Divorce and Grief

“I am finally going to live a life that lines up with my values, why is it so hard?”

Going through a divorce can be like walking through a minefield of emotions.  There is motivation to get from one painful place to a better place.  Regardless of whatever precipitated the divorce, there is a lengthy period of adjustment and no one direct way to traverse it.

When a family undergoes a separation, each person experiences grief.  This can include grief over the loss of relationship, as well as the expected (and perhaps idealized) family roles, and routines.  In many cases, separating spouses also experience the loss of extended family relationships, shared friends, and other social supports.  Thus, when a person is going through a separation, it is not a singular event, but a process of changing feelings, roles, and family experiences and routines.

The number of family members involved then amplifies the family separation process.  Each parent has their own grieving process, problem solving orientation, and conflict style.  Each child has their own grief, expressed in a variety of ways depending on their age, stage of development, and personality.

In her seminal book On Death and Dying[1], Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief.  These five stages included:  Shock and denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.  Although these stages of grief describe reactions to a loss, they do not necessarily occur in a linear fashion.  A person’s experience with grief can cycle between these five stages, mirroring the “ups and downs” or the “push and pull” feelings associated with separation.

The leaver and the left—does it make any difference?

In a marital separation, there is usually one spouse who initiates the change.  This person is referred to as the leaver, or initiator.  The other person is referred to as the levee or responder.  Whether or not the individual in a separation is the leaver or the leavee, can affect their experiences with grief, as well as how they approach resolving parenting issues.

The initiator of a separation has likely weighed the pros and cons of a separation for some time before bringing the subject up with his partner.  As a result, he will have already processed some of his feelings about separating, and therefore will experience less shock and denial than his partner. He may, however, experience shock and denial later on, when responding to his partner’s unexpected viewpoints or in relation to his partner’s expectations or requests.

Usually it is the responder that experiences more shock and denial when she finds out that her partner wants to separate.  She may not have anticipated the separation–she may not even have realized that their partner was unhappy in the relationship.

When faced with feelings of shock and denial, it is very difficult for people to process information and make decisions.  It is important for each partner to work through their feelings and reactions to the idea of separating, before they can consider making decisions about a change in their family and life circumstances.  This takes time.  If decisions are rushed during this phase, they will not have been fully contemplated.  For example, a person in denial about the separation may go along with her partner’s proposals, merely in the hope that he will change his mind about the separation.  When, over time it becomes evident that the initiator’s proposal is not realistic, or the responder realizes that the relationship is not salvageable, feelings of anger and greater conflict can sabotage the agreement and be a big setback.

Both the initiator and responder are vulnerable to feelings of anger.  During this phase of grief, anger expressed towards each other can disguise feelings of fear, hurt, humiliation, loss, and abandonment.  There is often a “flight or fight” reaction, such as shutting down or wanting to get back at the other person.  Decision making during this phase can be difficult, as partners can be very reactive, and communication can be more conflictual.  With assistance, (through a Divorce Coach, Counselor, or other supports), both the initiator and responder can harness this anger energy to re-focus their on their individual needs and wishes.  This transformation of anger into action can help both the initiator and the responder to move from a couples’ perspective to an individual one.

During the “bargaining” stages of grief, there can be a lot of confusion and mixed emotions.  Making decisions in this stage is difficult, because the parties vacillate between trying to meet their practical wants and needs with satisfying their emotional needs. Both parties may be vulnerable to making decisions based on reducing their emotional and psychological pain, rather than intellectually working through family decisions such as child support, parenting routines and schedules.  For example, the initiator may be willing to accept less child support in order to reduce feelings of guilt over ending the relationship, or in an effort to speed up a final settlement.  The responder may make unrealistic promises in an attempt to win the other person back.

Depression sets in once the parties really start to understand and feel the weight of their loss, and begin to accept that denial, fighting, or bargaining have not worked to allay the inevitability of their separation.  Depression can be both reactive (to their loss of relationship), as well as preparatory (imagining spending time apart from one’s children in a shared parenting arrangement).

As is similar with the “shock and denial” stage, the initiator of a separation has had an advanced timeline to process their feelings of sadness and loss. By initiating the separation, the initiator may also have an advantage of feeling in greater control over the process.  They may be more eager to finalize the separation, and may need patience to wait for the responder to be in an appropriate frame of mind to make final decisions.

The responder, however, may be more prone to low mood, fatigue, distraction and irritability, or other physical symptoms (poor sleep, aches and pains etc.) associated with depression.

Symptoms of depression diminish the person’s ability to make good agreements, as they have to work through their emotions before they are fully ready to accept the end of their relationship.  It is, however, a time when the pain necessitates greater depth of understanding about oneself and what they would like their future, and that of their family, to be like.

When both parties have emotionally and intellectually accepted the marital separation, they can move on to the final stage of grief—acceptance.  Decision making during this phase is much more successful, because the emotional baggage involved with coming to terms with the dissolution of their marriage can be checked at the door.  It will be easier for both the initiator and the responder to see “the big picture”, see options instead of positions, take their partner’s perspective, and ultimately to see what decisions are best for themselves and their children.

[1] Kubler-Ross, E. (1969).  On Death and Dying.  New York: Scribner.

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Mindful Parenting

Parenting takes a lot of energy.  It demands every part of you.  If you were a vehicle, you would require gas in your tank at all times, in order to parent. 

A full tank of energy means that you have the potential for a long journey, and signals that anything is possible.  You can get up early and make a healthy breakfast for your family, get lunches made, and still have time to read a book with your child before school.  You have time and energy to accomplish all that you need to do—work, parenting, and family responsibilities included.

Yet, you have to be careful to pace yourself, so you do not run out of gas during the day.  You may also have to “fill up” at regular intervals during the week, by doing something for yourself-exercising, socializing, self-care. 

If you try parenting on an empty tank, things will breakdown fast.  Your kids are more likely to have meltdowns, and so are you.  

Some days I have a fabulous night’s sleep, life is good, and I have a full tank of energy.   My capacity is near to 100%, and I happily fulfill my parenting duties, work responsibilities, and assorted errands.  I even manage to “top up” my tank by going for a walk, reading my book, or grabbing a coffee with a friend.

This system usually works quite well.  However, life is not always predictable.  Some days go as planned, other days I find obstacles in my path.  Sometimes my own mindset is the obstacle in my path.

I find that I often add to my task list, thinking “I can just do this one more thing before I head home”.  Sometimes I lose track of time and forget to have an adequate nutrition break.  Sometimes, on the priority list, I put the laundry before my walk.  I have learned that these things are the equivalent of the warning light going on in my car.

The other day, I turned up to pick my son up from school.  I had grown complacent, as his adjustment to school had gone seamlessly, and I expected it to be a day like all of the others, when we could both relax and recover from the day after school.

I had spent almost all of my energy, and planned to “fill up” after school.  But this day was different.  He needed me.  And when I say he needed me, I mean not just to be physically present, but he needed me emotionally.  He was stressed and tearful on the drive home from school. I had to dig deep to find that last bit of energy to help him out.

This is where mindful parenting came in.  I pulled the car over, got out of the car, and sat beside him in the back seat.  I put everything else out of my mind.  It was as if time had slowed, because listening to my son was my only focus.  I listened with my ears, mind, and heart.  I hugged him, told him I loved him, and reassured him that things would get better.

The reality is that it didn’t really matter what I said to my son.  It was the listening that helped. It was the fact that everything else in our lives was secondary to my being there for him in that very moment.

A surprising thing happened.  Not only did my son feel better, but so did I.  We fuelled up two emotional tanks at once.

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“Giving Fatigue” – A Potential Threat to Christmas Spirit?

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This Christmas, I experienced something new.  This something new is what I call “Giving Fatigue”.  Giving Fatigue is the emotional strain resulting from constantly being asked to give to worthy causes.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not fault charities for asking for donations this time of year.  I am aware that it is very important to capitalize on the spirit of giving, in order to meet the communities’ needs throughout the year.  But, how does one withstand the constant requests for donations?  Moreover, how does this experience affect our children?

I feel as though I am approached for a donation at every turn–the Salvation Army kettles at the grocery store, being asked “will you add a dollar donation?” at the toy store checkout, and friend requests for charity donations on Facebook.

I have found that giving money to charity is not enough to lessen the painful awareness of suffering and need in the world.  In the past year, my husband and I have made meaningful contributions to UNICEF, World Vision, and The S.P.C.A.  We have also opened our wallets when our friends, school, and community were fundraising for Cancer Research, Santa’s Anonymous, and other worthy causes.

It is important to me that I teach my son the value of giving, as much as appreciating everything we have as a family. We are not materialistic.  We take the stand that it is not what you have that matters, but who you are and what you do.

Both my husband and I work in helping professions.  I even volunteer at a non-profit society.  It feels good to help others, but I still find myself vulnerable to “giving fatigue”.

It was my son that illuminated this emotional underbelly of charity.  He is a very sensitive and empathic boy. I was surprised when he did not want to participate in his school’s Extreme Outreach Stocking fundraiser.  When I picked him up from school he was the only child that was not carrying an empty stocking for our family to fill.  When we talked it over, I discovered his extreme discomfort with thinking about needy children.

As the time drew closer to Christmas, my son seemed quite sad.  This was unexpected, given that children are normally very excited about Christmas. When I recounted the past month, I realized that we had dropped off a donation at the SPCA, we had donated our used clothing to a community centre, we had put together a charity stocking for another child, and selected goats, school supplies, and immunizations for children in Africa.  Added on top of that is the responsibility to recycle and compost for our planet– It’s enough to make your head spin.

This Christmas season, I discovered that I had focused so much on giving to others that I had forgotten to reserve energy for plain and simple fun. Christmas elicits a spirit of giving.  But we owe it to our children to let them be children…to enjoy the lights, the treats, the warmth, the family time, the excitement, and yes—even the presents.

There will always be a worthy cause to support, and someone else in need.  But we musn’t forget that we have to nurture ourselves and our families, before we can share with others. After all, the greatest gift we can give our children at Christmas, is joy.

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Mother-In Law’s Bombshell Sparks Debate on Manners and Family Values

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Carolyn Bourne sparked several weeks of heated debates in the United Kingdom, over her widely published criticisms of future daughter in law Heidi Withers.  The Daily Telegraph has published almost daily on the story, which first came to my attention in London on June 30, 2011.

A synopsis of the situation can be read by accessing the Daily Mail’s recent article:www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2010314.

Mrs. Bourne, step-mother to the groom to be, Freddie Bourne, sent an email to his fiancée
complaining about of her lack of manners.  The list of complaints included transgressions against typical manners when staying at someone’s home, such as table manners, and following the general activities of the household. However, Mrs. Bourne also criticized Ms. Withers’ personality and the couples’ decisions regarding their wedding plans.  Apparently Mrs. Bourne did not consider the possible consequences of communicating her complaints–nevermind the implications of sending them to her via email.

After Ms. Wither’s received the email, she forwarded them to some friends, and then the email went viral on the web.  As a result of the family’s conflict being publicized, comments from the greater public has focused on taking the side of either the dumped on young daughter in law (who has not commented publicly on the situation), or “Miss Fancy Pants” the spokesperson for proper manners and social graces in England today.

On a deeper level, however, the family conflict illustrates a deeper divide in family values.  One generation appears to favour proper manners and social appearance, while the younger generation may favour their individuality and authenticity.  I can only guess as to Freddie Bourne and Heidi Withers’ values, as they have not commented in the press on their point of view in the conflict.

In most family conflicts, the event that sparks the explosion of anger and upset is usually a symptom of greater and deeper divide or a history of hurts that have gone unspoken and unhealed.

No one knows yet, how this story will end.  Will the wedding go ahead?  Will the groom’s father and step-mother be invited (and attend) the wedding?

Although my curiosity is certainly peaked–along with most of the UK, I hope that the family can put their conflicts to rest in private.  If they are inclined to work on the problems, I suggest Mrs. Bourne pay for a Mediator to assist them–since she ignited the conflict, it would only be good manners to put some effort in to putting the fire out.

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Tips for Helping Your Child Sleep Well At Night

For a good night’s sleep, cut out children’s screen time before bedtime.

Victoria Times Colonist recently reported that television before bed can negatively affect the quality of children’s sleep and behaviour.  The effects, from a study completed by Seattle’s Children’s Research Institute, indicate that watching t.v. before bed can contribute to childhood nightmares, night waking, and daytime fatigue, regardless of the content and quality of the programming.

Short term effects of sleep deprivation include an increase in behavioural problems and risk of injury.  Longer term effects of sleep deprivation include an increase in occurrence of depression, anxiety, obesity, and poor grades in school.

To help your child get a good night’s rest, I recommend the following:

1.  Have a consistent bedtime routine for your child (e.g. bath, pajamas, brush teeth, bed).

2.  Create a calm, relaxed atmosphere at bedtime.

3.  Replace T.V. time with reading a book with your child.

4.  Put your child to bed at an early time, and aim for 10-11 hours of sleep every night.

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Funding for Anti-bullying Program Released, But Limited to Kids Under 6

Anti-bullying program to be expanded in B.C. schools.

Good news was released by news outlets in Victoria and Vancouver today–Roots of Empathy programs will be funded for the 2011-12 school year.

The Roots of Empathy program encourages the development of empathy in young children, which then serves to prevent bullying behaviour later on.

A mother and baby visit classrooms with a Roots of Empathy facilitator.  Empathy is fostered by the children viewing life through the eyes of the infant, and the parent who anticipates and meets their needs.  The children also develop an attachment of sorts to the infant, who grows and changes over the course of time.

Unfortunately, Premier Clark’s announcement indicates that the program will be released through Kindergarten classes, and to some early childhood centers.  There is no indication that the anti-bullying program will be released to children in other Elementary School grades.  There is also no indication of funding for anti-bullying programs in High School.

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Anxiety Disorders Increase Risk of Substance Abuse and Suicide

Over one third of people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, reported Dr. Kirk Murphy at the 19th Annual David Berman Conference on Concurrent Disorders on May 25, 2011.

Concurrent Disorders are what the mental health community refers to when a client is diagnosed with both a psychiatric disorder (such as Anxiety or Depression), and a substance abuse (alcohol or drug) or gambling addiction.

Frequently individuals with anxiety, depression, or other psychiatric disorder attempt to manage the discomfort of their symptoms by using drugs or alcohol. Counsellors and doctors often refer to this process as “self-medicating”.

More shocking, however, was Dr. Murphy’s report that having an anxiety disorder roughly doubles the odds of suicide. These were the findings in a study of Swedish seniors over the age of 70, published in the July 1991 edition of Archives of General Psychiatry. These results stood even when other psychiatric diagnoses and substance abuse were excluded, and marital status statistically controlled in the study.

Dr. Murphy concluded that mental health professionals should routinely screen their clients for anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation.

Cognitive-behavoural therapy has proved to be very effective in reducing anxiety symptoms and providing relief to patients. Dr. Murphy also noted that there are also a variety of prescription medications available to anxiety sufferers.

For more information on concurrent disorders, contact Jayne Embree at http://www.victoriacounsellor.ca, your family physician, or http://www.heretohelp.bc.ca

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