Navigating the Post-Divorce Stages of Grief
Healing After heartbreak
This year in particular has been one of loss for many of us. You may have lost a loved one, or even just been mourning the many ‘normal ways of life’ that have perhaps irrevocably been lost.
While navigating the stressful terrain of this year, as a therapist and online life coach I have been working with clients who have also been going through things like coping with job loss, infertility and pregnancy loss, and breakups. If you’ve been through or are going through a divorce or long-term relationship breakup, you should know that it will include a grieving process. I often tell my clients that a breakup can be conceptualized as the “death” of a relationship, and that it can be helpful to use the stages of grief to help move through all of the painful emotions that can arise.
Before I go through the stages, I want to emphasize that just like when you’re grieving the death of a loved one, grief is a personal and unique experience. You may not go through all of these stages, you may go back and forth between some, and you may have some entirely new emotions come up. We use models like this one by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to help make sense of the complicated and intense emotions involved, and to remind us that grief is a process we must move through, no matter how bumpy, to get to a place of peace and acceptance.
With each stage below, I’ve provided an action takeaway that may serve as a helpful tool to navigate through it.
1. Shock and Denial
When relationships end in a sudden way, they can certainly cause shock and denial, as you begin to process the reality of this new life change. When I’ve worked with clients who are looking for support freshly out of a breakup, they’ve brought up things like feeling numb, helpless and generally out of control. Even when there is a longer, considered process that results in the decision to get a divorce or break-up, the weight of an ending can still result in these kinds of feelings. You may also be experiencing these feelings if you’re considering ending your relationship, and finding it difficult to make the decision.
- Action Takeaway: Sit down with your journal and start writing a eulogy for the relationship. Ask yourself: Why did this relationship need to end? Where were the highlights, positive moments, and the things you will miss? What were the lowlights, the hurtful, negative, or unacceptable parts? My hope for you is that you will be able to create a “funeral” or ritual of some sort where you can allow the reality of this life-changing moment to be fully felt and processed by your mind, body, and heart.
2. Pain and Guilt
This is the stage where the pain of the breakup can feel overwhelming. You may have lost your closest support system in the ending of your relationship, and it can be a devastating time to be experiencing this pain. You may feel like you are “overflowing” with pain, and that you will never be okay. You may also experience feeling like your friends and family are “tired” of listening and supporting you, and appear to have moved on from this life-changing event that has happened to you.
It’s important to know that feeling pain, guilt, overwhelming sadness or hopelessness are completely normal and needed for you to continue to process the breakup. It can be really helpful to talk with a counselor or coach who is experienced in breakup recovery, as they will know how to support you during this time. Your family and friends are there to support you, but they also may have moved into a different stage in their own experience of the end of your relationship (especially when they were a close “part” of the relationship). Because of this, they may not fully be able to understand where you currently are in your process.
- Action Takeaway 1: Talk to a counselor or coach. You may have also taken a real hit to your self-esteem during this experience, and a counselor or breakup recovery coach can give you a safe space to explore your feelings and process your emotions.
- Action Takeaway 2: Express, express, express. Journal, cry in the shower, scream into your pillow, throw some paint on a canvas, go axe-throwing, anything to get that energy and emotions flowing out of you. They’re bubbling up and they want to come out! The more you push them down and away, the more they will simmer and bubble up. It's Okay to Cry: How to Handle Big Emotions and How Difficult Emotions Lead to Growth talk more about the darker emotions that we experience and the process that they bring us through into new growth. Check these two articles out if this is a difficult area for you.
3. Anger and Bargaining
Many of my clients are somewhere between the pain and anger stages when they come to me for breakup recovery coaching. The Anger and Bargaining stage may be when you have thoughts like “I should have done X differently” or “What if I had noticed Y years ago, maybe I could have done something differently” or “I just can’t understand or accept why they did Z”. This is likely when it becomes even harder to reach out to the people around you. You may be spiraling, experiencing intrusive thoughts, and finding it hard to manage the anger or other intense emotions, and people around you may be finding it harder to support you.
- Action Takeaway: Write a letter to your Ex, expressing what you’re most angry or hurt about. Try the prompts: What feels hardest to forgive? What did you need from them that you didn’t get? Then, tell your Ex how you grew, both through your time together in the relationship, as well as through the breakup. This letter is for your eyes only, so feel free to share all your thoughts and feelings – you’re the one who is holding the anger, it will help you to release it.
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4. Depression and Loneliness
This stage can be a really low period, especially when it has become harder to feel supported from people in your life. You may also just feel drained from all the other exhausting emotions you’ve been going through. And again, you have just lost an important person in your life. It can be so easy to fall into a demoralized, hopeless place where you feel really alone. This is sometimes the stage people are in when they have reached out for breakup recovery support, and what has helped my clients is to know that I can empathize and bear witness to this grief, and really join them in a time that they may feel most alone.
- Action Takeaway: Pick up your phone and reach out to someone. Whether it’s a friend, family member, or someone like a breakup recovery coach or counselor, you need to help yourself by reminding yourself that you are not alone. If you feel really low, even just sending a text message to someone saying “I’m feeling like crap today” and letting them know that it doesn’t have to be a full conversation. You would want your loved ones to know that they could count on you to just listen and be there with you for a bit, wouldn’t you? Trust me, they feel the same about you.
5. The Upward Turn
The passing of time, processing your emotions, and support, will eventually bring you to a point where the most intense emotions have subsided, and you can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You may feel more calm, and you may finally feel hopeful and positive.
- Action Takeaway 1: When you feel negative emotions or thoughts coming up, engage in healthy distractions like calling a friend, reading, a fun physical activity, or doing something productive.
- Action Takeaway 2: Practice mindfulness skills that help you stay in the present moment and use thought-stopping techniques to keep you from ruminating or spiraling into negative thoughts.
6. Reconstruction and Healing
Just like the stages of grief are not necessarily linear, the process of healing, reconstruction, and building yourself up will be bumpy. And just like grieving a death, the painful parts of a breakup may never completely go away. You want to continue to cultivate the feelings of peace when thinking about your old relationship, and embrace the lessons you’ve learned about yourself and about what you hope for in a future relationship.
- Action Takeaway: It’s time to really work on building up your self-esteem. Intentionally reflect on your positive qualities, the accomplishments in your life thus far, the personal strengths and gifts you are proud of, and what others appreciate the most about you. Make some space to engage in self-care, whatever that looks like for you. Spend time with loved ones and enjoy being able to feel lighter and more peaceful.
7. Acceptance and Hope
This is the stage that I love to see my clients get to – a gradual acceptance of the end of the relationship, and feelings of positivity and hopefulness about the future. And yet, even when they have processed through most of their most intense emotions, come to accept and feel peace about the ending of the relationship, it is not uncommon that some of the earlier stages can come up again. A special day, a memory, a sentimental item in your home, may trigger some pain, sadness, anger, or betrayal. This is normal. Lean into the positive thoughts and feelings and notice the evidence in yourself of how far you have come from the earlier stages of grief.
- Action Takeaway: Use the learning and growth you’ve gone through during this grieving process and continue to work on your self-development, your goals for yourself and for a future relationship, and celebrate the resilience and strength that you have gained by going through such a painful experience!
I’m sure you’ve faced a number of losses in your life, and are likely to face many more. It’s simply part of our human experience. I hope that, whatever stage of grief you’re in now, you found something useful here. Ultimately, grieving the loss of a relationship will be painful, and when you allow the process to take place and go through the stages of grief, it can result in remarkable growth, clarity about what you want to bring into your life next, and resilience.
Wishing you strength, support and wellness,
Sharmishtha G., is a warm, validating counselor and coach who can help you uncover your strengths, get clear about who you are, heal your spirit, and attain the highest and best in yourself and your relationships.
Sharmishtha offers breakup support coaching and divorce recovery coaching. She is an excellent life coach and individual counselor and can help you get clear about what you want, heal from past experiences, and move forward into a happier, healthier future.
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