Complicated Grief: When the Hurt Won't Go Away

In this life, it’s normal to experience grief. Grief is a universal yet highly personal journey. It comes in many forms, from grieving the death of someone close to you to grieving the loss of a marriage. And sometimes, this grief can feel insurmountable.

To understand complicated grief, we must first understand “normal” grief, which everyone goes through post-divorce (and sometimes even before the divorce proceedings are finished).

Lots of people who are grieving a divorce grieving divorce get professional help dealing with their feelings and processing the events of their marriage and divorce – even those who aren’t suffering from complicated divorce grief.

What are the stages of divorce grief?

Divorce can send your emotions reeling. You’re left facing a lot of uncertainty, and these feelings can seem even worse than the unhappiness of your marriage. You’re dealing not only with the loss of a spouse but also the loss of the life you built together. On top of that, you’re grieving the loss of a part of your identity.

Similar to the stages of grief over the death of a loved one are the stages of divorce grief:

  • Shock and denial: No matter how difficult a marriage has been, the finality of divorce can still hit hard. 
  • Fear: Marriage, despite its dysfunction, is still “known.” Divorce presents a flood of unknowns.
  • Anger: It’s normal to feel anger and resentment toward your spouse – and yourself – when a marriage ends. 
  • Bargaining: The bargaining stage often includes last-ditch efforts to save the marriage. 
  • Guilt: You may find yourself taking ownership of the ways you’ve been part of the marriage’s breakdown. You may even take ownership of things that are not your fault.
  • Sadness: This is not what you envisioned when you said “I do.” Divorce can feel like a huge failure, leaving you despondent and empty. 
  • Acceptance: Hopefully, at the end of the grieving process, you will come to a point where letting go is easier because you understand and accept that it’s time to move on. 

But what happens when you get stuck in the grieving process and that acceptance stage never seems to come?

Complicated grief: When you just can’t heal

Experts recognize that grief is a necessary and normal response after a tragic event. But some grief, often called complicated grief, is so persistent that the person experiencing it can stay stuck in its grip and can’t move beyond it. Complicated grief has even been recognized by the mental health community as a clinical disorder called prolonged grief disorder

While grieving something as life-changing as a divorce is normal, getting stuck in its cycle can be harmful. It can hinder your ability to heal and create an emotionally healthy new life.

Normal grief vs. complicated grief

Grief is complicated, and it looks different for everyone. Consequently, calling one person’s experience “normal” and another person’s experience “complicated" can be tricky.

For the most part, normal grief is considered a temporary response that allows you to eventually come to a place of peace and forward function. Complicated grief is more severe long-term grief that can shut down normal functioning and prevent healing. 

Complicated grief can show up in multiple ways. You may experience:

  • An inability to accept or focus on anything other than your loss
  • Intense feelings of anger and despair
  • Chronic numbness
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • An inability to return to your normal life and interests
  • Suicidal thoughts

Being trapped inside this grief can leave you feeling hopeless. Instead of eventually feeling better, you feel like it will never end.

But if you can recognize it for what it is, there are ways to break the spell of this overwhelming grief. 

Read: How to Move On after a Divorce You Didn’t Want

How to help yourself

If you or someone you know is struggling with the inability to get over divorce and move on, you may be dealing with complicated grief. What’s more, you may be so blindsided by it that you don’t even recognize it in yourself. 

Taking care of yourself begins with accepting the support of friends and family members who want to help and protect you. In most cases, this isn’t judgment but genuine concern over your health and well-being. 

Reaching out to a support group online or in person can give you some needed perspective. Seeking professional guidance from a mental health professional who is well-versed in the divorce process and its potential for complicated grief is another option. Let others be your foundation until you can create a more balanced emotional setpoint for yourself. 

It’s normal for a marriage and social connections to bring meaning to life, but if you feel like life no longer has meaning after your divorce and have considered suicide, please get help. Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 and speak with someone who can offer you support at this critical time. Your life has meaning, even though you may not recognize it right now.

Going through a divorce is complicated, and getting the support you need is critical. At Hello Divorce, we have a community that is here for you each step of the way. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram, or call us to schedule a consultation. Don’t navigate this alone. 

Suggested: How to Do Self-Care if You’re Not Into Self-Care

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.