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Divorce is a death.
I knew this intuitively and intellectually, prior to leaving my marriage. I didn’t know it in my gut until I put 3,000 miles between us.
I will probably never see him again.
Grieving the death of a relationship can be confusing when you still love someone, yet know it was in both of your best interests to part ways.
It can be confusing when you feel homesick for familiarity and it overshadows all that was sad, broken, and traumatic.
My work with grief over the past 12 years—since losing my dad and all the losses that have followed—has taught me not to fear dropping into the belly of hard emotion. This is where we must go, where we must be willing to sit and wait for the release that makes space in our hearts for healing and for new life.
This is why I’ve been spending so much time in the cemetery.
I wrote out the losses I’m grieving on slips of paper the other day, lit each one on fire, and sat sobbing on the stone steps as each paper curled up in flames and disappeared. All I was left with was a pile of ash and a few scraps with words remaining.
This was a beginning. There is more work to do and I’m trying to remind myself there is no rush.
There is only this moment.
I shouldn’t fear sitting here. Grief is not an enemy; she is my ally.
But what about when grief is complicated and entangled with those who are not our allies on the healing path? We need more than a ritual for dealing with death. We need to be freed.
It took me a few days after this ritual to realize that “grief” was not the only one in the cemetery with me. Trauma has also bonded me to one of my past relationships. I find myself feeling along the cord of grief for its end, only to see it tangled with toxicity.
I don’t know yet where one ends and the other begins. Severing this cord is not unlike experiencing withdrawal.
In the mornings here, in my new life, I wake up to lips grazing my shoulders. To “Good morning, beautiful” and a gaze that sets my body tingling. To slow kisses, shaking off sleep, and to lovemaking. I peer at him, this person loving me so wholly, and try to reconcile my current reality with my recent past.
This is a reality I have scarcely allowed myself to entertain as a daydream. It was, then, an impossibility, which lodged in me like a shard of glass from the very first night of marriage and slowly hemorrhaged over eight years.
Many days, after dropping my partner off at work, the memories flood in from unsuspecting triggers—a song, a bird sighting, a business sign, a message from someone I know—and I spend the day tossed between waves of grief and moments of stilled contentment.
>> A learned helplessness and hopelessness, causing someone to feel stuck and powerless within the relationship, yet determined to “make the best of it.”
>> Focusing on “the good” in the other person, even with the awareness that some of their behaviors are abusive.
>> Not feeling you can leave, even though deep down you have moments of doubt that you trust this person.
>> Intensity, complexity, and a promise of some kind characterizing the relationship—one day, things being different or better, or when X, Y, or Z happens.
>> Being continually let down by the other person, yet continuing to believe their promises.
>> Feeling in a position to defend the relationship against criticism or being advised to leave (which, in my case, led me to keep the reality of my marriage to myself in order to prevent these conversations).
“I don’t know why I didn’t see this before,” I thought numbly.
Rather than judgment, I tried to lean back in compassionate curiosity. But my brain immediately set out to convince me that I was overreacting, even being unfair to my ex. He wasn’t an “abuser” or a narcissist. I had chosen to stay as long as I did out of love, had I not?
I sent a message to one of my best friends, the only person in whom I confided some of the more disturbing aspects of my marriage, asking for her thoughts.
“I’m a little troubled by how willing you are to elevate somebody who has repeatedly hurt you,” she said in her gentle, honest voice.
Her words are still ringing in my ears.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better,” said my friend, Anne Lamott.
I remember when we said our final goodbye and I watched him drive away, waving with tears in my eyes. He probably felt like this was a sweet parting.
He had cupped my face in his hands, looked at me tenderly, and kissed the top of my head, my lips, saying he loved me. I was so important to him. I was his best friend. And I hugged him back, crying, even as I wanted to push him away in confusion, with anger that I hadn’t ever allowed myself to express.
He wasn’t my best friend and I had never felt important to him, yet I had stayed fiercely loyal until the end—for eight years.
Still, I swallowed my anger and told myself to be grateful that he treated me so well in our parting. Let bygones be bygones. I thought, “It’s not fair to be angry now that he’s behaving kindly. You’re the one who’s leaving him, after all, so just be nice.”
Weeks later, I begin to see the trauma cords that tie me to him, let alone begin the work of untangling them from my grief.
This work takes patience, compassion, and courage. I don’t have a therapist, but I can offer myself other tools.
I can offer myself time and a safe space to explore and express my anger. I can rage and cry and soothe myself in the ways that I have learned—yoga, walks in nature, creating art, writing, and grief rituals.
I can remind myself—when I forget—what my reality was and why it was destructive to me. I can reach out to trusted friends who have invited me to share with them whenever I need.
I can take a posture of nonjudgmental curiosity toward myself as I seek to discern what is an actual loss I’m grieving and what is a toxic cord I am freeing myself from.
I can assure myself that I can do this. I’ve done many hard things before and I can do this hard thing now. It may take several months or years. As long as I am fiercely committed to myself in this journey, all will be well in the end.
This, I truly believe.