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Extract: A divorce or break-up is much like a bereavment

A person undergoing the bereavement process of breakdown and separation is trying to survive, on both an emotional and practical level, writes Helen Collins.

Helen Collins

IT IS VERY LIKELY that it feels as if your world is falling apart, the ground is gone from under your feet.

One hour you may feel OK, the next you are in floods of tears; you get it together again for a couple of hours and then you fall into a total rage. You can’t remember things; you can’t seem to get your work done. For a while you believe you can survive and then you collapse into sadness.

This is ‘bereavement’ and you are on the bereavement curve, an emotional rollercoaster. These feelings are totally normal and happen to most people experiencing relationship breakdown.

In Ireland we are very good at dealing with ‘death’ – and we understand the process of coming to terms with it. We have all heard the widow/widower being advised not to make any big decisions for a year or two when they are first bereaved. Scientifically, medically, psychologically and sociologically, it is recognised that separation/divorce is a full-blown bereavement.

A person undergoing the bereavement process of breakdown and separation is trying to survive, on both an emotional and practical level. You will need to be able to support your children emotionally and practically while at the same time making some of the most important decisions of your life at a time when you may feel least able to make those decisions.

It is important to recognise the strong emotions of bereavement, grief and loss and understand the effect they may be having on you. The five stages of grief and bereavement are:

  1. Denial. We refuse to believe what has happened. We are in shock.
  2. Anger and Fear. We get angry. We may blame others for our loss. We can have emotional outbursts. We may turn the anger inwards on ourselves. It is important to release this anger in a healthy way. Bad uncontrolled behaviour is often caused by fear. Fear is common in grief. Violent and confusing emotions, panic and nightmares, may make grief a frightening experience. You may fear ‘losing control’ or ‘breaking down’.
  3. Bargaining and Guilt. We may bargain with ourselves or, if we are religious, with our God. We may try to make a deal to have our loved one back. It is only human to want things as they were before. Guilt or self blame is also common during grief. Regrets often take the form of ‘if only’s: ‘if only I had done this’ or ‘if only I hadn’t said that’. It is common also to feel a sense of relief or freedom, particularly if there has been a lot of unhappiness and suffering in the relationship, and this may also cause intense feelings of guilt.
  4. Grief and Depression. We may experience feelings of listlessness and tiredness – wandering around in a daze and feeling numb. Pleasure and joy can be difficult to achieve. There can be thoughts of suicide. If you have any thoughts of harming yourself, it is essential that you get immediate professional help. Self-preservation during this process is a must.
  5. Acceptance. This is the final stage of grief. It is when we realise that life has to go on. This stage can take any amount of time to get to and varies with different people.

Write out the following list on a sheet of paper and hang it on your noticeboard or fridge to remind yourself that your feelings are totally normal and natural and that you will travel through these feelings.

  • Feelings of grief and loss
  • Disbelief
  • Shock
  • Longing and searching
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Despair and hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Loneliness and sadness
  • Relief
  • Physical reactions

Dealing with betrayal

It may be that the separation has come about due to one of you having an ‘affair’. This is difficult to deal with. If you are the partner who had the affair, you may be experiencing deep feelings of guilt and shame. The affair may be a stark and public rejection of a marriage but for both of you it is important to understand that it is rarely the first sign of trouble in a marriage. Happily married couples generally don’t engage in secret extramarital affairs.

If you are the partner learning of this affair, you may experience feelings of shock, humiliation and betrayal. The hurt of this betrayal may leave you struggling to let go of the desire for revenge. It may feel very difficult to work at co-parenting with your partner in these circumstances.

It is essential to focus strongly on your children’s need for a healthy relationship with both parents. Your children did not hurt you – so do not hurt them by letting your own pain create obstacles to their relationship with your partner. Remember the saying: ‘Holding on to anger and resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die!’

Speaking without fear of judgement

Obtaining the support and assistance of a professional counsellor is invaluable. Family and friends are great supporters but we all consciously and subconsciously censor what we say to our family and friends. We don’t tell our mother a certain thing because we might cause her worry and she wouldn’t sleep! We might not tell one friend ‘X info’ because he/she might disapprove and we don’t tell another friend ‘Y info’ because he/she might be loose-tongued, and so on. One of the best services that you can ever do for yourself is to find a professional counsellor that you like.

You can cand with guaranteed confidentiality. Your counsellor will help you to deal with your strong feelings, assist you in being a positive support to your children and help you develop a means of constructive communication with your partner.

It is important to understand that very often families and friends are not good advisers – they have their own opinions, coloured by their own perceptions and biases, and may have difficulty in being objective. Their views can be driven by fear for what they perceive to be your well-being and this can be misguided. Do not let a family member dictate how you should behave towards your former partner – this can be very destructive for your children and your ongoing co-parenting relationship.
Get suitable legal assistance. (This is essential if you have real fears for your safety and your children’s safety.) You can ask your family and friends for their love and support while also asking them to respect your need to obtain advice from an objective, reputable professional source.

Maintain a working parental relationship

It is very important to choose the professional assistance, particularly legal support, that best meets your needs and the needs of your family and your ongoing co-parenting relationship with your ex-partner. Difficult as it may feel at this time, it is vitally important to understand that your children need the love and attention of both parents. It is essential to try to maintain a working parental relationship with your former partner.

Try to do the following:

  • Understand that your feelings are normal and that you are undergoing the strong emotions of bereavement.
  • Get the assistance of a counsellor, who should be a registered accredited therapist.
  • Get suitable professional assistance.
  • Make a conscious effort to take care of your mental, emotional and physical health.
  • Support and actively encourage your children’s love of the other parent and do everything in your power to facilitate regular access.

Try not to do the following:

  • Hold up the world on your own (it will exhaust you).
  • Talk to the children in a negative way about your former partner.
  • Involve the children in any dispute.
  • Be careless in the words used to explain to the children any departure or separation. Try to plan a joint and supportive approach for the children.
  • Neglect yourself. If you don’t put ‘petrol’ in your own tank, you can’t drive anywhere! Furthermore, if you don’t take care of your own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual welfare, you won’t be able to healthily take care of your children’s needs at this difficult time.
  • Overdo your intake of alcohol. Alcohol can make strong feelings more difficult to handle. Consciously try to take daily exercise, good nutrition, fresh air, relaxation/massage, vitamins and minerals and generally support your nervous system through this very emotional time.

A Short Guide to Divorce Law in IrelandA survival handbook for the family, by Helen Collins will be launched 12 March 2014 by Alan Shatter TD Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence at the Bar Council of Ireland.

Helen Collins is a partner in the firm of Wolfe & Co Solicitors Market Street, Skibbereen and has practised as a solicitor for the last 38 years in all aspects of contentious and non-contentious criminal and civil law, specialising in particular in family law. She is a founding member of the Association of Collaborative Practitioners and is the West Cork Bar Association Representative of the Counsel of the Law Society of Ireland.

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Helen Collins

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