Dear Dr. Diana,
What is considered a normal period of time for grieving after a divorce? My brother recently went through a bad one and I’m worried about him.
Dear Worried Sister,
There’s not an official “normal period of time for grieving after a divorce.” Since your brother is only recently divorced, he may still be in some shock. The amount of time that it takes to get one’s sea legs back depends on the resiliency of the individual as well as the complexity of the situation. Except in the simplest of cases, divorce is a multi-faceted experience that unfolds and transitions through various phases. On average, people probably take one to three years to get through the first phases of recovery from divorce. Some of the scars from divorce can stay with people for a lifetime.
Recuperating from a divorce is usually hardest for the person that didn’t want the divorce in the first place, or is still in love with their ex-spouse. When there is betrayal or deceit involved, it can damage the ability to trust and allow oneself to love again. The healing period depends on the degree to which each person feels injured, as well as the quality of their current support system.
Some people experience drastic changes in their lifestyle in terms of one’s home environment, financial and social circumstances, and time with children. Some examples include the following: if you lived in a big beautiful house with your wife, children and two dogs and had to move out and in to a tiny apartment with no furniture; if you were a stay at home mom and now have to go to work full time; or all the friends that you thought you had were actually “couples” friends and are threatened in some way by your new singlehood. Some newly divorced people say that their married friends act skittish around them, as if divorce could be contagious. When there are children involved, there are many inherent complications that make it a rocky road initially. Ideally, the ex-spousal relationship transforms into a cooperative, co-parenting one. But while one is still in pain from the marriage not working out, it can be especially challenging to continue communicating with one’s ex-spouse.
When we lose someone through death, we may be sad that they are not here anymore and miss them. With divorce, the grieving process can be more complex. The person you lost is still around and the loss is a loving relationship that you had hoped to have with them can be haunting. Sometimes, an ex-lover has regrets about ending things and may try to rekindle things, which can be confusing especially if nothing has really changed. Other times, one’s ex-lover moves on quickly causing even more feeling of hurt and loss.
Offering your brother your friendship is one of the best gifts that you can give him during this difficult time. If he wants to talk, listen with an open heart — don’t interrupt, and don’t judge. Feel free to ask questions to show your interest, but be careful of giving unwarranted advice. If you are concerned that he is severely depressed, suicidal, or even homicidal, it’s okay to ask him direct questions to evaluate the situation. People are often afraid to ask about suicidal or homicidal thoughts for fear that it will give someone ideas. This is not the case. It can give the person some relief to talk openly about it. If you find that he has been thinking about suicide or homicide and has a viable means to commit these acts (e.g. thinks about shooting himself or someone else and he has a gun), it would be appropriate to consult a professional or even the police depending on the urgency of the danger. If he isn’t much of a talker, spending time with him doing things that he enjoys and including him socially can help him see that life goes on. We all have a fundamental need to be seen, heard, accepted, and loved. The most important thing that you can give to your brother at this juncture in his life is a friendly ear, your love, and your acceptance.
Diana Weiss-Wisdom, Ph.D. Is a licensed Psychologist Psy#12476 in private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, Ca. You can reach her at (858) 259-0146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her latest book, “Wisdom on Stepparenting: How to Succeed Where Others Fail” is available on Amazon.com.