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Starting over:

How do you grieve when no-one has died but you're left alone?
By Cody Jarrett
Date: April 06 2015
Editor Rating:

Some people think of grief as an emotion that’s only truly expressed after someone dies, while others argue that you can experience grief over something or someone gone from you – as opposed to just gone.

Personally, I think there are different forms and different levels of grief. It’s not a competition, but someone close to you dying is really on a different page than someone leaving you. But countless psychology and counselling programs talk about how divorce is second only to death on the grief scale. They also talk about the need to grieve the passing of the relationship, with all the hopes, plans and dreams you had centred around it.

Some of you might actually feel as though you had died (or at least part of you along the way), while for others, it’s the death of our perceived futures that literally drives us to tears.

I think we’re lucky to have each other. Because all of us – me writing this and you reading it – share a common bond forged from our similar experiences.  They may differ a little, but at the end of the day, we’ve all been in a long-term relationship with someone, and now it’s over. We have grief to deal with and especially in the early stages, it’s a bit like the sun - you can count on it rising up every day. 

For me, the worst time was the morning. I’d open my eyes and immediately – I mean within a breath, my heart would sink and I’d feel this creeping kind of darkness come over me, spreading through my chest, as I realised this was all real and I had at least 16 hours to get through before I could go to bed again.

It took me a long time, a lot of reading, a lot of talking and a lot of frustration, to find things that helped.  I so hope your journey out of the darkness can be a little quicker and a little easier than mine. 

No-one can stop your grief altogether. I think that empty platitude - “Only you can stop your own grief” is bollocks, and not useful – it just makes us feel like failures if we can’t do it overnight. Grief can’t be stopped so don’t feel bad if you’re struggling with yours. Grief can be managed, lived with, endured, struggled with, eased, reduced and slowly overcome, but stopped? Try telling the sun not to rise buddy.

Just cry

Obvious but necessary. This strange idea we have in Western society of applauding people for being strong if they don’t give in to their emotions is about as useful as tits on a bull.  Don’t hold back. Arm yourself with a box of tissues and let it out. If it crosses over to anger, punch the pillow, go outside and scream at the top of your lungs or rant at his picture … whatever it takes to get it out.

Talk to your family and friends 

You probably already know who among your friends and family are going to really listen to you. They’re the ones you feel comfortable talking to and crying in front of, so lean on them a little. It’s not being selfish or playing favourites; you have to remember you’re the one going through it and right now, you have to focus on your needs.

Talk to other women who’ve been through it

You definitely feel less alone when you know other people are going through the same thing as you. Think about those moments of positive connection you have with people; those “Yes! I think that too! I get you!’  Well this stuff works the same way. There’s nothing more reassuring than being part of a community again after you’ve not only been left alone, but very often left feeling a sense of disconnection from everyone around you.

Create a memorial service

It’s not only OK to have mixed feelings about the end of a relationship, I think it’s normal. You can be furious at your ex and still remember the good times too. After all, there was a reason you got together in the first place. It can be helpful to have a personal ceremony to acknowledge these mixed feelings, vent your grief, and lay aside a part of your past.  You might want to play a song, recite a poem, or just verbally acknowledge the relationship you had. You might want to light a candle as you do all this and blow it out at the end to signify the end of that phase of your life. It’s your ceremony. So do whatever helps you to push through the grief.

Clear out his stuff

Anything that is solely his. Out it goes. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face though but do remove his things out of sight.  Visual reminders can be so painful – especially if they bring back associated memories. So box up all his things and arrange for him to collect it, preferably when you’re not home. If he doesn’t want it, give it to charity. It’s now your space, not our space and you need to define it as such.

Create a new routine

Change how you do things.  If every Friday night you all used to watch a movie together and have pizzas, change it to Saturday night. If you used to go out together every Tuesday night and get a baby-sitter in, do something else – but do something – or you’ll just sit there missing the old Tuesdays. The idea here is not to ignore what you had, but to create new routines.

Cultivate new friendships

Apart from your really old mates, there will be friends who only know you in the context of your partner, and as part of a couple. Sometimes, this can make things difficult or uncomfortable when you see them. But with new people, your story and your new life with them begins now. I’m not suggesting you cut anyone off, but it can be really great to make new friends too who only know you in your new single context.

Look after yourself

The easiest thing to do is ignore your own needs. Eating, and sleeping take a nose-dive when your marriage breaks up. You have to commit to taking care of yourself because stress has links to illness. I’m not going to tell you not to have a glass of wine or a bowl of ice-cream.  But I am going to suggest you match them one for one with something healthy. If you have a wine, have a glass of water. If you have an ice-cream, have a carrot. If you can’t sleep, get up, do something boring to dull your mind, then try again.

Write a goodbye letter

This is a letter you will never send, but it will help you to articulate and vent your grief.  Make it in the form of a series of goodbyes…. Goodbye to the life I had, goodbye to the plans for watching our children grow up with two parents side by side, goodbye to our house - whatever you feel you have lost. You can also include things you’re saying goodbye to that are actually better off gone from your life; goodbye to being controlled financially, goodbye to having to clean up someone else’s messes, goodbye to not having my opinion count. Once it’s written, read it aloud, then discard it.

Write a letter to you

This is a letter just for you and to you.  It’s more of a hello letter. In this letter you can acknowledge all the feelings of grief and anger you’re experiencing, but also embrace the new possibilities ahead of you. The purpose of it is to experience your grief but also allow you to feel that amidst all this turmoil, there are positive things coming up too.  

Knowing the difference between grief and depression

Grief, sadness, anger, bitterness, resentment, longing … they’re all normal feelings after a marriage breakdown. But how do you know if it’s grief or depression? I think it’s about the chinks of light that appear through the wall of darkness. If they’re there, however small, after the first couple of months, that’s a good sign. If, on the other hand, everything stays black, negative and hopeless beyond this point, then it’s a good idea to seek professional help through your GP. 

Cody has developed workbook-based support program to help women going through separation focussing on a different area every week. For further information, visit

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