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Going through a relationship breakdown? It's okay if you don't join in on all the Christmas razzmatazz

The end of a long term intimate relationship, whether a marriage or committed relationship, is experienced as a huge loss with all of the complex emotions of the bereavement process.

Bernadette Ryan

CHRISTMAS HAS BEEN all around us now for quite some time: lights, trees and lots of ads with shiny happy people all enjoying the festive fun. For many people, this can be a difficult time, especially for those who have suffered a loss throughout the year.

For the bereaved, it is clear to all that these are tough times. Their grief is palpable and family and friends support them in whatever way they can. We acknowledge their right to grieve and to withdraw from the normal everyday rhythm of life for a time.

But for those going through separation and divorce, their grief may not be so evident.

The end of a long-term intimate relationship, whether a marriage or committed relationship, is experienced as a huge loss, with all of the complex emotions of the bereavement process.

Separation and divorce

The loss of a partner through separation and divorce is similar in many respects to the loss experienced due to a death, but does not always garner the same recognition and support.

Separation and divorce is best understood as a process as opposed to an event. Yes, the physical separation signals the end of the marriage/relationship, but this may come after a long period of stress and may be the beginning of a further protracted period of stress.

Loss and grief can go through different phases. Initially there is shock; “I can’t believe this is happening!” The person can feel numb and not connected to those around them. Shock is often followed by denial: “this is not happening”, anger, bargaining, obsessing and finally acceptance.

It is not always a linear process and events can often trigger a regression to any of the earlier stages. The grief around separation is often referred to as disenfranchised grief. Because there hasn’t been an actual death, because there is no mourning ritual to help contain the grief, the individual concerned (and others) can feel they don’t have the right to feel this way.

They may not even recognise the grief they are going through. They do not give themselves permission to grieve. So they can be getting on with life carrying an intense sense of loss compounded by the fact that their lost loved one is still there, walking around living a new life without them.

The ‘firsts’ are the most difficult

‘Firsts’ are the most challenging when one is grieving: first birthdays, first anniversaries and perhaps the biggest of all, first Christmas. How can the world be so full of such merriment and good cheer while they may feel totally abandoned by life?

At the darkest time of the end of a long year, Christmas can bring about a return of the emotional rollercoaster that the person has been through. It can heighten the sense of loneliness and loss, the loss of hope, the loss of what was and the loss of what might have been.

With children, the first Christmas is particularly challenging. Where will the family spend it? How can the children have access to both parents? Is there a willingness on both sides to facilitate this or are the children caught up in the middle? Is it too unbearable to see the other? Will Christmas ever be the same again? Perhaps not, it will be different, it will get better.

If you are going through a relationship breakdown, it’s ok to give yourself permission to grieve. It’s ok if you do not want to join in all of the Christmas razzmatazz. It’s ok to give yourself time and space to process your grief in whatever way you need to. Take the support offered from caring family and friends, or be on your own if that’s your choice.

Christmas marks the end of the year and the promise of a new one on the horizon. With the new light comes renewed hope. A new life awaits you, move towards it one step at a time.

Bernadette Ryan is a Relationships Counsellor and Psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland. For more information on their counselling services, including separation support services, or to book a consultation, you can contact 01 678 5256, email info@relationshipsireland.com or visit www.relationshipsireland.com. Relationships Ireland also offers counselling for teenagers who are affected by separation through our ‘Teen-Between’ service. For more information please visit www.teenbetween.ie.

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Bernadette Ryan

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