Mourning Your Divorce: Facing the Tsunami

Recently Rhonda, (a pseudonym) came into my office in a state of despair. She’d been separated from her ex for three years and they had worked hard at creating what seemed to be an amicable custody arrangement. Now, for seemingly no discernable reason, her 12 year old son Marty was lashing out, blaming her for divorcing his Dad and wrecking his life.

“I thought we’d be over all this by now–it’s been three years!” Rhonda sobbed in my office. How the waves of mourning are like a tsunami, I thought, unpredictable and overwhelming. Rhonda’s upset was palpable: on top of her guilt and desolation was her shame about being so distraught. Plus she was struggling with her misconception about the nature of grief, summed up in the words: ” We should be over this by now.”

Suddenly she turned to me.

“Did you ever feel like your life was falling apart?” She knew I’d divorced, remarried and had single parented and raised two now grown and reasonably happy children. I found myself wanting to support and reassure her that what she was going through was normal. Mourning is never a linear passage, and the grief of divorce can and does creep up just when we thought we were done. I wanted to let her know I had confidence she would and could weather this new storm.

I sat for a moment, trying to formulate an answer to her question. I knew my impulses to share my own experience with her was because I wanted to assure her that her pain and grief were both normal and understandable, yet I felt uneasy. I knew that traditional psychotherapy believes it’s unwise and unprofessional for therapists to reveal their own vulnerable areas to patients. In my head I heard the voice of one particular supervisor: “Therapists don’t reveal their own issues! In doing so you could rob Rhonda of experiencing what she is feeling!!”

Wanting to steady myself, I took a breath…and another one. Sitting on the table next to my chair was the book I’d been reading over the weekend, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron A purple sticky-note I’d pasted in jutted out, reminding me of a quote I wanted to savor. I took another breath and handed the book to Rhonda.

“Take a look at what I was reading just this weekend,” I suggested. As she skimmed the passage I’d noted, her eyes filled with tears. I asked her to read it aloud:

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

After reading aloud, she looked at me and welled up again. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” she said.

Here’s the point: At so many crossroads in our lives, we have trouble knowing which way to turn. We seek answers. We search for guidance. But often the search for answers is fraught with disappointment. Just learning to sit with what is, to stop the search and listen to our inner voice may be the best advice for all of us, in life and in therapy. For better or worse, sometimes the best place to go is nowhere at all..

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