Healing, Transformation and Divorce
By Paula S. Gilbert, LMHC
Published April 28, 2017
Human resilience continues to amaze me and demand my humble respect. It is the rule rather than the exception. Think about it: Take out a large piece of paper or the inside of a paper shopping bag and draw a road that represents your life. Along that road draw markers for the times in your life you have experienced a significant loss or change. You may be surprised at how much experience you have with loss. As humans, we have a talent for reformulating our perspective of our world and finding new meaning, over and over again.
There is one caveat, though. None of this new perspective and aliveness can flourish without a grieving process, just as Winter precedes Spring. Dr. John Schneider, whose transformational grief theory informs my work, said that three major questions permeate the healing after loss process. They are: ‘What is lost?’ ‘What remains?’ and ‘What is possible?’ These questions do not represent concrete or sequential phases of grieving. They weave through the process and overlap at any given time. Awareness of what we have lost is an important starting point and evolves over time. This inner work occurs organically at a pace that you can handle. Your system knows exactly how and when to shuttle between raw vulnerability and withdrawal.
Divorce is a significant traumatic loss whether expected or unexpected. One’s personal world is shattered. Basic human needs for certainty and predictability, as well as love and connection suffer a great blow. Identity is disrupted for all involved. The roles we had within marriage and family are now altered.
‘What remains’ asks us to explore our support system, what our still existing dreams and passions are, and what connects us intimately to the Life Force, whether that be meditation, painting, gardening, running, or observing nature. One important aspect of working with a trauma and grief informed therapist is that they will ask you the right questions at the right time, actively listen, and encourage self-expression. Your identity may turn out to be more fluid and multi-faceted than you had imagined. And when you’re ready to dip into ‘What is possible’, a time of exploration and even attempts at once avoided activities, interests and situations may call you.
Most important throughout your journey, and reinforced by a good therapist, is the cultivation of gentleness and self-compassion, especially after indulging in behaviors that may temporarily relieve pain and heartache but don’t serve you in the long run. There is a healthy balance, a midpoint between the denial of loss at one extreme and chronic self-absorption at the other. More and more, you will find yourself coming into balance.
A client of mine (I’ll call her Sue) filed for divorce after enduring the burden of her husband’s alcoholism and self-destructiveness for many years. The couple had two young sons at the time. They had met as teenagers, and to Sue, this partnership was her world, the ground of her everyday life, and her plans for the future. Five years after the divorce, she continues to grow and mature, and is now thriving in her own business. She has raised their two boys with great sensitivity and structure, and their natural gifts are developing. Sue has built a network of friends and has strengthened her family ties and connection to the community.
Through her therapy and her support system, Sue has built personal strength and independence. She has grown well beyond the limitations of who she thought she was. Pain and loss can crack open the mold of our former selves to change our perceptions, and to see life with fresh eyes. Oftentimes, the greater the perceived loss, the greater the possibility to become a whole individual, to grow and transform.
It is my sincere wish that these words may move you to lean into your pain and loss with support and assistance. Although the roles we play: mother, spouse, businessperson, etc. can enrich our lives, they change over time. On a deeper level, you are so much more than any role you play in life. Loss and grief can lead you to a direct experience of your resilience and the great truth of who you are.