Last month, a dear friend of mine lost her husband to cancer. They were happily married, both in their early forties and still in the process of building their life together. But tragically cancer took his life much too soon and now she is left a young widow, grieving the loss of her life partner and the entire future they had envisioned together.
What my professional experience has taught me about death and divorce grief:
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been helping her cope with this traumatic loss and seeing her daily struggle through the immense pain and overwhelming grief has again confirmed what I’ve learned through my own personal experience and through my career as both a divorce coach and certified grief counselor.
Death and divorce are two very different life-changing events and every individual has their own unique experience of each. But when they both result in the loss of your spouse, the degree of impact and the stages of grief are often very much the same.
How death and divorce evoke similar feelings of loss:
- Both involve the painful loss of your spouse and often the loss of your self-identity as their partner.
- Whether or not it was your decision to divorce, it can still feel like you’re grieving the death of your love, the death of your marriage and the death of your hopes and dreams for the future.
- Both are traumatic life changing losses with long-term effects. The life you know is suddenly ripped away and you’re left without the security or familiarity of your marriage. You no longer have a partner to rely on and you’re on your own to pick up the pieces, deal with financial issues, legal matters etc.
- Many people are blindsided by their divorce and your spouse’s abrupt decision to leave the marriage can be just as shocking and traumatic as a sudden death. Many people feel that divorce is even worse than death when rejection, betrayal and shame are added to the loss.
- In other cases, the breakdown of a marriage happens over a long period of time and the ongoing pain and fear of the inevitable is comparable to a spouse slowly dying of a terminal illness. In these situations, a divorce or death can be a welcome relief from the prolonged pain and suffering.
Death and divorce loss share seven stages of grief
Whether divorce or death comes as a surprise or with ample warning, it can be very surreal and difficult to accept when your spouse is suddenly gone. Often there is an immediate period of shock and denial, which is a normal defense mechanism when the magnitude of loss and overwhelming emotions are too much for you to process all at once.
However, denial can become a problem if it goes on for too long or if you simply refuse to accept your spouse’s decision to divorce.
2. Pain and fear
When reality sinks in that he’s never coming back, the finality of losing your spouse hits you with all types of pain. It punches you in the gut, stabs you in the heart and becomes a constant dull ache that you carry with you every day.
The fear of starting over again can also be severe. “How am I going to go on with my life when I feel this bad?” “How am I going to manage everything on my own?” “What if I never fall in love again and end up alone?”
While it’s probably the most difficult part of the grieving process, allowing yourself to feel the pain and face your fears is the healthiest way to get through it. Pushing your emotions aside will likely just prolong your grief and cause it to resurface in unhealthy behaviours later on.
Most of us get married expecting to grow old with our partner and when life throws you a hard curveball you didn’t expect or deserve – of course you’re going to be angry! And sometimes those bursts of anger can feel a lot better than constantly wallowing in your pain.
Whether you’re angry at your ex for not doing his part to save the marriage, or angry at the doctors for not doing everything to save his life, or just angry at everyone for simply going on with their lives as usual, anger is a very common response for anyone grieving a loss.
Bargaining can be pleading to God to spare or extend your loved one’s life
before their death occurs or it can be attempts to reconcile your marriage at any point during the divorce process.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with making a last ditch effort to save your loved one’s life or your marriage, continuing to bargain beyond what is realistic or reasonable can cross the line into desperate or delusional behaviour.
Experiencing feelings of guilt usually means that you’re beginning to accept
the situation. But rather than blaming others, you begin focusing on finding fault with yourself.
While it’s important to be accountable for your actions and to learn from your mistakes, it’s not healthy to beat yourself up or fool yourself into believing that a significant event such as death or divorce is solely the result of something you did or did not do.
Not surprisingly, depression is the most common and long-lasting stage of grief following a death or divorce. When the reality and gravity of the situation are sinking in and your emotions are no longer running wild, you have no choice but to just sit with it.
“My husband is really gone. I’m completely alone and there is nothing that I or anyone can do to change that now.”
It is completely normal and expected that anyone who suffers a significant loss such as a life partner is going to be depressed. Allow yourself to feel it and little by little, it will eventually lift and release you.
However, if your depression goes on for too long or is so severe that you can’t carry on with simple tasks, it’s extremely important to seek professional help from a coach, therapist or your family doctor.
Acceptance after a death or divorce is when you realise that you have no choice but to live with the loss and that although your grief may always be a part of you, it doesn’t have to define you.
Acceptance also means learning to overcome adversity, embracing the wisdom and personal growth to be gained from the experience, and knowing there is still happiness to be found in your new life ahead.
I have been through the dark tunnel of grief and I help people find their way to happiness on the other side.
Whether you wear the label of “widow” or “divorcee”, losing your spouse can feel like the loss of your past, present and future all at the same time. You may feel like your entire world has suddenly ended, that your heart is broken beyond repair and that your once clear vision of the future is now blurred with uncertainty and fear.
Believe me, I too have been there and I promise you there is a way to get through this. The journey through grief certainly isn’t easy and we all walk through it at our own pace. In fact, you will likely jump back and forth between the different stages of grief or feel like you’re experiencing them all simultaneously.
Some days you will even start to feel okay and then the next day it seems like the grief will never end. Just know that no matter how many times you fall or feel like you’re slipping backwards, it’s not always going to be like this.
Just be willing to get back up on your feet and take it day by day, one step at a time. The only way through this dark tunnel is to continue walking towards the light on the other side.
In my next blog, I will share my best-proven practices for helping you through the grieving process.
I’m Sonyan White and I’m a certified divorce coach and grief counselor that helps people heal from painful breakups, divorce and loss.
If you are grieving and need support, then I would love to hear from you. If you prefer to discuss your situation privately, please contact me directly by email at email@example.com or you can share your comments and ask me any questions in the space below.
You can also read my other articles covering a variety of topics on divorce, grief and helpful healing practices by visiting www.sonyanwhitecoaching.com/blog/
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