failure.
“Driven by our own human needs, we find our way into new relationships. There are many negative consequences from diving into new relationships while still incomplete with old ones. Hopefully, you will recognize the need to go back and complete prior relationships in order to enhance the possibility of success in a current one or a new one.”
The opening paragraphs of this article were taken, with minor changes, from The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses. While these truths may seem obvious, the larger question is: “what can you do to accomplish a different and happy ending to the struggles implicit in staying incomplete with prior romantic relationships?”
There is a cliche that says that “the truth will set you free.” That is a delightfully optimistic statement, but one that has littered the emotional landscape with confusion and has stalled people in their search for happiness. Learning the truth can be the beginning of a series of actions that can lead to emotional freedom, but the truth itself doesn’t provide freedom. We’ve all known people who can recite a truthful litany of what has befallen them, and relate it over and over, with tears, anger, and all other feelings still attached. And they can do it for years.
On our way to freedom, each of us has to do battle with a host of false ideas and myths that limit us in our quest for happiness. One of the most pervasive elements of incorrect information is the constant misinterpretation of the “stages of grief” as identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying.
In that pioneering work, Dr. Kubler-Ross cataloged five distinct stages that a dying person might go through after having been told they have a terminal illness. Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
What is most often overlooked is the fact that those identified stages relate to what a dying person might experience — not to the emotions that a grieving person might feel after the loss of a loved one. Many people — professionals and the general public alike — have attempted to apply those stages to the emotions that arise after a death or a divorce occurs. In the definition of stages for dying people, “denial” is described as the first stage following notification of a terminal illness. In the absence of other helpful information, Kubler-Ross’s work has often been misinterpreted to imply that denial is also a stage that a grieving person might experience.
In all our years of working with tens of thousands of grievers, we’ve yet to be approached by someone “in denial” that a loss had occurred. The very first thing usually said to us is: “my wife divorced me,” or “my mother passed away,” or “my dog died.” As you can see, there is absolutely no denying that a loss has occurred.
If you’re reading this magazine, you’re probably not in denial that you’ve suffered a loss: the loss of a spouse to separation or divorce. You might still have some hopes for an eventual reconciliation, but you know your marriage as it was doesn’t exist now.
Rather than denial, you’re probably experiencing a host of other emotions right now: moving from despair to hope to numbness, up and down, back and forth. You might be feeling a strong sense of relief that the bickering and struggling are over, but at the same time, the hopes, dreams, and expectations you once had of going off into the sunset together have evaporated. In fact, those conflicting feelings — relief on the one hand and disappointment or sadness on the other — are almost a pure definition of grief.
Divorce vs. Death
When most people hear the word “grief,” they instinctively think of death. Yet grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the change or end in a familiar pattern of behavior. When a loved one dies after a long, painful illness, we often feel relief that he/she is no longer in pain; at the same time, we might feel a tremendous sadness that he/she is no longer alive, and that a miracle didn’t happen to restore our loved one to perfect health.
I’ve heard countless intellectual discussions attempting to compare and contrast the grief caused by the death of a loved one with a divorce. A thousand times, I’ve heard a separated or divorced person say: “It would have been easier if my spouse had died.” While that statement may seem to have some validity, it’s mainly the sad litany of a broken heart inside a person who doesn’t know how to complete the pain of the end of the dream.
No matter what the circumstances, divorce is the death of a relationship. For some, it’s only the death of the marital relationship: the ex-spouses maintain some level of friendship or interaction with each other. For many, it erases a “happily ever after” picture they have had as long as they can remember. It can also feel like the death of trust and safety. For others, divorce might be bitter and acrimonious, and it might create many other tangential losses relating to property, custody, and family alliances.
It may surprise you to note that we’ve been called upon to help thousands of people who were afflicted by dual loss: the death of a recent ex-spouse. I can’t tell you the level of devastation I’ve witnessed when this occurs. It is akin to a compound fracture of a bone: one with multiple breaks rather than just a simple break.
The fact is that divorce and death are different, but for a reason other than you might think. Each divorce is as different and unique as there are people on this planet. It is impossible and unwise to ever compare one divorce to another. There is no universal truth for individual grief. It is equally true that each and every one of us experiences the death of a loved one differently. If you can recognize that it doesn’t make sense to compare one divorce to another, then it should follow that it doesn’t make sense to compare divorce to death.
Grief is terribly isolating — regardless of the cause. It’s never helpful to make one loss bigger, more important, or more devastating than another. All loss is experienced at 100%. I have never met a “half-griever.” It is essential for ourselves — and for others — that we avoid the trap of comparison at all times.
Grief: Common Responses
Although I don’t believe there are set stages experienced by everyone, most will experience some or all of these responses to the pain of separation or divorce:
- Reduced concentration. You’re in your living room, and you realize you need something from the bedroom. When you get to the bedroom, you can’t remember why you went there.
- A feeling of numbness. This can be physical, emotional, or both. Although different people experience it for different lengths of time, it’s rare for the numbness to last for more than a few hours at a time.
- Disrupted sleep patterns. This can mean being unable to sleep or sleeping constantly — or alternating between the two states.
- A change in eating habits. Eating non-stop, having no appetite at all, or alternating between one and the other.
- Roller-coaster of emotional energy. You’ll experience emotional highs and lows, which can make you feel physically drained.
All of these are natural and normal responses when you’re grieving. How long each will last, and which ones you’ll experience, are unique to you alone.
Your Beliefs Can Hold you Back
Look at your personal beliefs and philosophies to help you determine why you may be experiencing an extended emotional struggle trying to move on after the end of your marriage. Let’s consider some of the ideas that may be preventing you from becoming complete with the unique mixture of divorce-related emotions you’ve been experiencing.
You’ve probably been encouraged to believe that “time heals all wounds.” This is a very old belief, and you may have been hearing it a lot lately from well-intentioned individuals. Unfortunately, even though it’s one of the most common of all cliches, its abundance does not make it accurate. Here’s an analogy that will help to debunk this myth: if you discovered that your car had a flat tire, would you pull up a chair, sit down, and wait for air to get back into your tire? I don’t think so! You’d initiate some kind of action: you’d change the tire for the spare in the trunk, or you’d call the auto club or a handy friend and have them do it for you. In either case, you’d take action to repair the tire and get your car back on the road — not wait for “time to heal” the puncture.
A broken heart feels an awful lot like a flat tire: the energy for life often seems drained. Of the thousands of divorcees we’ve talked to over the past 25 years, more than 90% have told us that rather than time healing their hearts, time appears to have compounded the pain. That’s because time is not an action. Time just passes. It’s what you do within a span of time that can cause change.
The myth that “time heals emotional wounds” is just one of the many unhelpful myths my co-author John James and I identify and debunk in The Grief Recovery Handbook and When Children Grieve. These books provide detailed explanations of the myths and misinformation that could stop you or your children from moving on with your lives after divorce or death.
Despite the fact that many people are unaware that recovery or completion is an option, it is actually possible to “recover” from the emotional and other devastation caused by divorce. Unfortunately, I can’t give you “five easy steps” to follow to rebuild your life: that would be both unreasonable and unachievable. After all, you may have spent years and years building the problem, so it will take more than some “verbal aspirin” to repair the damage.
The good news is that there are actions you can take to discover and complete everything with which you are emotionally incomplete — in relationship to both your former spouse and to the marriage itself. The major actions are:
- Looking at your beliefs and philosophies about dealing with loss (anything that’s really working for you need not be changed).
- Listing all of your prior losses, which include deaths, romantic break-ups, moving, financial changes, health issues, and more.
- Creating a “relationship review,” which includes the good, the bad, and sometimes the ugly about your past relationship(s). This review will contain the bulk of your emotional communications that remain incomplete or unresolved.
- Converting those undelivered emotional communications into three categories: Amends, Forgiveness, and Significant Emotional Statements.
- Writing and reading those thoughts and feelings, in safety and confidence, to a grief recovery partner, so they become a completed communication.
The Grief Recovery Handbook spells out how to take each step, and it sets up a system so that the work can be done with a partner (no, not your former life-partner).
Completing these actions can mark the beginning of new choices for you. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never feel sad again, nor does it mean that you’ll never miss your ex or the positive aspects of the marriage. It means that you’ve done what you need to do in order to move on. It will allow you the possibility of a life of meaning and value, even though the pictures and images of your life are different than you had once hoped them to be.
Russell Friedman is the executive director of The Grief Recovery Institute and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook and When Children Grieve. Along with partner and co-author John W. James, Friedman has pioneered the establishment of more than 2000 Grief Recovery Outreach Programs in the United States and Canada.