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Stop the Roller Coaster!
THE STAGES OF LOSS
I can stand what I know. It's what I don't know that frightens me.
"I've lost everything," the young woman lamented. "Will my life ever be normal again?"
Although many years had passed since my own divorce, I understood her intense emotions. While comforting her, I assured her she eventually would find a new sense of normal. But even that new standard wouldn't be in place for a while.
Most people are unaware that separation and divorce involve several stages of loss. These stages don't necessarily arrive in sequence—slipping back and forth through the process is typical. In time, if this young woman walks through the grief and not around it, she'll recover.
Most of us tend to want to rush through or numb our pain in an effort to get over our grief as quickly as possible. This is natural. Who likes pain? But rushing our healing is unwise and carries long-term consequences.
When you suffer a severe loss, your body and mind need to mourn in order to heal. If you don't allow yourself that necessary time to grieve, but instead try to anesthetize your sorrow with new relationships or other numbing agents, you jeopardize the healing process. You must choose whether to work through grief or to avoid it. The decision you make will affect your future for a long time.
Every circumstance surrounding divorce is different. If you had a violent or abusive marriage, you may experience a sense of relief instead of sorrow when it ends. But you will still need to grieve the death of your dream for what your marriage should have been. If you stayed in an unhappy marriage for many years, you run a greater risk of moving on too quickly following your divorce. After years of emotional numbness, the thought of starting life over again may seem invigorating. But if you don't discover how and why you married your ex-spouse—the red flags present during dating and what happened to destroy the marriage—you may repeat the same mistake. I once met a woman who married the same man three times. Granted, each had a different social security number, but they were the same person inside. She hadn't taken the time to learn why she gravitated to a certain type of man.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying was one of the first people to share the theory that grief comes in stages. People tend to view grief stages as a "to do" list that can be accomplished in a few weeks or months. But you can't hurry or predict the process. It doesn't always follow the same pattern, and just when you think you've conquered one stage, it may recur. I frequently hear people say, "I thought I was over my anger, and I was shocked when something triggered it again." Knowing beforehand that these emotions will resurface should reassure you that you aren't abnormal or losing your mind.
THE STAGES OF GRIEF
SHOCK AND DENIAL: "THIS CAN'T BE HAPPENING TO ME."
During my separation, I kept thinking, I can't believe I'm going through this. This isn't happening. I refused to believe it. Certainly my husband would come to his senses, and the whole episode would be forgotten. The shock resonated so greatly that I couldn't concentrate or think clearly. I'd walk into a store and forget why I was there, and while driving, I'd miss a familiar road. Ordinary tasks became huge challenges. And when reality crashed through my wall of denial, I'd mumble to myself, "God will fix this, I just know it. He hates divorce, and so do I."
Our minds have a built-in numbing mechanism that allows us to process a catastrophe gradually. We can't grasp the devastation all at once. Initially, denial is normal, but you must be careful not to linger in it too long. Your healing begins as you accept reality. Sadly, I've met men and women who are still hanging on to the dream of their marriage ten to fifteen years after their divorce—long after the ex-spouse has remarried another person and become unavailable.
ANGER: "I COULD KILL MY SPOUSE!"
My first husband and I owned a beautiful antique wooden cane. If you twisted the top and bottom while pulling it apart, you'd discover a sword hidden inside. During my divorce, I would imagine myself wielding that sword, slashing through artwork and linens in our once- shared bedroom. Thoughts of violence, even though unfulfilled, alarmed me. Before this time, I'd never dreamed of severely hurting anyone or anything.
I was riding an emotional roller coaster. One minute I'd want to hug my husband, and the next moment I'd want to punch him. I had never encountered rage within myself until divorce assaulted my life. But there it was, in living color—ricocheting relentlessly through my mind, demanding attention. Inside I was screaming, How could you do this to me? I had chosen marriage, but divorce was being decided for me. I no longer had control over my own life, and I felt violated. This wasn't the life I signed up for.
The embarrassment of going out in public also infuriated me. My mind was plagued with tormenting thoughts—What will people think of me? Will they suppose it was my fault or that I wasn't a good wife? Do they think I'm a bad Christian?
Your anger might be different. Your spouse may have refused to get help for his or her addiction, and now you are left feeling like the guilty one. Or you may have put your ex-spouse through college, but now your checkbook is stripped bare. God understands our anger when we've been hurt or rejected; it's a natural response.
Repressing anger is just as dangerous as acting on it because stuffing rage causes it to build until it destroys you and others. Fury turned inward leads to depression, bitterness, and resentment—and occasionally to violence.
God understands our anger and doesn't judge us for it. However, whether anger has to do with finances, children, housing, or other typical divorce issues, you must deal with it appropriately. Many people never move past resentment and the rut of revenge. The tragic consequences can be seen in health and financial problems, mental instability, and/or the emotional devastation of children.
BARGAINING: "I'LL DO ANYTHING."
During this stage, the injured spouse may promise to overlook the affair, drinking, abuse, pornography, gambling, drugs, or whatever. You may be willing to compromise dignity and integrity if that means restoring some normalcy to your marriage. You may even shoulder the blame for your spouse's misdeeds (it wouldn't have happened if you'd been more attentive, attractive, a better housekeeper, and so on) if that means keeping the relationship intact. You may even agree to act as if "it" never happened.
Bargaining your way to marital reconciliation rarely works for long. The serious and complicated issues that damaged the marriage will continue to erode trust, love, and respect. And when a second separation results, the blow is even more severe.
Deep inside, you know it's unwise and unrealistic to cling to a person who wants out of the marriage. True marital restoration takes hard work by both parties. (See chapter 5.) If your spouse isn't willing to get counseling with you or isn't willing to work on the marriage, then you come to a point where you must accept the inevitable.
Bargaining to save your marriage is not only unrealistic, it can be dangerous. If your spouse is physically abusive, you need to seek help immediately.
Not only do we bargain with our spouses, we sometimes bargain with God. The risk in this, however, is that when the marriage continues to deteriorate, we may blame Him. We may transfer our feelings of anger and rejection from our spouse to our loving Father and withdraw from Him. While He is big enough to understand and forgive our anger, blaming God leaves us feeling we have no friend to go to for solace and strength. And this is a time when we need Him most!
DEPRESSION: "I WANT TO DIE."
Have you ever seen a baby cry so hard that she can hardly catch her breath? That's the way I cried during my divorce. I had never wept that way before and haven't since. The depression was so excruciating that I contemplated taking my own life. Even though I wasn't living an exemplary Christian life at the time, I knew these thoughts were dangerous and not an acceptable choice. In the pit of despair and too exhausted to pray, I would lean on the speaker of my stereo and listen to worship music. The words of faith would flood my mind with truth, and I'd begin to softly whisper praises to the loving One who hadn't left me. Jesus alone sustained me; His compassion was like no other.
Depression is a normal reaction to separation and divorce. You've lost a spouse, the future you've dreamed of, and much more. It's common for depression to manifest itself through lethargy, sadness, anger, overeating, compulsive spending, drinking, and other destructive behaviors.
Do what you can to minimize the impact of depression on your overall health. Try to get adequate rest, exercise, eat properly, and confide in a good friend. If you can, pray. If you can't, listen to worship music or encouraging Christian messages about God's love. While these things may not take away the pain, they may help keep you from spiraling into deeper depression. However, see a doctor or counselor immediately if you're having suicidal thoughts.
Ultimately, you are responsible for seeking help. God can heal your hurt and renew your hope if you let Him.
ACCEPTANCE: "I'M GOING TO SURVIVE."
I'm not certain when I fully accepted that my marriage was over. I believe the acceptance came when I stopped wanting my ex-husband to hurt as much as I was. Praying for the ability to forgive him and others involved in the situation was instrumental in my healing. I no longer viewed him as my enemy, and the need to get revenge or tell "my story" gradually ceased.
God encouraged me to be more forward thinking instead of dwelling on the past. He filled my mind with hope for the future. Eventually, I recognized and admitted my own faults in the marriage. And then the most amazing thing happened. With God's help, I was able to pray for my ex-husband's spiritual life and remarriage. I continue to pray for him to this day. Right now you may be wondering if it's even possible to arrive at this point. If you take baby steps toward healing and find a good support system, in six months from now I promise you will have a better outlook.
My heart will always bear a scar, but now the scar serves a higher calling. God took what evil intended to destroy me, and He used it for good. Now I point to my well-healed wound and say, "Look at someone who has survived and is thriving. I know what it's like to feel as though your whole world has ended. Let me help you find peace."
It's my sincere desire that within these pages you'll find comfort and rest for your weary soul.
You know what rejection feels like. You were deserted and despised by those You loved. It is a comfort to know You understand my pain. Please help me to recognize that I need to grieve many losses. Help me to walk through each one with the confidence that You are with me and will never abandon me.
Lord, I can't seem to find peace anywhere. I desperately need Your help. If I'm in denial, please reveal truth. When I'm angry, help me to give that rage to You. Replace those annoying thoughts with Your serenity.
Lord, one of my greatest needs is hope. Please give me confidence that my life is in Your hands and that even when difficulties come, I'm safe if I'm holding on to You. You are my anchor. You alone can bring me through this trial. I cling to the truth that You will never leave me nor forsake me. Amen.
(Portions of this prayer are taken from Deuteronomy 31:8.)
CHAPTER 1 QUESTIONS
1. What happens when we try to rush our healing after separation or divorce?
2. After a severe loss, what is the relationship between allowing your body and mind to grieve ... and healing? What positive step(s) will you take this week to process your losses in a healthy way?
3. As you read the stages of grief, which one(s) did you particularly identify with? Why?
4. In what ways has anger affected your relationship with others? With whom are you angriest right now? Why?
5. Are you wearing your wedding ring? And if so, is that because you cannot face reality or because there is still hope for reconciliation?
6. How can a spouse know when it's impossible to save his or her marriage and time to accept the inevitable?
7. The author wrote that God filled her mind "with hope for the future." What is hope? Where can we find it?
8. How might praying a prayer like the one at the end of this chapter help to make a difference in a person's life?
TO DO THIS WEEK ...
Write down your stages of loss, and take one little step toward understanding and believing that the feelings are normal. Don't pressure yourself to move through the grief faster than is healthy.
Find a divorce-recovery support group immediately.CHAPTER 2
When Do I Get My Life Back?
TYPES OF LOSS
I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.
LOUISA MAY ALCOTT
I've read that divorce is worse than death—and I believe it—because it's a chosen abandonment. Along with the losses that occur with the death of a spouse—companionship, dreams, hopes, and financial stability—throw in rejection, humiliation, the battle over possessions and child custody, and the loss of friends and in-laws.
Divorce doesn't come with a handbook on how to handle the many big and little losses that accompany it. Who gets the house? Who loses it? Who pays the bills? Who gets the kids on weekends? Who keeps the married friends? What happens to relationships with in-laws? What about the pets?
The person who has been in an abusive or manipulative marriage may feel emancipation instead of sadness. He or she might be relieved that the stress and fear are gone, and often a sense of guilt replaces weeping. However, this person also needs to grieve the demise of the marriage covenant and the dream of what the family could have been. If those emotions are stifled and stuffed inside, they will rear their ugly heads in other areas of life and in future relationships.
If addiction has caused the collapse of the marriage, rejection is still present. Typically the addicted spouse doesn't want the marriage to end, but he or she refuses to get the help needed to overcome the obsession. This communicates to the nonaddicted spouse where he or she fits in the line of priorities. When forced to choose, the addict's true love affair is revealed. That person will cling to the beloved bottle or drug rather than the husband or wife.
In the following questions, you may recognize losses you're experiencing. I hope the responses will help you to navigate your own situation.
* * *
LOSS OF FRIENDSHIP
My husband of seven years recently told me he wants out of our marriage and has filed for a divorce. I had no idea he was unhappy, and I'm devastated. He tells me we can still remain friends. Is that possible?
To ease the transition and guilt, many times one spouse will suggest remaining friends, but this is unrealistic. A friend is someone you can trust and confide in, share personal and confidential information with, call on in a crisis, and enjoy spending time with.
When spouses go through a divorce, they are no longer allies. Often one person can't and shouldn't be trusted. The offer to remain friends typically comes from the person wanting out of the relationship. It could be your husband's means of trying to soften the blow of rejection.
You must guard your heart and see things as they really are, not as you'd like them to be. If not, your heart will feel like a yo-yo, bouncing up and down, never fully moving through the stages of loss.
This doesn't imply a right to become bitter, spiteful, or obnoxious toward your husband. It also doesn't mean you shouldn't keep yourself open to marital reconciliation. If you have children, your goal should be to have a relationship where you both desire to communicate and work toward what's best for the kids.
Excerpted from When "I Do" Becomes "I Don't" by Laura Petherbridge. Copyright © 2008 Laura Petherbridge. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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Posted December 19, 2011
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