Life After Divorce: Embracing Your Grief As a Sign of Love

Before my divorce, I believed I was an experienced “griever.”

I thought I knew all there was to know about grief: how it feels, how to handle it, and most important, how to survive it. While my life was beautiful in so many ways, I’d experienced quite a bit of heartbreak in my thirty-one years, with the worst loss of all being the unexpected death of a cousin who had been like a brother to me during our childhood.

When I heard the news of his passing, I was only three weeks shy of my college graduation. I had finals to study for, papers to write, and a dance recital to perform. I didn’t care about any of that, though. My cousin was gone. He was gone.

I lay in bed all weekend crying and feeling as if God had punched me in the gut. I’d never before experienced grief in such a violent, visceral way.

It knocked me to my knees–literally–and I feared that it would swallow me whole if I didn’t take control of the situation.

So, ignoring the sage advice of my girlfriends who told me “Let yourself grieve now,” I had a stern talk with my new roommate, Grief. I told him to beat it, at least for the next few weeks until I graduated.

To my surprise, Grief listened.

It wasn’t that I didn’t continue to have meltdowns, but through the tears, I found the strength to take care of business so that I could graduate.

Then, just as my friends said it would, Grief resurfaced.

I carried the grief of losing my cousin with me for several years after his passing, and to this day, I miss him. I always will. But even though the grief was intense, it didn’t capsize my ship. Amid this loss, I was still able to love and find the beauty in life, to feel gratitude and work toward my dreams. I didn’t need to grab the wine bottle or take drugs or numb myself with Xanax.

The fact that I was able to stare Grief in the face and keep moving through life only reinforced a long-held belief I’d had about myself–that I could handle whatever curveballs life threw my way without falling into a lasting depression or needing antidepressants to survive the day.

And then, I got a divorce.

After twelve years with my husband, I knew that the grief over losing our marriage would be immense, but I still believed I was an expert on this grief thing, so I was certain I could withstand the storm.

What I learned rather quickly was that I was not, in any way, prepared for the storm of depression that would ensue over the next two years.

This would be the storm that would finally capsize what I’d always believed was an unsinkable ship–me.

Thankfully, friends and loved ones threw me life vests along the way to keep me from drowning. I sought out my own life vests as well in the form of therapy, yoga, meditation, healers, antidepressants, travel, and the most healing of them all–writing a memoir about my entire experience.

But even with all of those life vests keeping me afloat, I still have not managed to convince Grief to get the hell out of my house.

He’s moved in. Permanently, it seems. And I have no choice but to live with him.

Grief and I have been cohabitating for a couple of years now, and it is only in recent months that I have stopped my desperate pleas asking him to pack his shit and go. Instead, I’ve made a space for him in my home. I even make him a cup of tea at night, and we chat like the old friends we are. Interestingly, taking a friendly approach toward Grief seems to have diffused him quite a bit. Although, when he does storm through me unannounced, I am no longer surprised by his dramatic antics. And I’m no longer angry that he’s still here. Because I’ve realized something.

This intense grief I’ve experienced is a sign of great love.

If I hadn’t loved my husband with my entire being, I wouldn’t have felt such immense pain over the loss of our marriage. Yes, that love changed and shifted in the final years. Yes, there were problems we couldn’t repair that led to the end.

But that doesn’t mean that we didn’t love each other. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still send him love and wish him only happiness and joy, because I do. That is unconditional love, after all.

With any loss we experience throughout our lives, we must always remember that suffering is universal. Grief is a part of the human experience. To deny or suffocate our grief is to deny our humanness. Instead, we must embrace our grief as a sign that love was shared, and perhaps, if we’re feeling really friendly, invite him over for a cup of tea.

To take a quote on grief and love from my own true story, Meet Me in Paris:

“Where there is great love, there is also potential for great pain.

Because I have hurt so deeply, I know that I have also loved deeply.

And since love is the bedrock of my journey–of our journeys–I know my particular journey has been worthwhile. Worth every tear I’ve shed, every meltdown I’ve had, and every dose of Wellbutrin I’ve taken.

Love is worth it.

I know that now, and so I don’t curse the journey. Not a single moment of it.”

*This piece was originally published on The Huffington Post.

Love is the emblem of eternity quote_winter scene

The Next Time

I am one of the first of my friends to get a divorce. At only thirty-one-years-old, I told my husband I needed to leave our marriage in order to be happy again. I fell in love with him when I was nineteen, and when we said our vows four years later, I believed with all my heart that we would be married forever. As I learned, signing a marriage certificate doesn’t guarantee marital bliss or personal happiness, or anything really except that if you ever do want to leave this marriage, you will have to go through a painful legal process to do so.

I’ve learned that there is a guarantee in divorce, however, and that guarantee is that it will hurt. It will be harder than you ever could have imagined, and just when you think you’re rounding a corner, a Divorce Landmine will go off–seeing your ex’s new wedding photo, for example–and you are right back where you were when the whole thing began–crying in bed with the covers over your head, a heating pad pressed to your chest, and feeling like you need someone–anyone–to just hold you while you cry.

It’s been over two years since the initial split from my marriage, and while I am truly happy most days now, those landmines still go off, and because I loved him so deeply, the pain is still unbearable when it strikes. This morning, after seeing the aforementioned photograph on social media, I almost stopped a stranger on the street who was washing his truck to ask him to hug me.

I’m serious.

I just needed a hug. I had cried alone in bed all morning, and I needed someone to physically put their arms around me and let me cry.  I needed someone to tell me it’s okay to feel like total and complete shit and to not do anything to try to make it go away except to hold the space for me to feel that shit so that it could pass through me.

I am the only child of two parents who love me deeply, but who are not emotionally or physically present for me. This has been the case for some time now, so I’ve developed a tough skin. I’ve had to, in order to survive on my own. My husband was my family for many years, and now that is gone too.

So I have my friends. And I am blessed to have some of the most caring, loving friends in the world. But since I don’t have blood relatives who will provide that refuge I have so desperately needed amid the ever tumultuous storm of divorce, I have taken most of it on by myself because I don’t want to burden these dear friends. I have laid on my bathroom floor sobbing and contemplating ways to end my life without calling a friend to ask for help. I have spent countless hours, days–months even–suffering, and not asking my friends to stop their lives for me, because I know they are busy. They have careers and husbands and children and fun to be had.

Who wants to stop all of that to come lie with me on the bathroom floor while I cry?

The reality is that while I have the most amazing friends in the world, they are not a husband. They are not a mother or a father. They have their own families to deal with every day, and their own problems. Even if I did call them every time I plummeted into a deep depression, many would not drop what they’d scheduled that day to come help. Maybe they could, maybe they couldn’t, but either way, it’s likely that they don’t realize how serious depression can be, and even more likely that I have not made it clear how serious my own depression can be when it hits.

This is the job of family, to drop everything when one of their kin is suffering. To give them a place to live, sleep, eat, and cry until they can enter the real world again. I don’t have a family who can provide that storm shelter for me, so I must make my own.

But when my depression hits, I don’t want to get out of bed. I have no desire to eat or drink. I immediately lose weight. I am freezing cold, no matter how hot it may be outside, and I have to bundle up in sweats and press a heating pad to my chest and lie in bed until it passes.  And my chest hurts–my heart physically feels like it’s breaking. I cry so hard that my eyes are red and puffy and bloodshot, and the circles underneath are epic. I don’t feel physically capable of standing up or getting out of bed or getting dressed and trying to look or act presentable. And as such, I don’t want to leave the house and go see anyone.

In these times, I need someone to come to my house, walk up the stairs, sit on my bed and just hold me. That is all I need. My friends innocently will ask me to come out for a drink, take a beach walk, or go for a run. They only want to help. But if I took a selfie of the mess that I am when this happens and sent it to them, first they would gasp in horror, and then they would understand that I can’t do any of those things when I feel so awful. I don’t want to be in public when I feel this way, and many times, I physically could not force my body to go anywhere or do anything in this state. My life force is zapped.

Although these depressive episodes are much less frequent now, they have been happening for over two years, and I’ve rarely had anyone–a family member, friend, anyone–just come to my house and sit with me through it.

I typically don’t directly ask for someone to do this. So, the fault is mainly my own. I am embarrassed to cry this hard in front of my friends. The only person I ever felt comfortable being this much of a mess in front of was my husband. And in truth, he did come to my rescue a few times after we split, but that had to end of course, so that we could both move on with our lives.

I know I must learn to let my guard down more and be vulnerable in front of my friends, because these episodes are serious. Anyone who has been divorced, or who has lost someone they loved, or who has been depressed will know what I am talking about.

And for those who don’t understand this deep pain, I used to be one of you. I never used to understand depression. Despite all of the heartache I had experienced in my life, I was, for the most part, positive and happy and looking on the bright side! I didn’t understand people who could be sad over and over again about the same problem! Get over it already!

I am still a positive, happy person for the most part, but divorce has taken me to the dark side, and since I am one of the first of my friends to go through this, I think that many of my dear friends don’t comprehend the depths of it, which is not their fault.

So, today, I have written a poem for those who have someone in their life who is going through a divorce, who is depressed, and who needs your help. You may not be sure what to do for your depressed, divorced friend, but I hope this poem will help you understand us divorced messes a little better, and to know what you can do to help.

The Next Time

  The next time a friend tells you she is getting a divorce

Act as if she has just told you that the dearest person in her life, the person she has loved for sunrises and sunsets, for starry nights and stormy skies, and every moment in between…Act as if she has just told you that this person has died…

Because that is what has happened.

The next time a friend tells you she is getting a divorce

Act as if she has just told you that the dearest person in her life, the person who has loved her at her best and at her worst, who has held her up and torn her down, who has been her everything for too many days to count…Act as if she has just told you that this person has died…

Because that is what has happened.

The next time a friend tells you she is getting a divorce

Act as if she has just told you that the relationship she thought would last forever, the relationship that sustained her, filled her up, tore her down…Act as if she has just told you that this relationship has died…

Because that is what has happened.

The next time a friend tells you she is getting a divorce

Act as if she has just told you that she is about to enter the most intense grieving period of her life, and that a part of her has died too…

Because that is what has happened.

The next time a friend tells you she is getting a divorce

Know that she will need your support more than she will ever admit, and even if she smiles and says she is okay, please know that underneath that smile, your friend is suffering, your friend is drowning in loss, your friend needs your help…

Because she is grieving a death

A death she may have chosen

A death he may have chosen

But it is a death, nonetheless.

The next time a friend tells you she is getting a divorce

Know that it may take years for her to feel better, it may take years for her to feel joy every day. Know that she will be so tired of this grief that she will try to hide it, but it is still there…

And she needs your help.

The next time a friend tells you she is getting a divorce

Know that depression may set in, and depression is a beast, it’s a killer. And when she reaches out to you, you must go to her. Drop your plans, get in the car or hop on a plane…

And go.

Go again, and again, and again, because she needs you, even if she doesn’t want to admit it.

Because there are days when she doesn’t want to live, even if she doesn’t want to admit it.

And because one day, you will lose someone you loved more than you loved yourself, whether through a divorce, a death, or both…

And you will need her too.

The next time a friend tells you she is getting a divorce

The best thing you can do is hold a space for her to grieve, without telling her why her life is so fabulous and why she should feel good.

The best thing you can do is hold her and let her cry until the storm passes.

The best thing you can do is be there for her

Always and forever

No matter what.

*A modified version of this piece was published on The Huffington Post on 11/2/15.

The role of a writer quote