Grieving Divorce by Robert E. Emery Ph.D
Divorce brings about many losses for parents and for children. Divorce is the end of your marriage. Divorce can feel like the end of your family (although it isn’t). Divorce may mean the loss of your home, the loss of friends, and the loss of social status. Divorce may mean losing your school, losing frequent contact with one of your parents, and perhaps losing some love, attention, and needed discipline from both of your parents. Divorce is the end of your role as a husband or wife, and it challenges your confidence as mother or father. At its core, divorce means the loss of your hopes and dreams for yourself, for your family, and for your children.
Grief is a natural reaction to loss. Even animals grieve. (That’s true. There are many books and studies on animal grief.) This means that you need to grieve if you are in the middle of a divorce with all of its associated losses. Your children also need to grieve. And although you may not fully believe it, your ex (or soon-to-be ex) also needs to grieve.
But grieving divorce is complicated for many reasons. For one, unlike what happens when someone dies, there are no traditions to support, direct, and encourage your grief (and your eventual healing). When a loved one dies, people get in touch with you, bring you food, and join you at the funeral. Others share in your grief. When you get a divorce, friends and family often do not know what to say, they may “take sides” with or against you, and they often get angry at you or your ex. No one can truly share your grief. Your losses don’t bring you special support through a divorce. Instead, sources of support often slip away from you.
Another complication is that grieving divorce is, well, really different. You may not even recognize that you are grieving. You may completely overlook your children’s grief — or your ex’s mourning. This can happen, in part, because your grief or theirs is often tinged with (or covered up by) other emotions, especially anger. In this case, anger is just a surface feeling, an emotional cover up. But many people have a hard time getting beneath the surface of their feelings in the turmoil of divorce, particularly when they don’t recognize or want to admit to the losses they have suffered or caused.
Divorce grief also is complicated by the fact that even members of your immediate family are likely to grieve in their own way. In comparison to your feelings — or your ex’s, your children’s grief may be more intense, or maybe less so. Depending on their age and personality, your children may not be aware of the loss, they may be devastated by it, or they may deny their grief due to embarrassment, their own anger, or a desire to hurt you — or protect you. And your partner’s grief is almost certain to be completely different from your own. In many divorces, there is what I call “a leaver” and “the left.” In this circumstance, the two partners’ losses — his and hers — look so different that neither person recognizes each other’s grief for what it is.
I discuss these essential variations on loss and grieving in detail in The Truth about Children and Divorce. My goal in doing so is to help you, your children, and even your ex move forward in coping with your losses. I especially encourage you all to identify and separate your grief from your many other complicated feelings, especially your anger. As you will discover if you read the book, many angry divorces really are all about unrecognized, unresolved, or unequal grief.