There are some events that are so emotionally and psychologically traumatic that healing emotionally can take a very long time. In fact, some traumatic events will never leave us; we can heal and move forward, but we are never quite the same. Divorce is among the hardest experiences to endure.
Among the many reasons that divorce causes long-term emotional trauma, guilt, anger, and stress are hugely influential. Understanding that the loss of a spouse through divorce is a tremendously complex issue is key to being able to emotionally heal. Oftentimes, a divorce occurs because of emotional trauma within the marriage (whether by abuse, adultery, or other causes), so people anticipate that emotional healing will occur once they are out of the marriage and the emotional trauma they endured has ended. Unfortunately, ending emotional trauma, in and of itself, does not result in emotional healing. Changing your attitude or the situation, thereby ceasing the emotional trauma, is vital to clearing the pathway for emotional healing to occur; the healing itself, however, will take much more than just the trauma coming to an end.
Shame and guilt often tend to go hand in hand with divorce. Individuals who divorce because they fall in love with someone other than their spouse may make a conscious decision to pursue their new love, but still may feel very guilty over hurting someone they once loved very much. The spouse who was abandoned is often left with feelings of confusion, shame, and a need to understand what happened to their crumbling marriage. Many of the spouses find themselves believing that if they did something differently, their marriage would still be intact; guilt and shame thus follow, especially when children are involved.
Guilt is not always a bad thing -- after all, a certain amount of guilt is what helps us do the right thing and develops our conscience. Oftentimes, guilt is what indicates to us that our actions and words may be wrong or callous. Unfortunately, guilt can also be developed from healthy and appropriate choices or even from situations where the person feeling guilty had no choice at all. Sometimes religion, our families, and our roles -- such as parent or caregiver -- may stimulate an unhealthy increase in guilt. We may find ourselves feeling guilty simply because we are imperfect or limited. Our limitations and humanity sometimes create a pressing need to feel guilty over situations where we have no guilt. Too much guilt, or guilt over the wrong things, can cause extreme emotional harm. We end up beating ourselves up emotionally and mentally merely because we are human; how could we possibly begin to heal ourselves if we are still holding on to the idea that we caused or created a bad situation?
The reality is that a lot of things happen through no real fault of anyone involved. Sometimes it is easy to look at a disintegrating marriage and blame one party or the other, especially in cases of abuse, addiction, or adultery. But in some respects, even these cases can be much more complex than they seem. And for those marriages that don't involve any of these issues, such as a marriage where spouses seem to grow apart or fall out of love, they are even less simplistic. Recognizing your limitations, the choices that you may need, and the results of those choices, demonstrates a productive and healthy level of contemplation. If that contemplation stirs up some feelings of guilt, then that may be a healthy expression; those feelings of guilt should then be able to be put away as the person realizes how to make better choices that are more in keeping with the person they want to be. But for someone who feeds their guilt with shame, constant regret, and impossible expectations, their guilt is out of control and emotionally dangerous.
Obviously, hurt is also a tremendous consequence of divorce. Regardless of what caused the divorce, almost always both parties emerge hurt, and to some degree, scarred emotionally. The very nature of working to form a life together, making plans for a future, and forming a family, demands an investment of feeling. When the marriage does not work, all of those feelings you have invested feel as though they've become pointless. Often, this can lead to feelings of foolishness or embarrassment. People may feel that their love, passion, and hope wasn't respected or appreciated by their spouse. And most of the time, there is little a person can do to help alleviate their disappointment in what they perceive as a rejection of who they are.
So what do you do with all of the shame, loneliness, and hurt? You heal. There is no aspect of emotional healing that is quick or easy. With divorce, there is not only all of the emotional damage from the destruction of a marriage to contend with, there are also other influences, such as family history or social pressure that may increase or cause more emotional trauma. And unfortunately, there is no real way to get a third party to understand the factors that led to any particular disintegration of a marriage.
Another especially emotional traumatic event is the death of a loved one. Although the guilt, shame, and hurt we discussed when talking about divorce can certainly be present when dealing with death, the death of a loved one generally causes a different emotional response. In fact, part of the challenge of healing from the death of a loved one is how their death may have created a vast array of different emotions within you.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, widely recognized for her work on death and grief, outlined a theory identifying five major "stages" of grief. Although they are considered stages of grief, they are not always progressive in nature. In fact, it is very common for people to get stuck in one or more stages for a lengthy period of time, for people to skip some stages, and most often for people to revisit various stages throughout their healing process -- even the rest of their lives. Losing someone you love is an emotionally traumatic event that never really ceases to affect you. Ideally, you will heal emotionally and be able to move forward; in fact, that is exactly what most people are able to do, with some time and work. However, it is important to understand that some grief likely will always remain with you. The challenge is to ensure that the level of grief you have, and how it affects your life, is a healthy amount.
The first stage of grief is denial.The denial period is usually brief and is the stage least likely to be revisited (for obvious reasons). Most individuals who suffer from denial following the death of a loved one do so because the death occurs at an unexpected time, or from an unexpected cause. Frequently, this may be in the form of a rare disease, a condition that is unusually severe when discovered, or sudden -- such as an accident. Most people who find themselves trapped in this stage are using denial as a defense mechanism. Refusing to accept facts and/or information is the most common manifestation of denial. If the death of a loved one is anticipated due to an illness, for example, the denial may last a considerable time. When the death occurs, however, denial becomes much more difficult to maintain.
This stage can be exceptionally difficult because of the strength of the emotion and a lack of somewhere to go with it. When a person is murdered or killed as a result of someone else's choices or activities, there is a person to blame (although it is important to recognize that many people will also continue to blame themselves or others in addition to the guilty party). When there is no one to blame, especially if those in grief are in positions of authority or support, the anger has nowhere to go. Without an outlet for anger, it will usually fester within a person. Anger with God is also very common. Whether you or someone you love is angry because of grief, it is absolutely essential that you recognize the feeling and remain nonjudgmental about it.
The third stage of grief is bargaining. This can also be manifested as a desire to compromise or bribe. When it comes to death, this stage of grief is usually directed toward God or a higher power. This often manifests as a promise to do certain things for God, or what a person believes God wants, in exchange for healing or postponement of death. As most people acknowledge that a person will not be brought back to life, bargaining usually exists prior to death and ceases after your loved one has passed.
Depression is the fourth stage of grief. In this context, depression is not necessarily in keeping with the clinical definition or prognosis of a mental health disorder. It is, however, very similar and many who become stuck in this stage can be diagnosed as such. Because depression in the grief process usually results at the point of death (as denial and bargaining usually cease), it can be very sudden and overwhelming. Often, those in grief may become silent, despondent, and spend a lot of time crying. As part of despondency, an individual in this stage may begin questioning the purpose of life or the value of living. This stage is entirely healthy and appropriate to a certain degree. In fact, depression is preferable to the three other stages we have explored, because it does connote a certain level of acceptance. There is a dramatic and difficult emotional response to that acceptance, but acceptance must come if healing is to follow. While you're in this stage, regret, uncertainty, fear, and sadness are very natural feelings.
The biggest challenge that comes with the depression stage is knowing when the depression is healthy and appropriate, and when it has continued for too long or become too overwhelming. Obviously, suicidal ideation is a clear demonstration that emotions have become too overpowering and is unhealthy. But questioning the purpose of life, for example, is natural in and of itself. It is extremely difficult to discern where what is natural and healthy starts to cross the line; there is no universal point. For one person, a matter of weeks may be too long for such feelings and thoughts, while another person may still be experiencing healthy levels of depression and grief for months. If at any point in your grieving process, you begin to consider self-harm or suicide, contact your doctor or a suicide hotline immediately. These thoughts indicate an unhealthy emotional response and will best be addressed by a professional.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. When individuals come to terms with the mortality or death of a loved one, they have achieved acceptance. Bear in mind, however, that acceptance is not marked by a single moment of breakthrough, but rather a period of time, a stage itself, wherein a situation becomes accepted for what it is.
If the loss of life you're facing is your own, understand that the stages of grief are, in general terms, the same. Because you see the end coming, denial and bargaining are more likely to be a struggle for you than it would be if you were grieving for someone else's death. Be gentle and forgiving of yourself as you go through the process. And remember that the people you love will have to experience their own grief and heal their own sorrow; your attention should be on processing your own grief. You cannot take on the grief for another person, but your final days, weeks, months, or years can be better lived and loved if you have traveled the grief process successfully yourself.