Thoughts on Grief and Loss; Honor your Divorce Properly

On April 29 between 5:17-5:25 PM my precious mom leaned back on the sofa, tilted her head back and closed her beautiful eyes at my parents’ home in LA. Just like that. My mother closed her eyes to life and I haven’t seen her since.

Her body was at the funeral home, I touched and caressed her beautiful face, but there was no life. My sisters, our father and I watched, in unimaginable agony and pain, as her precious lifeless body slid into burning flames. After several weeks of mourning with my beloved family, I came back home to Buffalo, in foggy shock and with a dagger in my heart. I began looking for my mother. It made no sense to me, how could one be separated from the other, life from body? Is this a nightmare, my sisters and I ask ourselves and each other: “Mother say something, please? What next?” Mother! I was emotionally overwhelmed by the sense of rootlessness I felt.

What would she have done if she knew how devastated I am? I still ask myself several times a day, especially when I am falling into the state of depression and desperately wondering where her soul has gone. What would mother say to me, is the question I ask as I desperately climb back to the surface to take a breath. What would she want me to do? Mother, where are you? Why aren’t you guiding me?  Didn’t you tell me that once you become a mother it is a life time position?

What shall I do now? “Stop mourning and making yourself sick”, she would say. Change the hurt into strength by transferring the pain into energy.

This is why I am writing about grieving in divorce. I am a divorce mediator and I emotionally invest in each and every one of my clients. How can I learn from my own agonizing journey of loss to help my clients ease the pain going through the end of their marriage?

Robert Emery, Ph.D. is a professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia. He talks about complexities to divorce grieving that make it a unique challenge among all types of grieving processes. If it is left unrecognized, it will manifest into something else, also dark and foreboding, within us. Because the end of a marriage is not symbolized with a lifeless body and cultural rituals, it is easy to overlook the reality of the profound grief of loss; indeed, it is often well disguised in the cloak of rationality.  For example, financial issues are common sources of discord, and they can devolve into custody battles, friendships and other mutual relationships get spun into the drama, and the vortex of negativity feels bottomless because one painful, yet relatively simple truth evades most separating couples….our society offers most divorcing couples no clear grieving ritual that substitutes the role of a funeral for the marriage.

Several years ago, a dear friend of mine who was going through a court battled divorce, sold her husband’s custom designer suits for pennies on the dollar, at a garage sale which she was careful to advertise at his place of work. This was her way of avenging the hurt and anger which had resulted from realizing that, unbeknownst to her, other women had shared her “matrimonial” bedroom over the years. Her marriage died with that discovery, but she could not grieve; she was feeling betrayed so very deeply that the totality of the loss was not yet clear to her - that of family, emotional security and companionship. 

When couples are divorcing, they don’t protect each other’s backs or provide shoulders to cry on anymore.  Accustomed to commiserating together, they find themselves isolated; even from extended family who, once a safe oasis for empathy and support, become unavailable—besides one’s spouse, in-laws and even valued friends can be part of the losses of divorce. When divorce is high conflict and court battled, the grieving process gets buried under anger and revenge. The grieving may manifest itself in other forms, both mental and physical.

During divorce, a self-aware person will pass through a grieving process resembling Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grieving death (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). When experienced as part of the process of grieving, each step has its beneficial purposes. But, each stage also holds great risks for anyone who uses it as a final destination. The better that one can embrace the need to pass through each of the five stages, including depression, the sooner and more fully she can experience the wonderful promise at the end of the grieving process. What is that promise? It’s nothing less than a new awareness: Divorce is not the end of the world, it is a new beginning. 

I have always felt intuitively sensitive to the one partner in a divorce who is hurting more than the other who may have already “checked out” from the relationship. I encourage and push parties to seek counseling even when they think there is no issue. Encouraging divorcing couples to vent out with professionals and trusted friends will result in less stressed and anxious clients with clearer understanding of each other, their issues, and hopefully a lighter heart. This will serve all parties well further down the road, as well as their children, families, and friends.

I recently used my recent grieving experience with a couple who bickered bitterly and endlessly over the most trivial details of their splintering relationship. I asked them calmly – “How would you feel if one of you dropped dead right now? Is this how you want your last memory to be of one another?”  My simple question finally focused them on what really matters:  In the larger scheme of events, it really does not make a difference what court papers say … what matters is the meaning we give to the words in divorce papers.

This is indeed the most emotionally gratifying part of my vocation.  This is the part that made my mother proudest. For me, I wished I could have said more loving things to my mother.

Every so often, I have a couple for divorce mediation in my office that breaks my heart.  The loving husband coming back from an overseas deployment with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with radically different behavior,  a wife going for cancer treatment but wants a divorce before she undergoes the removal of the tumor. Recently, a lady of 69 years old came to me, accompanied by her 40 year-old son; I cried along with the woman as she described her life as ended. After being emotionally and economically abused by her alcoholic womanizing husband, once her high school sweetheart, she had decided to divorce him. The reasons for divorce have little to do with the grief caused by the divorce. You should and must grieve no matter what the cause, even the most justified as outlined above. The divorcing spouses in the above examples were justifying their decision to divorce to their once loving life partners.

Now when I hear the silly cliché that there are more fish in the sea, I know more than ever before, that the partner who utters those words is masking hurt.  Can love for someone new replace the love you shared with someone else?  Of course not.

Relationships are unique, so you can never replace someone you love. It’s not like replacing a car battery or old gym sneakers.  If you try to find someone new, fresh fish, before getting over with your grieving, it could end up hurting you in the long run. Divorce is the death of a relationship.  You owe it to yourself to heal your broken heart and spirit by allowing yourself to go through the grieving ritual patiently and properly.  

Now, I am trying hard to remember, what my mother used to quote from Helen Keller:

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

Oh how much I miss holding and being held by my precious mother.