Divorce grief is very real and very powerful. And it takes a lot to get through it. After a divorce, you’re going to cycle through a spectrum of emotions — and more than just sadness or jubilation. Mental health experts agree that divorce is comparable to the death of a loved one, which makes sense given that you’re suffering the loss of a marriage and all that goes with it. That’s why you experience grief and its commonly known phases: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But divorce grief is even harder in many ways.
“Divorce is a different kind of a loss than a death, and in some ways more difficult,” says Dr. Lavanya Shankar, an Austin, Texas-based psychologist and psychotherapist. “Your ex is still out there. You may ask yourself, What could I have done differently? It’s hard to grapple with. It’s the loss of your whole idea of yourself, what your future was going to be like. And it’s the breaking up of your family unit and the guilt associated with that. There are a lot of layers with divorce.”
The truth of the matter is that men generally tend to be less inclined to feel their feelings — and thus more likely to be hit harder by the stages of divorce grief. This is unhealthy. Not only does it slow — or even halt — the grieving process, but it makes individuals more likely to fall into patterns of depression or bursts of anger. So how can you deal with divorce grief in a healthy fashion? Here are tips for going through the process.
1. Recognize That Your Marriage Is Over
Denial is a typical phase of the grieving process, but you can’t deny the reality of your situation. Accepting your divorce on an intellectual level will allow you to begin the emotional grieving process. “A father may know that their wife has filed for divorce, but they may not recognize or want to know how it will change their life,” says Dallas-based divorce coach Dr. Karen Finn. “They’ll try to interact with their wife, to reconcile — but the wife may not want to. You can’t control everything. Come to terms with the facts.”
2. Be Patient — Grief Takes Time
Grieving is a process, not a race. And there’s no fixed timetable, despite (erroneous) advice that suggests it takes half as long as you were in a relationship to get over it. “In our culture, men aren’t encouraged to sit with sadness, grief, anger, guilt – whatever the feelings associated with a loss might be,” Shankar says. “But to heal and move on in a healthy way, there has to be a period to feel what you need to feel — and to talk about it, to process it, and to get support around it.”
3. Surround Yourself With People Who Support You — And Let Them
Fuck self-reliance — we all need help sometimes. After a divorce, now is that sometime for you. Be direct with your friends and family about needing their support. Not sure how? Try this: “Hey, this divorce has been hard. Would you mind coming over and hanging out with me?” Or: “Can I tell you about how sad I’m feeling? I don’t need advice, just someone to listen. Could you do that for me?”
“It’s important that you have relational support,” Shankar says. “When people isolate around a loss and try to power through it and get through it on their own – that concerns me the most. Be intentional about allowing people to be there for you, calling people, letting people sit with you – even if you don’t talk. Take comfort in other people’s presence. The main thing is to allow support to be there.”
4. Practice Excellent Self-Care
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of self-care. At a minimum, get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise — and do whatever helps you feel good. “Grief isn’t simply emotional,” Finn says. “It has physical effects, too.” Of course, this can be challenging if you’ve never been taught that it’s okay to nurture yourself, but do it, anyway. And don’t mistake self-medicating or numbing yourself with taking care of yourself. “Don’t get sucked into anything that may dull the sensations of pain — alcohol, sexual encounters, spending sprees, gambling, and the like. You’ll be healthier and happier in the end if you can avoid those.”
5. Feel Your Feelings
Yes, you need to understand on an intellectual level that your marriage is over. But that doesn’t mean you should reason away your grief. “Intellectualizing is a convenient way to avoid feeling,” Finn says. “But when you’re dealing with grief after a divorce, you need to embrace your feelings as they present themselves.” That means being comfortable with being uncomfortable, and fighting the desire to stuff down your feelings. That doesn’t make them go away. “At some point they’ll come out,” Finn adds. “If you deal with them as they happen, or as close to them happening as you can, you have a better chance of working through them — rather than having them explode at some point in the future.”
6. Find Out What’s There Besides Anger
Okay, so you’re angry. That’s normal — especially if you’re unfamiliar with the broader spectrum of emotions. But the anger is often covering up some deeper feelings like hurt or sadness. “Anger is seen as more socially acceptable for men than the other emotions,” Finn says. “But to get to those emotions lurking underneath, do something with the anger.” Anger is energizing, so you’d likely benefit from some physical activity — go for a run, do some HIIT, go apeshit on a pillow. Then see what other feelings are there.
7. Timebox Your Grief
Your more powerful emotions may arise at inconvenient moments — overwhelming sadness in the middle of a work meeting, for instance. When that happens, acknowledge the feeling and promise yourself you’ll address it when you can. “You can’t scream or cry during the meeting, so you may have to stuff it a little bit — but know that you’re going to set aside time to deal with that emotion when it’s more appropriate, like after work.” Finn says. “Then set a timer for 30 minutes. If you need to cry – which is totally okay, the end of a marriage is sad — then cry. Feel it completely. If you’re done with it before 30 minutes passes, then celebrate — you didn’t need the whole time.”
8. Don’t Hide Your Divorce Grief From Your Kids (But Don’t Freak Them Out, Either)
It’s okay for your kids to see you sad. “Kids don’t need to be shielded from your being sad or that the divorce has been hard on dad,” Shankar says. “It’s good for them to know that their parent struggles some days. How we process our feelings directly impacts how your children move through the divorce. You’re helping them learn resiliency by developing yours.”
It’s not okay for your kids to see you rant, rage, or sob uncontrollably. And it’s especially not okay to unload on them or use them as your source of support — parentification, or relying on your kids for adult emotional support, is a very bad habit. “It’s a balance,” Shankar says. “Your kids should not see everything, especially your anger towards the other parent. That’s something they should never have to carry. You can vent about your ex, but not to or in front of your kids.”
9. Write It Out
Take a page from your parenting manual and remind yourself to “use your words.” When your emotions and thoughts are in a jumble, it can help to put them into words. While talking with others is helpful, so too is journaling. “Writing out how you feel can bring relief,” Shankar says. Pick a time of the day when you’re really feeling it and commit to writing for a set amount of time. “You could have feelings of grief or sadness in the morning when you wake up, or at night when it’s dark and there’s more loneliness. Pick a time each day and just sit and write free-form for 10 minutes. It should be private — no one’s going to see it. Research shows that writing for a few minutes a day helps metabolize the feelings, so they’re not stuck.”
10. Use Your Feelings as Tools for Learning
When you’re in the midst of divorce grief, the overriding sentiment may be thishurtsthishurtsthishurts. But try to find lessons in the experience of grieving. “Even the most negative, painful feelings carry messages intended to help you heal and become the best version of yourself,” Finn says. “If you can look at your marriage from the angle of what it was and what it meant, and what you’ve learned as a result of losing it, you’ll be much further along than someone who dwells on the pain. You’re developing emotional and spiritual flexibility by finding how to use this to help yourself feel more whole.”
11. Stop Blaming Your Ex and Start Forgiving Them (and Yourself)
Your anger (see above) probably has a target: your ex. Maybe you blame them for the divorce, and you may even be justified in doing so. But blaming your ex will hinder you from seeing your part in your relationship’s end, which could help with your processing and growth. It also makes you the victim — and that doesn’t feel good. “You are moving into a phase of your life where you won’t be able to blame your spouse — because they won’t be there,” Finn says. “You can only work on yourself. Start by looking at your own responsibility within your marriage — the good and the bad. That allows you to take some power back.” According to Finn, this will push you ahead faster than just about any other strategy for dealing with grief after a divorce.
Relatedly, forgive your ex — and yourself — as best as you can. “It’s the next step after rising above blame,” Finn says. “As you work on taking responsibility for your own contributions to your divorce, forgiveness will become easier. When you forgive yourself, you’re no longer stuck in the mindset of failure. And when you forgive your ex, they have no control over you.”
12. Remember: You Will Still Be a Part of Your Kid’s Life
Divorce will likely change your relationship with your kids, but it isn’t the end of it. Refrain from gloom-and-doom thoughts about never seeing your kids again — that’s just adding to your grief. “Talk with your attorney to understand what your rights are when it comes to spending time with your kids,” Finn says. “In some parts of the country, moms are still given more time with kids than dads, but most places are working towards that being more equal.”
13. Focus on the Future You Want
It may be hard to imagine, but you will pull through— and you will be a better version of yourself for having gone through this. While the happily-ever-after you pictured on your wedding day is one of the losses you’re grieving, there is another future waiting for you. “Focusing on the possibilities of the future helps when you’re going through the work and discomfort of grieving your divorce,” Finn says. “It’s going to be worth it.”
14. Don’t Date Again Until You’re Ready — And You’re Not Ready
The temptation to move on to “the next” is going to be strong. Very strong. But you owe it to yourself and to whomever you’re destined to meet to grieve completely — so you can be your best self in your next relationship. “Grief can dull your senses, making it more difficult to be your genuine self,” Finn says. “A fluctuating emotional context of grief isn’t a good foundation for a new relationship. It isn’t fair to you or the person you’re involved with.”
Spend some time getting comfortable with being on your own. Eventually, you’ll be able to distinguish between wanting a relationship and needing a relationship. “When you’re curious about dating — not, ‘I got to’ — that’s when it’s time to try. You may find after one date that you’re not ready, so pause, take care of yourself, and then try again.”
15. Consider Professional Help
There is nothing masculine about gutting out a tough emotional period in your life. Your friends and family are there for you — you should be leaning on them for support as needed. But for additional support, see a therapist. “Knowing when you need help and asking for it is one of the most wonderful gifts you can give yourself and your children,” Finn says. “Your kids need to know you’re OK so they can be OK. You don’t need to fake anything — they should be able to look to you as someone who can provide them safety and consistency even when everything is completely different. Let your kids know they’re OK because you’ll work through the grief with support.”
16. Get Help Immediately If You Have More Than Momentary Thoughts of Suicide
The grief of divorce can get very uncomfortable. You may feel untethered, confused, and desperate — and want to make the pain go away. “People question whether going through all those feelings as part of healing is worth it,” Finn says. “They could have what I call popcorn thoughts, thoughts that pop into your head and make you wonder why you would think that. Thoughts like, Should I go on? People think about suicide. It’s not uncommon. These thoughts can freak you out, but they’re normal. Your brain is a problem-solver. The problem it’s trying to solve is your hurt, so it will come up with all sorts of ideas.”
If suicide does more than just pop into your head — if it’s a persistent thought — get help immediately. “The thought should scare you,” Finn says. “If it doesn’t, get help.”
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