Grieving a Divorce: How to Recognize and Heal from Pain

grieving a divorce

By Holly Herzog, LPC, Divorce Coach

Grieving a divorce means different things to different people. Everyone’s personal journey with grief is unique.  Recently I was digging through a box of photos looking for memories to share at a friend’s funeral. I found photos of myself and my ex over a 40-year span-birthdays, holidays, camping trips, sabbatical photos, and my kids’ musical performances and graduations. Each photo brought up fond memories, followed by a sting of the grief. It was a different phase of my life -a phase when I felt much happier and fulfilled in my relationship.

When we are young, we look forward to all of the good things on the horizon-birthday parties, graduations, weddings, babies.  With the forward looking, future planning behaviors it is easy to forget to live for the present.

Timing dependent on our own life circumstances, we at some point begin to have more hard things in life…deaths, divorce, illness, job loss, empty nesting, to name a few. Grief is the natural reaction we have to loss. It can be about death, but it can also be the loss of anything significant in life, including a divorce.

Loss is a part of life.  It’s easy to forget that. And it’s easy to forget to live for the present and not focus on the past. Especially if you are grieving a divorce, and healing from the pain.

What is grief?

As a mental health counselor and divorce coach, I see people struggle with grief every day.  Grief signs may include:

  • feeling overwhelmed
  • numbness
  • shock
  • sadness
  • fear
  • tearfulness
  • irritability
  • lethargy and lack of energy
  • trouble finding motivation or interests
  • weight changes
  • sleep issues
  • increased susceptibility to illness
  • changes in ability to deal with stress
  • and many other possibilities

Grieving a divorce affects our physical, emotional, and mental health.

I’ve had a lot of hard things this past year, each painful in its own way. I have lost relatives, friends, and much adored chimps in the sanctuary where I volunteer. People I love have faced illness, life threatening situations and some have recovered, for which I am grateful. My loved ones have had their own life challenges and the associated pain.  Every time my heart aches, tears fall as I sort through the memories in my mind.  Each incident and individual leaves an impression and treasured gifts.

A divorce is no different. No matter how ready you are to be separated from this person, you still have parts of the life you built together that will cause you to feel grief. You probably have years of special occasions, shared jokes, memories that you share only with this one person. There is grief in losing what you thought you had in the past. There is also grief in losing the future dreams that you banked on.

Another layer of grief is encountered each time I watch my kids’ pain around dealing with separate holidays, dividing time with each parent, navigating what to share and what to hold. The band aid is ripped off again and the wound seeps. This phenomenon is referred to by Dr. Therese Rando as STUGS, or Sudden Temporary Upsurges of Grief.  They are brought on by some kind of trigger that causes an emotional resurfacing of the grief and can happen even decades after the “normal” grieving has ended. They are perfectly normal. And so very painful.

When will grieving a divorce end?


The normal grieving process is that we get knocked over by the wave of grief often in the first six months of a loss. It may vary a bit depending on when you started facing the loss and how many complications there are in the divorce process.  But if you are struggling to function after six months–meaning having trouble getting out of bed, making it to work, participating in normal life stuff like listening to music because it is triggering-you might want to get some professional support. Hiring a counselor or divorce coach can help you address where you are stuck and find ways to move forward.

We must go through the pain to emerge on the other side. Avoiding the feelings and pushing down the memories only prolongs the process. There is no easy answer to how long the pain will last, it is dependent on so many circumstances.  Dig in and do the healing work and you will feel better more quickly.

Coping with grieving a divorce


Take care of your physical body.

Eat well, sleep 7-9 hours a night, exercise regularly, manage your stress and limit your use of drugs or alcohol.


Journaling allows you to examine your thoughts and feelings without fear of judgement. It helps you to get some distance from your emotions and is a good outlet for a brain that is ruminating.

Set short term goals.

Set short term goals that let you make progress and not get bogged down in overwhelm. Even one small goal per week or two. It could be something as small as “I’m going to take a 10 minute walk every day at noon.” Or “I’m going to journal every day about my anger for one week.”Or, “I’m going to sign up for a divorce support group this week.”



Talk about your grief.

Talk about your grief with friends, family or a counselor. It may feel hard to begin talking about it because it brings up the hurt feelings, but sharing those with another person allows you to process it.  Another option would be to join a divorce support group. It helps you to feel less alone.

Be kind to yourself.

There is no wrong way to express emotions of loss.  People around you may not know how to support you and as a result you might feel ashamed, embarrassed or guilty. Pay attention to the words you use in your head and be sure they are accepting and forgiving of the struggle you are experiencing.

Hold space for your grief.

If you are struggling to contain it, create a time each day that is set aside for you to cry, rage or express it. Distracting yourself from feeling grief by working too much, being too overscheduled or throwing yourself into a new relationship only will delay your healing process.

Let yourself cry.

Tears release oxytocin and endorphins, which relieve physical and psychological pain and help to soothe your body.  If you are having a hard time finding the tears, put on a sad movie or song and see if that helps. Or get out that box of photos in the back of your closet.

Life after the divorce:

It’s been eight years since my divorce. I am happily remarried and have built a life in a new city.  My kids are doing well. But the grief still catches my breath sometimes.  It’s not just the relationship that ended for me.  It’s the version of myself that I grieve.

The box of photos has been in the back of my closet for the better part of the past 8 years. It was just too much for me to face. So many of these photos are of my children and their father.  I was the photographer, and sadly, I am in very few of them.  But these are my memories, my history.

The woman that stares back at me in the photo of her child’s 8th birthday party is a stranger to me now.  She immersed herself so fully in her family life that she lost herself in the process. By the time she woke up she couldn’t remember what made her laugh, what tickled her fancy or what dreams were hers alone that she left discarded in the family building process. She was a shell of a person by the time her divorce came along.

The photos also bring the reminder I need to focus on living my life to the fullest right now. Some of those times were the happiest of my life and they deserve to be in my mind’s memory wheel. I’m glad that I have them.

We don’t know what our futures hold and that is why living in the present moment is so important. But I know that I am resilient, and my happiness is important. Grief is part of life, and it will come again. And again, my heart will heal.

Holly Herzog
Holly Herzog, Therapist and Divorce Coach

When life changes dramatically from unplanned circumstances, adjusting to the new path can be challenging.  This is something I have lived, and I am passionate about helping other people survive such a difficult time.  I help my clients cope with grief, come to terms with their new reality, and begin to dream about possibilities. The dreams are such a joy for me to witness.

I have a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from Lewis and Clark College and have been a practicing licensed professional for over 20 years.  I specialize in all things relationship oriented…most especially the one with ourselves.  

Among my greatest teachers are my loved ones and nature. My children are the impetus for continued personal growth as I want to be my best. My family has informed my relationship skills, my response patterns, and my coping tools. My partnerships have taught me that loving myself is more important than having the love of another, despite the happiness I feel when I am with someone I love. Nature teaches me that I can find beauty in every scene, if only I look and is a constant reminder of the impermanence of any situation. 

Like this article? Check out “8 Great Things Divorce Does to a Woman

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