Grieving a divorce can feel like an isolating process, but you are not alone and support is available.
Divorce can stir up a wide range of emotions, including sadness, relief, loneliness, anger, and even grief. Although many associate grief with the death of a loved one, it is also a common emotion to experience after the end of a marriage.
Grieving after a divorce can be painful, but you can learn how to create some distance from your grief and transition into this new chapter of life with time, support, and coping strategies.
Part of why grieving a divorce can be so difficult is that it may feel like you’re in it alone.
While the stigma that once existed around divorce has lessened, you may still experience feelings of shame or failure. These feelings can complicate your grief and make any feelings of loneliness or isolation even worse.
What can make grieving a divorce particularly challenging is that there aren’t common grieving rituals as there are with the death of a loved one that your friends and family can support you through.
For instance, when someone you love dies, the bereaved person can share their grief with others through mourning rituals like wakes and funerals.
Society often expects a person who’s lost a loved one to need extra care and consideration. It’s become the cultural norm to offer meals, time off from work, and other accommodations to help a person after someone close to them passes away.
Although your grief may feel similar, it isn’t common to receive these gestures when going through a divorce. This doesn’t mean your friends and family don’t care about you. They may just feel unsure about how to support you during this time.
Understanding disenfranchised grief
This lack of validation can cause many people going through divorce to experience disenfranchised grief.
Bereavement expert Kenneth Doka coined this term in his book “Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow.” Disenfranchised grief is a type of grief people may experience when they are going through a loss that tends not to be openly acknowledged, mourned, or socially supported.
This term applies to grief you might experience postdivorce as friends and neighbors often won’t come out of the woodwork bearing condolences and casseroles when a marriage ends.
It may help to directly communicate your grief to your loved ones so they know you need some extra support during this time.
There is no set formula or timeline for how long grieving a divorce will take. So there is no right or wrong answer in terms of how it affects you or a loved one going through it.
Grieving a divorce is a process, much like grieving a death. You’ll likely pass through a series of five stages, similar to Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grieving death or loss. The stages may include:
- Denial. A temporary, often early stage of the grieving process, denial can help reduce the shock of the initial loss.
- Anger. When you go through divorce, you will often feel a rush of emotions, including fear and pain. Anger is often a cover for these emotions, but it may also motivate you to move on.
- Bargaining. During divorce, bargaining may serve as a useful step that allows you to see if the relationship is truly over. Bargaining in divorce can take several forms such as counseling, couples retreats, or even just making promises to each other to behave differently in the future.
- Depression. A brief period of depression typically occurs following denial, anger, and bargaining. It comes with the acceptance that the marriage is over, and it is the emotional acknowledgement that you can be sad and have feelings of regret.
- Acceptance. Typically the final stage, acceptance occurs when you have fully processed that the divorce has occurred. At this point, you can typically move on and start making a new life for yourself.
Many experts consider the five stages of grief outdated, but it’s still common to experience feelings outlined in those stages. Also, similar to grieving the death of a loved one, you may not experience all the stages in order. Some may last longer than others, and that’s OK.
If you feel stuck in a phase, you may want to consider reaching out to friends or seeking professional help to process your emotions.
Overcoming grief after divorce can be painful, but time and coping strategies can help you move on to the next phase in your life.
Try to cut yourself some slack
You’ll likely react in ways that surprise you, and you may feel unexpected emotions. Keep in mind that you are likely going through many major losses with a divorce. Having a jumble of feelings, even unexpected ones, is OK and even expected.
You don’t have to have it completely together all the time. Try to cut yourself some slack and recognize it may take some time before you feel like your usual self.
Consider participating in a mourning ritual
Rituals around grief and death have existed since the earliest cultures. Rituals and ceremonies, including funerals and wakes, have many purposes.
A 2021 study revealed that rituals could benefit those in grieving by providing them with the space to honor a lost loved one, to let go of a traumatic experience, and to picture themselves transitioning into their next chapter of life.
In the context of divorce, a ritual may then help you honor your marriage, let go of the trauma and losses associated with it, and reinvent yourself as you enter a new phase in your life.
While there are no widely held ceremonial rituals after a divorce, more people are finding ways to acknowledge the loss and transition.
Some divorce rituals could include:
- writing a goodbye letter
- journaling weekly about your grieving process
- creating a list of what you are both losing and gaining
- burning your wedding dress
- making a memory box
- throwing a divorce party
- lighting a candle on the anniversary of your divorce (or marriage)
Consider seeking support
You are not alone, even if it feels like you may be. You can lean on friends or family for support and love during the process. They may not be able to fully understand what you’re feeling, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t show you support and compassion.
You may find it helpful to make a list of one to three people who promise to be available if you need them. These people can be friends, family, or professionals you can lean on for support.
Whether you have a strong support network of friends or family, seeking professional help may be a good option. Therapy and group therapy can be useful resources to navigate the grieving process and overcome possible feelings of loneliness.
You may even consider self-help options. A 2019 study, for instance, found that divorced and widowed participants experienced lower levels of grief, depression, stress, embitterment, and loneliness than a control group after participating in an online self-help program for 3 months.
It may take time to determine what methods work best for you. Consider using many types of resources, such as speaking with friends, reading self-help books, and joining a therapy group so you can feel you have high levels of support coming from all directions.
Though societal norms may not always give divorce the same consideration it gives to other experiences that cause grieving, you’re not alone, and resources are available. Here are some that may help:
- DivorceCare.org: An organization that provides resources and helps connect people in support groups who are going through divorce.
- Men’s Divorce: An attorney-sponsored site that offers helpful guides, information, and help connecting with a lawyer.
- Woman’s Divorce: A lawyer-sponsored service that helps connect women going through divorce with others who are also going through or who have gone through divorce.
If you are going through a divorce and find yourself grieving, your grief is valid, and you are not alone. Coping strategies for divorce grief can take many forms, but a mix of mourning rituals, professional help, and compassion from friends and family are some of the most accessible options.
Try to be kind to yourself during this time. You may feel overwhelmed by your emotions and even a little out of control, but you are handling the situation the best you can, and you will get through this.