The grief Maria (not her actual name) experienced when her divorce was over brought her to therapy. When she arrived for her first session, she was overwhelmed. Her eyes were red from crying, and she held a wet tissue in her hand.
“Where do I start?” She asked.
There is no right answer to this. I said quietly, “Start wherever. We’ll see what will come out.” We sat in silence for a while, tears rolling down her cheeks. She reached for tissues and blew her nose every few minutes, and finally looked at me apologetically. “I’m sorry,” she said.
I have learned that the most powerful support is to just sit with the person who is submerged in grief. They feel like they are drowning in tears. Many, many years ago when I was in therapy, grieving a loss, I had a dream that fillings were falling out of my teeth. When I told my therapist, he said, “Hmmm. Fillings. Feelings….” And that’s how it can feel, like all your emotions are just falling out, pouring out like a waterfall. And your dreams are working hard to help you process your loss.
Grief, Loss, and Quiet
Grieving is normal and we all grieve in our own ways. Loss and grief are universal—there is no way to avoid losses. But it is also very personal. There is no “right way” and no timeline. Sometimes you will want to talk, and you just want someone to listen. Their presence can be very supportive and comforting, even without talking. It is comforting to have someone there to listen or just sit with you. Don’t feel pressured to talk about your divorce. Find comfort in the silence, just being with your friend. You don’t need to fill the space with words or conversation.
When Will it End?
People don’t realize how long perfectly normal grief can last. The acute phase of grief can last weeks or months. Then you start to metabolize the pain and it becomes a part of who you are. It changes you in some way. It doesn’t go away but you learn to live with it. Eventually, you feel like yourself again.
Sometimes grief masquerades as anger or righteousness. Those are secondary emotions, a cover for the pain, vulnerability, and yes, grief.
Maria grieved the loss of her hopes and dreams when her marriage ended. She grieved not tucking her children into bed every night. She felt when she lost her husband, she’d lost her best friend. Maria and I met regularly, and she gradually started to recover. “The grief comes in waves now,” she said after about six months, “sometimes just out of the blue, or maybe someone mentions their kid, and then I’m a mess. But I am also getting through the tears a little more easily now.”
People don’t realize how long perfectly normal grief can last. But if you feel unable to function after some months, you should consider talking to a therapist. Many therapists specialize in grief counseling. Sometimes the grief is complicated by other things in your life or your past. That makes it harder to get through the loss. A therapist can help you sort through the things that are making it harder to move on. For example, if your parents were divorced when you were a child, your grief may be complicated by the grief you felt back then (and couldn’t express).
If you start making—or even thinking–suicidal statements (even something like “I can’t live without her”), or if you feel depressed for most of every day for a lot longer, don’t wait to call a therapist.
The Right Kind of Support
The problem is that people who have a loss, like a divorce, or like a death, are usually surrounded by friends and family for the first month or six weeks. But then life goes back to normal for all of them, but the grieving person is still acutely grieving, alone. That’s when you need people to step up, check-in, drop by, go for a walk, or take you out for a cup of tea (or bring the croissants).
When you are deep in grief you may not know what you need or even want. Turning to others for support might seem impossible and it might not even cross your mind to ask. Your phone feels like it weighs 50 pounds, and you can’t pick it up.
But when you let people help you, you are actually helping them too. I recommend that you ask for your friends to check in with you regularly later…when they might not realize you’ll need support for a longer time, and you won’t want to “burden” them. Your friends may feel helpless, often don’t know what to say or do, and when you give them a way to support or help you, they appreciate it!
These are things a friend might do to support you—or that you can ask for:
A meal delivery or a gift card for food delivery. If there are kids, let a friend take them to the park, for a play date or overnight. A house cleaner can make the chores less overwhelming, so you don’t have to clean or do laundry. Ask a friend to borrow theirs or offer to send yours to a grieving friend. You need the practical support, and phone calls after the kids are in bed.
If your friend is grieving, tell them you are about to go to the grocery store so what can you bring them, what things do they need, and then add a few treats. Invite them to go on a walk or sit in a park. Include them if you are going out to a movie or dinner.
Most of Maria’s friends pulled away after a month or two, forgetting that she was still suffering. But one friend stopped by or called every few days, and when she and her spouse were going to a movie, they always invited Maria to join them. “I never had thought of that particular friend as anyone special until my divorce. They really threw me a lifeline,” Maria told me.
What Not to Say
There are many unhelpful things people say with the best of intentions. When people say, “If you need anything, just call me,” this is not helpful. A grieving person may not even be able to pick up the phone. “You’re better off without him,” or “You’ll find someone new in no time” are examples of unhelpful comments. “Think of all the free time you’ll have when you don’t have the kids!” is also not helpful when a parent is missing the daily contact with the children.
After a death, comments such as “He’s in a better place now,” or “at least you have another child” can be experienced as hurtful. It is better not to say anything at all.
If you are worried about someone you know who is struggling with grief for a long time, you could suggest professional help or medication, but it has to be done sensitively. Otherwise, you might be sending the message that the grieving person is doing something wrong. You could say something easy and non-judgmental like “If you think it would help, I know a good shrink.”
Grief is normal after divorce, whether you made the decision or not. The loss of the hopes and dreams you had on your wedding day is like a death. Allow yourself to feel that grief and trust that it will pass. As the fog of grief clears, you’ll remember the joys in your life.