You are divorced, legally and finally. Now, everyone said, you can start to ‘live again’. After the divorce is final, you learn to breathe again. You exercise, eat well, get rest, stay connected to friends and family. Maybe you meet someone new. All of the things one is advised to do after divorce is final. You wait for time to heal. You are patient, and have lived and lost before.
After the divorce is final, there are signs that life is going to get better. A new job, or a new relationship, or a new home give you hope and buoyancy. You begin to believe that this is the life you were meant to live. The old life with your ex was a mistake, something you want to bury away. You push that life away with all your might, building this new life. You have great expectations for your new life.
Your optimism and hopefulness are like crack. You ride around in the car, music blaring, feeling carefree, young again. Things are going to turn out alright … even better, they are going to be fantastic!
The problem is, along with the ‘old life’ with your ex, you are burying feelings associated with it. Like the feeling you had when you first moved in together, or bought your first home together, or brought your child home from the hospital together. The disappointments of that life are mixed in with the tender moments. They are all entwined together in your heart and mind.
Feelings are literally wired into us, a part of us. Pushing them away is simply pushing away some part of you, your experience, your history as a human. Buried feelings are, as we say, “buried alive”. They contain energy.
Energy on steroids
What happens when the energy contained in these walled off feelings builds up?
You will be driving down a street, on your way to an exciting social event or meetup with a friend, and suddenly you’re overtaken. Feelings of sadness, regret, nostalgia, even fear and anger … will come up with a fury. These feelings are so powerful, they can take your breath away.
The psychological energy needed to keep these feelings from your awareness is not foolproof. In what seems like an everyday moment, buried feelings break through with the least amount of external triggering. Maybe you and your ex drove down this road together to pick up a new sofa, or you see a car similar to the one he drove when you started dating. The possibilities are endless.
The point is, even after the divorce is final, grief is still very much present. Nobody can resolve all of the unpleasant feelings associated with the end of their marriage and divorce in one fell swoop. So we tuck them away in order to cope with the business of getting divorced, establishing a new life, and functioning at full capacity.
Advice for grief after the divorce is final: Make friends with your feelings
When you judge yourself as ‘failing’ at rebuilding after the divorce is final due to these nostalgic experiences, you are being unfair. This actually is to be expected. Brace yourself for this next sentence – this is going to continue for some time to come.
How you deal with these moments is much more important than the fact that they are occurring!
We are all made of flesh and blood, and this is how we grieve. Here are some tips that may help to not just get you through, but heal and lift you up, as your feelings surface after the divorce is final:
1. Notice your feelings as they come up.
I know this sounds obvious, but we all have built in defense mechanisms to protect us from psychological harm. Noticing feelings as they come up, rather than ignoring or avoiding them, is step #1 in healing.
2. Breathe into your feelings.
Literally, take 3 deep breaths. What are you breathing in? You may find that as you are breathing into these feelings of loss, you are also breathing in some of the mixed in feelings of tenderness, even joy. Sunshine is up there behind the clouds.
3. Name your feelings.
If you can identify a feeling, name it. Is it sadness, regret, longing, bitterness, anger, resentment, guilt? Naming the feeling helps us to know it, and to see it as separate from our full selves. Feelings are a part of us, but they are not ALL of who we are. They are fluid. You’ll notice when you name a feeling, it tends to dissolve, and another one comes up. Keep naming them.
4. Let yourself go there.
If you feel confident in the first 3 of these tips, try this one. It is more advanced, and challenging. Let yourself lean into the feeling, and the associated memories. If there was abuse, or trauma, I would recommend doing this with a skilled therapist. You’ll find that this expands the feeling, and at the same time satisfies the need to feel it. Paradoxically, the feeling evaporates after a little while.
5. Stay grounded.
Self talk is important here. Keep your awareness on the whole picture, the here and now. Every life is made up of many stages, and you are bearing witness to feelings from the last stage of your life. You are now moving into the next stage, and do not have to disown any stage of your life. Every part of your life has made you who you are today.
Remember, grief is not linear. It can come in waves, washing over us, or show up abruptly and disappear the same way. We all grieve differently, according to our own personalities, the loss, and our interpretation of it.
It is not a sign of weakness to experience our losses, and to acknowledge our innermost feelings, even after the divorce is final. Practicing acceptance and embracing these feelings will help us to grow, and we will become more compassionate toward ourselves and others. That is personal power!
Ann Cerney, LCPC is a counselor, mediator, and coach for people considering, going through, or redefining their life after a divorce. A graduate of Benedictine University with a Masters in Clinical Psychology, Ann is trained in discernment counseling and helps people decide next steps for their marriage. Ann believes that feeling empowered rather than entitled is the most important factor in living a fulfilled life, divorced or married. Ann’s sweet spot is working with people she calls “Divorcelings”, or those who feel wrongly divorced or separated. To learn more, visit her site.
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