Grieving and the Journey of Divorce
by Mary Ellen McNaughton, Kelowna Counsellor
As much as we think it would be a relief to just turn the page and start fresh with no encumbrances from the past; that is usually not possible. Even if there are no children involved, we often find that our past relationship continues to affect us as we move on. We have mutual friends who often seem to pick sides or at least feel awkward around us. Unwelcome memories of the good times as well as the bad haunt us as we process our transition and try to figure out what went wrong. And if there are children, some form of the relationship usually continues as we navigate our co parenting relationship.
One thing that is often missed in our headlong drive to improve our situation is the fact that we are grieving. Although some people are very aware that they feel grief in the midst of this transition, I have also had people laugh with a sense of disgust when I mention the word grief in this context. I have heard things like “Grief! Are you kidding?! I can’t wait to get out of here!”
That may well be true but I also suspect that there is a misunderstanding about what grieving really involves. Grief used to be seen as simply an emotional reaction to loss. We are discovering that the sad and lonely feelings that we associate with grieving are really only the tip of the iceberg. More recent theories suggest that it involves deep and complex restructuring and reprogramming of our story as we discover how we fit in the world now that we have experienced significant change.
Robert Niemeyer psychologist and author, talks about narrative reconstruction and meaning making in grieving. He suggests that there are physical, cognitive and behavioural dimensions to processing and reconciling to change and loss. This occurs at both the conscious and unconscious level. It is not only reconciling to the loss itself but also to issues of identity. Questions emerge like, “What is my role now? How do I see myself? How do others see me?” Grieving involves reconciling to who I am now that I am no longer married, regardless of whether it resulted from death or divorce.
Children also need to reconcile to loss. There is the loss of their family unit, as they know it. There will be changes in how their story unfolds as well as how they will relate to each of you as you navigate this huge transition.
Grief can be tricky because so much of it is subterranean or unconscious. It is also a very energy consuming process often monopolizing eighty to ninety percent of our energy in the early stages. It affects concentration and memory. People will often report feeling confused, overwhelmed and exhausted just navigating their day-to-day living. They are actually been doing much more than that; they have been grieving.
Marshall Rosenberg in his book, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life, states that we all have a need to grieve our losses just as we have a need to celebrate our accomplishments and wins. It is easy to recognize how to meet a need for celebration. Our society condones, and even encourages celebration. We can imagine parties, food, wine, or gifts; but how do we meet our need for mourning? We are left to deal with that on our own. What would it look like to meet that need? Is it a need for comfort, nurturing, understanding, support?
When we are navigating the significant change involved with divorce it is not only important to take care of our physical needs for balance in the areas of food, rest and exercise but also our emotional needs for care, nurturing and support. Safe and supportive friends and family are wonderful to have but it is also helpful to realize that we can learn to nurture, care for and have compassion for ourselves during this process.
Rosenberg suggests that as we become aware of the voices in our head, we will be amazed at how much negativity we direct at ourselves. Often the critical voices of other people seem to be running in endless loops. He reminds us that we have choice about how we reconstruct our new narrative. He believes that it is possible that tumultuous and even traumatic times can actually serve as a catalyst for positive change when we begin to take charge of the story we are telling ourselves and create a narrative that is more compassionate and connected to what is authentic and important to us. Turning the page to a more enriching and life enhancing story often begins by first coming to terms with the story that we are leaving behind. This may involve allowing ourselves to feel and honour the feelings of pain and grief before we move on to experience the relief and emerging peace and regeneration on the other side.
In the navigation of an airplane, there is equipment that does constant course correction throughout the flight. It has been calculated that a one-degree course correction can translate into a destination difference equivalent to the difference between Denver and Miami over time. In my experience the collaborative law team can supply the tools for one-degree course corrections that can make a huge difference in your final destination as you journey through the transition of divorce.
Books Mentioned in the Article
- Robert A. Niemeyer, Constructivist Psychotherapy, Rutledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, e-library 2009.
- Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life. 2nd edition, 2003.
Mary Ellen McNaughton is a counsellor in private practice, certified with the Canadian Counselling Psychotherapy Association. She is also a bereavement counsellor working with the Central Okanagan Hospice Association and collaborative divorce coach with the Okanagan Collaborative Family Law Group.
She can be reached at [email protected] or 250-864-8664.