Getting Over It: Why You Need To Treat Your Divorce Like A Death

December 17, 2017

Even when it’s for the best, divorce is still a loss.

The night my father died, I started crying as soon as I got the phone call, and didn’t stop for about six months. It’s been nine years now, and sometimes I still cry because I miss him so much. But when I got divorced, I didn’t shed one tear.

A few months after my husband and I separated, my mother suggested I write him a letter. I didn’t have to send it, she said. She just thought it would be helpful for me to sort out my feelings on paper. After my father’s death, I’d filled pages and pages in my journal, written a letter to him every year on his birthday, and even published essays about him. My mom knows I process things by writing about them, and I think my apparent lack of grief over the end of my marriage concerned her.

She was right to be concerned; I never grieved my divorce the way I should have. Maybe if I had, my post-divorce relationships would have gone a little better, and I wouldn’t still be feeling so lost, six years later.

The death of a relationship

“Divorce, even when you initiate it, causes mourning over the end of a dream,” writes Sarah Hampson in The Globe and Mail.

No one has died, but that doesn’t make the end of the relationship any less traumatic. In fact, in some ways it might be easier to lose a partner to death than to divorce.

“After the death of a loved one, the person left behind bears no responsibility for causing him or her to go,” writes Hampson.

A widow can cherish all the good memories of her spouse, whereas after a divorce, both partners are often left with bitterness and disappointment, if not outright rage and hostility.

In my case, I ducked any grief over the end of my marriage by investing all of my energy into a new relationship; one that would end disastrously. If I’d waited and properly mourned my marriage, would I have had better luck with my next try? Maybe. But what does “properly mourned” even mean? I’m not sure if I properly mourned my father, either. Letting go is hard, whether someone is taken from you, or you make the choice to leave.

Sometimes divorce really is the best thing for both people in a relationship. But even when this is the case, there’s going to be grief over what’s been lost – even if the loss is just an idea, or a fantasy of something that never really existed.

The stages of grief

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, author of the classic On Death and Dying, outlined the five stages of grief and loss, which may apply just as well to divorce as they do to death, depending on your circumstances. Social worker Susan Pease Gadoua writes in Psychology Today that grief over a divorce is dependent on a number of factors, including “how long you were together, whether the divorce was a surprise to you or not, whether you have children together, whether you or your spouse are involved in a new relationship, your personality, your age, your socio-economic status and on and on.”

It’s possible that you may not, in fact, feel a great deal of grief over your divorce if you entered into the marriage with reservations. Some people settle for a partner they don’t really love, either because they feel pressure from society to marry, or they’re scared to be alone, or logistics made marriage seem like a good idea. But in most cases, people get married because they truly love their partner and intend to be together till death do they part.

The first stage, denial, can last quite a long time. You may be in denial that the marriage is ending, or, if you’re the one leaving, you may be in denial that you have grief about the end of your relationship.

The next stage, anger and resentment, often lands couples in a lawyer’s office, where soon-to-be-exes battle over money, child custody, property, and anything else that’s up for grabs.

The third stage, bargaining, may actually happen earlier in the divorce process, when one partner vows to change in order to get the other to stay. Depression sets in when denial and bargaining have failed to work, and anger has faded. This can last a very long time, as well. People can get stuck in depression for years, never finding their way to the last stage, acceptance.

Endings and beginnings

Even once you think you’ve worked through all the stages of grief, starting a new relationship can throw you right back into the fire. One of the hardest things to face about the end of my marriage was just how in love I’d been with my husband. I’d really felt he was the love of my life. Not long before I told him I wanted a divorce, I told him that leaving him would be like cutting off my own arm. He felt like such a part of me; I couldn’t imagine life without him.

Knowing I’d felt this way, it felt very scary to fall for someone else. How could I be sure things would work out this time, when I’d been there before? If I’d truly taken the time to process and grieve the death of my marriage, maybe it would have been a little easier to go forward. But because I didn’t, I felt confused about why my marriage hadn’t worked out. Anger, frustration, hurt feelings, and shame all took up residence in my head – and my heart – and made it impossible to move forward in a healthy way.

All these years later, my mother was probably right about that letter to my ex-husband: I ought to have written it. Writing is how I grieve. It’s how I work things out. Luckily, it’s never too late for a new beginning.

Image via shutterstock.com.

 Comment: Have you experienced grief over a divorce?

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