Grief following divorce, is it over when it’s over?

I separated from my long term partner two years ago. I instigated the separation and wanted to move on with my life as swiftly as possible and thought I had. However I was taken by surprise on how sadness and loss can creep up on you when you’re least expecting it.

We had lived in a spacious house with our two teenage children. On our separation the house was sold and we each had to downsize. The ensuing disruption and upheaval of the move was stressful but I knew at the time it had to be done and thought it was all behind me.

My ex-partner had put some of his things into container storage. Recently he had to clear the container and asked if I wanted some shelves as he knew I was short of storage. When the door of the container opened the first thing in my line of vision was the set of empty shelves that once sat in the family home. In an instant I was in complete emotional overwhelm. A huge wave of sorrow hit me as memories flooded into my mind of the all the family belongings it stored and the life and times as a family.

After what seemed like an eternity but was actually only a minute or so I managed to compose myself and got on with the job in hand. So how did I do this?

As a divorce coach and family mediator I’m aware that divorce and separation is akin to bereavement. In 1969 a Swiss psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, identified five stages of loss on bereavement: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. These stages can occur in any order and often people experience them in a roller coaster effect. It is thought that most people experience at least two of them, returning to one or more several times before working through it .Events such as the one I experienced can trigger one of the stages again when it’s least expected.

I also know that people can get stuck in one or more of the stages but you don’t have to stay there unless you choose to. Over the last few decades findings in neuroscience have led coaches to develop tools and techniques that enable people to better manage their negative states and move through difficult times.

Here are my tips for how you can move on:

  • Breathe. Take some slow deep breaths. Breathe in and out slowly for four breaths, concentrating on the sensation of the air coming in through your nose, filling your lungs and the sensation of expelling the air. Try to pause between each in and out breath. Imagine with each out breath that your hurt, sadness, pain, bitterness, anger or whatever negative feeling you are experiencing is being released.
  • Develop emotional awareness. You can’t get rid of painful and difficult emotions they are a fact of life but you can manage them which reduces their intensity. The first step to managing your emotions is by learning to name the emotion you are experiencing. . Psychologists such as Paul Ekman identified a handful of key emotions: sadness, fear, anger, disgust and enjoyment which have different intensities. Sadness can include: disappointment or discouragement at one end of the scale, to despair and grief at the far end felt with great intensity. With awareness you can pause before you react and respond constructively.
  • Accept negative emotions It’s okay to experience intense negative emotions during and after divorce and when you’re least expecting them to appear. Try not to suppress or deny them but acknowledge them, they are normal and to be expected. However if you find yourself stuck in one of the stages and can’t seem to shake off feelings of despair, anguish and helplessness seek the help of a counsellor or a therapist. It’s just as important to take care of our emotional and mental well-being as it is of our physical well-being.
  • Practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness is about being in the present moment. With mindfulness you learn how to step back and observe your thoughts as they arise and it ‘allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral’ according to Mark Williams and Danny Penman in their book ‘Mindfulness a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’. With regular practice mindfulness helps you stay calmer, gain a different perspective and cultivate compassion for yourself and others. There are many excellent books on mindfulness, free apps to download and courses to help you practice mindfulness.

Grief is an important part of the divorce process and knowing about the stages of loss can help you through the process. Whether you’re the leaver or you’ve been left you‘ll probably experience some aspect of loss to varying degrees of intensity and possibly when you’re least expecting it. It’s perfectly normal and some will need time to work through the stages of loss but you can move through it and out to the other side. If you need support in moving through your divorce please contact me

Jane Busby is a divorce coach and an accredited family mediator

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