Working Through Grief After Divorce

Divorce is often difficult. Even in the most amicable situations, there are losses to acknowledge, cope with, and move through. The process of experiencing the emotions that come with those losses, expressing feelings, and eventually learning and growing from them is divorce grief.

Though grief may not always feel pleasant, it's an important part of working through a divorce in a meaningful, healthy way. By addressing the losses that come with divorce, it is possible to work through the ongoing and often conflicting emotions that arise and find ways to get through the most painful parts.

This article will discuss the typical grieving process, provide tips for getting through a divorce, and offer factors to consider before ending an intimate relationship.

Woman touching the wedding ring on her finger nervously while having coffee and waiting in cafe.

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What Is Divorce Grief?

We often think about grief as something that only occurs after a death, but people grieve in many different situations. Grieving is a natural process that follows any loss. Some types of non-death losses would include the loss of identity after becoming an empty nester, loss of community after moving, and, of course, loss of a relationship.

When going through a divorce or ending a significant intimate relationship, grieving allows us to work through the thoughts and feelings that are brought on by the many different losses that come with it. Whether it's working through the physical loss of another person being absent from the home, a loss of security, loss of friendship or companionship, or even financial loss, each needs to be acknowledged and grieved.

Ambiguous Loss

One reason grieving through a divorce can be complicated is that—unlike grief after a death—both people are still physically present, but the relationship is gone. This type of loss is called ambiguous loss. It may feel as though grieving is not appropriate or necessary because divorce is initiated by one or both people intentionally, but grief is normal and necessary any time there is loss.

There's No Wrong Way to Grieve

Navigating through the ambiguous losses that result when a relationship ends is often not straightforward and can come with feelings of guilt, ambivalence, and blame by others. This can make grieving difficult and more drawn out, especially as it comes with both tangible losses, like money, and intangible losses, like self-esteem.

Grieving Process

Grieving after a divorce is about paying attention to the feelings that arise and understanding their impact to find ways to cope with them. It may feel better in the moment to ignore difficult feelings or push them aside. However, ignoring feelings rather than allowing yourself to feel and process them only helps temporarily. Feelings that are ignored will come back up or manifest in new ways eventually.

With grief, it's common to experience a period of anxiety or stress related to the separation, a period of working through the loss and finding new meaning, and eventually a time when things feel normal again.

Acute Grief

Divorce grief should be thought of as a process, rather than a series of steps to get through or boxes to check off. Grief is often ongoing and sways back and forth over time. Some days and some moments will be harder than others, and even after it feels as though one type of loss or situation is done, there may be new feelings that continue to emerge later on.

For example, you may have come to terms with the fact that you will only see your children every other week, but feelings of anger, sadness, frustration, and loneliness could still come up on occasion, and that is normal.

Grief Is an Ongoing Process

Grieving is a process, and the feelings related to grief can change from day to day and week to week. Working through divorce grief may feel more like walking up a spiral staircase than taking an elevator.

During the acute period immediately following a loss, emotions and feelings are most intense. This may occur when the divorce is decided upon, during the process of separation, or even after the divorce has been finalized.

During this time, feelings like sadness and anger and behavioral changes like loss of appetite are likely to occur most often. Other feelings like guilt, regret, helplessness, and resentment are also common.

Dual Process Model of Coping

After about six months, most people have passed through the most intense feelings that come with grief. At this point, there may still be times when feelings related to grieving emerge, but they are likely to be less frequent and probably won't last as long.

One way to think about typical grief is through the dual process model of coping, which describes grief as an ongoing process that moves back and forth between the pain of loss, the strength of carving a new path and building a new identity, and living everyday life.

Complicated Grief

Sometimes, the difficulty and pain of moving through grief and adapting to a new way of living does not get easier. In these situations, there is ongoing distress about being separated from the other person, a feeling of lost identity, and ongoing intense feelings of anger, sadness, and other emotions.

If the intensity of the grieving process does not get easier with time or grieving gets in the way of your ability to enjoy life and carve a new identity, it may be helpful to talk to a mental health professional. A therapist can help with processing the losses associated with divorce and coping with the painful feelings that surround it.

Tips for Moving Forward

Building resilience after a divorce means finding ways to cope with the feelings around the loss and eventually finding new meaning and identity.

Remember that most people are resilient and are able to work through their grief. There is no shame in getting help from a mental health professional.

Here are some ways to move through a divorce or separation in a healthy way:

  • Keep track of feelings: Try keeping a journal, talking to a trusted person, or simply naming your feelings as you have them. Being able to recognize what you're feeling and naming those emotions will help you figure out how to cope with them.
  • Find balance: Don't take on too much at once. Pay attention to when you need to take a break. Give yourself the space to do something that makes you feel happy and relaxed whenever you need it.
  • Seek professional help: Whether it's talking to a mental health professional, a lawyer, or your child's school counselor, admit when you need some support and ask for help.
  • Be open and honest: Whether it's with yourself or with others in your life, be honest and clear about how you feel and what you need.
  • Find new meaning: Though life may be different now, it doesn't mean it needs to lose meaning. Get to know yourself, and focus on the activities you used to love that you no longer do, those you still enjoy, and those you'd like to try but never have before.

What to Consider Before Ending a Relationship

When relationships are healthy and positive, they can have beneficial effects on our wellness and overall health. However, when relationships are unhealthy, unsafe, or no longer bring meaning and joy, you may need to consider whether to end the relationship. Account for the following when deciding whether to end an intimate relationship:

  • Safety: Are you, your children, or anyone else in the relationship or home in immediate danger? Consider the right time to end the relationship based on everyone's safety and well-being as well as a safe place to stay during the separation or divorce process.
  • Support system: Think about the people in your life you can count on to provide various types of support. Who can you turn to when you need to talk, when you need help watching your children, when you need a place to stay, or when you need other support? Would joining a divorce support group be helpful to you?
  • Resources: Try to have at least three months of financial resources saved up, if possible. Think about other resources you will need and consider how to access them, including legal and childcare resources.
  • Mental health: Consider finding mental health support before you need it. It can be helpful to talk through the process of divorce or ending a relationship before the most intense feelings emerge.
  • Children's well-being: If you have children, think about what would be in their best interest when considering telling them about the relationship ending, when planning for custody, and when supporting their needs. Think about resources like school counselors and child therapists to help your children through the separation.

Summary

When going through a separation or divorce, it's normal to experience many big and small losses. Though divorce looks different for everyone, grieving is a healthy and natural way to experience those losses and to begin to process the emotions and changes they bring.

When grieving, there is likely to be a period of time when feelings are most intense, followed by a period when the most difficult times are balanced by finding a new identity. With some intentional actions to work through the worst parts of divorce grief, it's possible to find new meaning and build a new life.

A Word From Verywell

Going through a divorce is hard. There are many emotions, changes, and losses to cope with, and it may feel like the intensity will never end. No matter how amicable or difficult the decision to separate, ending a relationship is a big loss and requires patience, self-care, and time. Be gentle with yourself, and allow yourself to experience the feelings that come with grieving the separation, no matter how painful.

If you feel like things just aren't getting better, it may be helpful to consult with a mental health professional to work through the most difficult periods of the separation.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is divorce grief any different from normal grief?

    All grief is normal. While we typically think of grief as occurring after a death, grieving is how we process loss. With divorce grief, it may look and feel different, because the other person is still alive but the relationship has ended. This can actually make processing feelings and finding new meaning even more complicated than with grief after a death, because it's a more ambiguous and less straightforward loss.

  • What should you do if you’re still grieving years after a divorce?

    It's normal to experience the painful feelings that come with separation and divorce for a long time. However, if emotions remain intense for a long period of time and it's difficult to find a new identify and live a life filled with meaning, talk with a mental health professional to help process the divorce and begin to move forward.

  • How do you file for divorce?

    The first step in filing for divorce is to write a petition and have it filed in court in the area where the spouse being served resides. It is highly encouraged to seek legal counsel before starting the divorce process to ensure all steps are followed accurately.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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