As you navigate loss through the long-term illness of a loved one, or years of growing detachment and sorrow before a divorce, you may think you have done most of your letting go. No doubt, you surrendered into the abyss of grief many times. But grief is a sneaky little demon, and will come back to bite you when you least expect it. Even though you successfully relinquish the relationship more with each passing day, grief is waiting in the wings. While you may have devoted a fair amount of energy to moving forward, it is rare to have done all your grief work before someone is truly gone, or the ink is dry on your divorce papers.
The essence of healing is that everyone’s path is different. Comparing how long it takes you to let go with how long it took someone else, is not only a thankless task, it adds to your suffering. You may never fully let go. If you were in a relationship for decades, that person is part of you. You may not like it, but decades spent with a partner attaches you. So, even if you have grieved long and heartily, when the finality hits you may find yourself steeped in sadness.
Lamenting can take many forms: avoiding company, crying, addictive distractions (like overeating, smoking, gambling, promiscuity, compulsive shopping, drinking, drug use, workaholism, over-medicating with prescriptions, over-exercising, etc.), surrounding yourself with people 24/7, vowing to never love again, etc. Some of these strategies are benign and some can be quite toxic. If you are veering off a healthy path, gently and lovingly bring yourself back to positive self-talk (see Affirmations), a regular schedule of meals and sleep (see Nutrition and Insomnia), and a good balance between work, play, company and solitude. If that is impossible right now, give yourself a cosmic permission slip to say, “OK, I want more food, work, exercise, etc. right now to buffer the tsunami of emotions I am feeling. At some point, I will get past this and feel vital and optimistic. I can let myself take all the time I need to grieve in whatever way feels right to me.” Obviously, if you are shooting heroin, popping OxyContin, or gambling away all your money, get some help. You don’t have to shoulder this alone. Twelve Step groups not only offer tried and true methods for overcoming addiction, they provide you with a community of like minded people all seeking peace, healing, and new ways to embrace life. Working one-on-one with a therapist provides a different kind of insight, direction, and support. Experiment and see what works best for you.
Whether you mentally said good-bye years ago; or, in the case of divorce, led parallel lives for as long as you can remember, your feelings will be different from the finality you experience when the casket is lowered or the divorce decree is granted. Expect raw emotions. Don’t be surprised if you burst into tears during a sentimental movie, when hugging your children, or hearing a certain song. Stifling your feelings is never a good option. Your job is to allow everything that comes up, whatever its intensity or duration. It won’t last.
If you still adhere to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief, please know her theory has been updated. Therapists, chaplains, and medical personnel realize grief is unique. There is no map for mourning. Yes, friends and family want you to feel better and let go of your anger, sadness, or negativity. You will, when you are ready. In the meantime, you may want to feign feeling better than you do (see Fake It ‘Til You Make It). It’s only an exercise. You are simply trying on a new thought or feeling to see how well it fits; and, it can provide a little relief while getting people off your case. Especially, the ones who say, “Aren’t you over that already?” (See Responses to: Get over it already.)
The main thing is recognizing the pervasiveness of grief. No matter what loses and sorrows you faced before a death or divorce decree, there are likely to be bouts of deep sadness, existential emptiness, and reverberations of shock that come unbidden. As Rumi said in his poem The Guest House:
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture.
Still treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out
For some new delight.
I believe they are clearing you out for some new delight. Moreover, if you try to rush the process, and I have watched many people jump into new relationships before they have sufficiently grieved, you will carry that unfinished business with you until some new crisis re-activates it. You don’t need to dwell on your sadness, just allow it some space in your heart-mind. You may not always notice the difference, because it’s subtle, but your grief will recede and you feel increasingly comfortable with your new life.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang