Petitioner Grief: Is It Okay to Grieve if I Initiated the Divorce?
- Forms of divorce grief
- Disenfranchised grief
- What is an ambiguous loss?
- Stages of grief: fact or fiction?
- Coping with divorce grief
- Does grief mean you made a mistake?
“Grief” might not be the first word that comes to mind when you think about divorce. But, let's talk about what grief actually is: a whole host of feelings that come with loss – all kinds of loss. Of course, we grieve the deaths of people we care about. But we also grieve big life changes like moving across the country, a diagnosis, or – you guessed it – the end of a relationship, even if we wanted it to end.
Grief can take many forms in divorce
Grief is common in divorce because the end of a marriage is a significant life change. Here are a few ways your grief might be showing up right now:
- Maybe you're grieving the loss of a future that you worked so hard for and wanted to believe in.
- Maybe you're grieving moving somewhere new that doesn’t feel like home.
- Maybe you’re grieving the unexpected end of friendships that, it turns out, ran parallel to your marriage.
- Maybe you’re grieving what parent-teacher conferences used to feel like.
- Maybe you're grieving not having kids—and maybe you’re worried you’re out of time.
- Maybe you’re grieving starting over again, even if it was the right choice for you.
It’s very normal to grieve your divorce. And yet, we, as a society, stigmatize divorce and we stigmatize grief. We're convinced that we should feel shame about making the choice to get divorced – that we've failed somehow, or that we just didn’t work hard enough in our marriage.
What is disenfranchised grief?
When it comes to the feelings of loss associated with choosing to get divorced, your grief can feel disenfranchised. What does this mean? It might seem like your feelings aren't acceptable to everyone else, and that your grief has nowhere to go... so you hide it or try to convince yourself that you’re not grieving at all.
Divorce as an ambiguous loss
Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe the grief we experience when there’s a loss that feels unresolved, like when a relationship with a person ends but that person is (or might be) still alive. Ambiguous loss can apply to the grief we feel when a loved one faces addiction or senility, someone is kidnapped or missing, or a person we care about is incarcerated. Dr. Boss also puts divorce into the ambiguous loss category, as someone you used to see every day is living, but is no longer in your life the way they used to be.
Maybe your divorce is the best decision you've ever made! But it doesn't matter if you wanted that relationship to end or not—you’re still probably grieving some aspect of the end of your marriage.
How many stages of grief are there?
I hate to break it to you, but grief doesn’t usually happen in neat, orderly stages – contrary to what our society may have ingrained in us.
When it comes to grief, we certainly don't lean into recognizing our feelings: we idealize people "getting over" loss and "moving on." But, that’s just not how grief works. It doesn’t fit into a neat set of boxes we can check off our to-do list. And as much as we wish it weren’t the case, grief has no official timeline, milestones, and certainly no designated finish line.
Over time, you’ll experience your grief in a way that feels something like looking through a prism: the loss remains, like the prism, itself. But how you view it – the angle, the light – shifts. How your grief feels will grow and change, and some days you might not notice it at all.
Long after the final divorce decree is signed, maybe you’ll feel grief all over again when you hear a song your ex loved and you’ll cry at a stoplight, or you’ll run into a mutual friend at the grocery store and chuckle after the awkward small talk.
The unfortunate truth is that divorce grief may pop up for the rest of your life, depending on the connections you maintain with your ex, family, and friends (e.g. children, Facebook memories, old iPhone photos).
How to cope with your divorce-related grief
So, what do you do about all this grief, and how can you feel less overwhelmed by it? Take time to grieve – to actually sit with those heavy, griefy feelings, so they feel a little bit lighter. Make space for the sadness, the anger, the nostalgia, the jealousy, the fear, the joy… whatever your grief looks like that day. Stop pretending like you don't feel that grief, and look at yourself in the mirror to acknowledge what’s really there.
You can do things to grieve such as:
- Write about your feelings in a diary or creatively
- Paint, draw, or find other mediums that help us express your feelings
- Exercise alone or with friends
- Go outside for a long walk or a hike
- Listen to or make music that resonates with you
- Talk to your friends and family about how you are feeling
- Seek professional support when you need it
Remember: grieving isn’t a one-time thing. Making space for our grief should be a regular part of life, as a ritual we embrace, even if it’s for just a few minutes at a time.
Does feeling grief mean you made a mistake?
No! Feeling grief doesn't mean you made the wrong decision to get divorced. It just means that you're human. You can grieve the choices you make, and you can grieve the end of a marriage, even when that choice was a good one.
If you’re looking for a community that gets your grief as you go through your divorce, and after it’s finalized, connect with us at Grieve Leave. Join the movement on Instagram, Facebook, and www.grieveleave.com.
About the author
Rebecca Feinglos, MPP, is a certified grief support specialist and founder of Grieve Leave, a community and platform that inspires grievers to intentionally take time to process the feelings that come with loss. Rebecca has been featured in TIME, HuffPost, Newsweek, ABC, and ELLE for her raw and revolutionary voice inspiring a more grief-informed world. You can follow Grieve Leave on Instagram for helpful resources, educational interviews, and community grief support.
ReferencesThe Importance Of Mourning Losses (Even When They Seem Small). June 14, 2021. NPR.
What Ambiguous Loss Is and How To Deal With It. February 17, 2022. Cleveland Clinic.