Thirty days after the sudden and tragic loss of her husband, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg updated her Facebook status with a heartfelt essay about her grief and loss. While the circumstances around Sandberg’s loss are very different from divorce, much of what she shares can provide comfort and guidance to anyone going through divorce.
We Need Divorce Rituals
Our society has well-established rituals that are observed when someone dies: wakes, burials, funerals, memorial services and as Sandberg mentions, the Jewish traditions of shiva and sheloshim. These rituals help everyone grieve the loss of their loved one because they tell us that it is acceptable to grieve, they tell us how to grieve and they give us a way to grieve and to share our hurt with others.
We don’t have these rituals with divorce. There are no obituaries or formal announcements of services. News of a passing is often spread by word-of-mouth, with respect, concern and sorrow. With divorce that word-of-mouth is too often gossip. The phone doesn’t ring with messages of support. No one stops by with a meal.
With the absence of any established divorce rituals, I encourage you to create your own. Create a ceremony that would respectfully honor your marriage, and the person you once loved, acknowledges the end of your marriage and the beginning of your new journey. Invite your friends. Give them permission to grieve the loss that they too are feeling and ask them to stand by you on your new path. And don't stop at just one ritual ... there are many milestones such as clearing out a closet, opening a bank account, rearranging the furniture in a room that become more intentional, more mindful when associated with a ritual that places the milestone appropriately as part of the bigger transition.
Choose A Date of Loss
Another dramatic difference between losing someone through death versus divorce is that with death there is a clear moment in time when we know that person is no more. With divorce it is often hard to pinpoint a moment in time when a marriage is over – for some, it could be the end of the legal process, for others it could be the beginning of the legal process. For many people, the legal process is just that, the legalities and it has little bearing on the end of the marriage which may be more appropriately signified by what I call a catalytic moment: a single event that brings the harsh reality of the marriage into sharp focus. It could be as simple as a bounced check that speaks to a violation of your values, the DUI that means the drinking problem can no longer be ignored, the text message that was intended for someone else.
With no clear moment in time, we slip into unconscious grieving and are often unaware that our uncontrolled emotions are grief.
Thus I encourage you to select your date of loss, the date for you that symbolizes the end of your marital relationship. Write down the date and why it marks the end of your marriage. And then allow yourself to grieve.
Practice Real Empathy
Sandberg shares some of the comments that were intended to be helpful but weren’t, such as “You and your children will find happiness again” and says she’s learned that “real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.” This is just as true for people experiencing divorce.
I’ve come to believe that the inappropriate questions people ask, such as “Whose decision was it?” or comments like, "You seemed like the perfect couple," are often more of a sign of the asker’s discomfort around divorce than any intention to hurt. Most of the time people are simply trying to help us feel better, because despite all the established rituals we do have, as humans we are uncomfortable around emotional pain.
We try to make others feel better by saying, “At least … your children are older … he didn’t beat you … … she didn’t have an affair.” They don’t help because regardless of what could have happened, what did happen still hurts.
What works is “I’m sorry you have to go through this. What can I do to help you?” or as Sandberg shares, “How are you today?”
Ask For Help
Nobody expects a grieving widow or widower to continue life as if nothing had happened and to handle funeral arrangements on top, yet we do that with divorce possibly because there is not that publicly recognized date of loss or because many of us go into a self-imposed isolation while we figure out our grief and untangling. The consequence is that those who could be our safety net and support remain unaware and ignorant.
As humans, most of us strive for connection, to feel needed and to help others but we’re not mind readers. Divorce is a time to drop the façade, to ask for help and to let others help you. When someone asks what they can do to support you, let them do an extra carpool run for you or feed the kids dinner because you’re going to be late. Let them show you how to do that home maintenance task your spouse used to do. Let them cook you a meal just to lighten the load. And if you need help, reach out to one of your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers and make the ask – not only will you get the immediate help you need but chances are you’ll start to build a deeper connection with those around you.
Sandberg shares her challenges in returning to work, facing colleagues who had “a look of fear” in their eyes. They all obviously knew what had happened but didn’t know if they should say something. By taking the lead and starting a conversation about the loss of her husband, Sandberg put them at ease.
The same approach works for divorce although because of the associated secrecy you may never be sure if the person you’ve just ran into knows about your situation or what they may have heard. Ignoring the topic just serves to increase the awkwardness and distance between you. What this means is being prepared to say something along the lines of, “I don’t know if you’ve heard but Dave and I are getting divorced.” This opens the door for them to acknowledge and ask questions. What else you choose to share is up to you although I encourage my divorce coaching clients to make a list of possible questions and to practice their responses in advance. Being prepared means you're less likely to say something you may later regret.
How does this make you vulnerable? Because it means admitting that life isn’t turning out the way that you had hoped, that it is deeply saddening and emotionally traumatic but it doesn’t involve judging yourself, blaming yourself or accepting the judgments of others and that’s often one of the most important learnings from divorce.
A loss of any kind often brings a new appreciation for the things that we do still have. It’s not easy to look for the positives when you’re overcome with pain, hurt and anger but adopting a practice of gratitude is an important part of divorce recovery. It helps to shift us from victim to survivor, from helplessness to strength, and from hopelessness to hope.
Start your practice with a journal and begin by writing just one thing each day for which you are grateful. It could be something about where you live, it could be your children, it could be about your work, it could be about a friend, it could be about your marriage, it could be something your STBX taught you. And as you write down your daily gratitude, read through your gratitudes from previous days. Then in your darkest moments of doubt, turn to your gratitude journal to remind yourself that all is not lost.
Option A No Longer Exists
One of the stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Klüber-Ross is denial. While these stages of grief were developed in response to death, they are just as applicable to divorce. Denial looks like, “Perhaps he’ll change his mind,” or “This isn’t happening to me,” or “She’ll be back once she realizes how tight the money will be.”
That your spouse is still around, that you may still be seeing your spouse every day, even still living under same roof or sharing the same bedroom can feed that denial stage. That’s what makes declaring a date of loss so important: once you have made that declaration then it becomes easier to see that as Sandberg writes, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”
Mandy Walker is a divorce coach and mediator. She offers divorce coaching one-on-one and through her online program, My Divorce Pal. She also blogs about all things divorce at Since My Divorce and hosts the Conversations About Divorce radio show. Follow her on twitter and Facebook.