Monday, April 20, 2015

Is Grief A Normal Reaction to Divorce?

[Reviewed and updated April 14, 2024]

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.  ~ Toni Morrison

A reader writes: I recently tried to join a grief group. When the leader found out that my wife had not died, she told me that the others in the group would not feel that my grief was as deep as theirs. She suggested that I look for a divorce-recovery group. I wish I was certain that recovery will eventually happen. It has been over 17 years since I lost my wife. Isn’t it pretty clear by now that I will not ever recover?

My response: I’m so sorry to learn that you were met with such insensitivity from a support group leader. I also think your story illustrates the importance of the language we choose to use when speaking about grief.

First, it is pointless to compare one person’s loss with another’s, or to argue whether one type of loss is “deeper” than another kind. Better to say that the grief associated with divorce is different from the grief experienced when a spouse dies, but it is still a death – the death of a relationship – and it still engenders grief.

As I wrote in my book, Finding Your Way through Grief: A Guide for the First Year, Second Edition: Regardless of its source, the worst kind of grief is the grief you’re experiencing now. Don’t compare your grief with anyone else’s, and know that, at this moment, your loss is the worst thing that could happen to anyone. Acknowledge that your loss is worthy of grief. Where there is loss, there is grief. Pain is pain. Accept that you must endure the very real feelings of sorrow.

If “recovery” from your loss is what you seek, you’re quite right that you “will not ever recover,” because most of us understand “recovery” as returning to some state of normalcy, of going back to life the way it was before the loss occurred. When your divorce happened, the life you knew was lost, and you are forever changed. Better to say that eventually, with lots of hard work, understanding, and support, you will become reconciled to your loss.

Perhaps the most commonly asked question in coping with loss and transition is, “When is grieving finished?” While the agonizing pain of loss diminishes in intensity over time, it’s never gone completely. Whether through death or divorce, depending upon your relationship with and attachment to the one you have lost, it can be absolutely normal to feel the aftershock of loss for the rest of your life.

Grieving is not a reaction to a single event, like an illness that can be cured and from which you will recover. It’s more like a deep wound that eventually heals and closes, but whose terrible scar remains and still can hurt at times. For some, it’s like an amputation, in that part of one’s very self is lost when a relationship or a loved one dies. You wouldn’t think of asking an amputee, “How long does it take to get over losing your leg?” You never “get over” the loss of a loved one — over time and with effort, you simply learn to live with it, eventually adjusting to the physical absence of the one you have lost.

Whenever there is a loss of something important in our lives, we suffer grief, and grieving is a normal part of the divorce / breaking-up process.

Usually for a death there is a set ritual with a funeral or memorial service, and some understanding in our culture that mourning is important. But for the death of a love relationship, there is no prescribed ritual of mourning, and the grief that accompanies divorce is seldom acknowledged or accepted.

When a relationship dies, oftentimes there is an injury to one’s own ego, a sense of failure and a diminished sense of self-worth. There are nagging questions about what went wrong and many fears about the future. In order to get yourself into a position to enjoy life again, it’s important to learn whatever lessons these experiences have to teach you, to get to know yourself better and to develop new parts of yourself that you did not know were there before.

If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to visit the Death of a Relationship page of my Grief Healing website. There you will find links to many articles and books that are relevant to what you are experiencing, including how to find a divorce support group. See also the Related Articles and Resources listed at the base of this article.

I hope this information proves helpful to you, my friend, and I wish you all the best as you continue your life journey.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSign up here

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