A Journey Through Divorce: Grief, Anger, Depression and Loneliness
As a Christian, there were many things I might have been prepared for, but divorce was not one of them. When my wife of 27 years left, I was devastated. I found recovery from divorce takes time and there is no painless path.
While there were many people and things which helped me through this time – my parents, friends, prayer, reading the Bible and participating in a group course Divorce-Care run by our church, it was God’s hand of grace which saw me through.
The emotional stress of separation and divorce is certainly great. In the first few months I felt numb and emotionally totally drained. I experienced waves of emotions – intense grief – like a part of me had died. The thought of losing my wife of 27 years was like she had died also. I felt remorse – of all the things I could have done to have loved her more. I felt anger – why she should leave me after all we’d done and shared together. I had thought our marriage was a good marriage. I felt alone – in a world where it seemed everyone else had a partner. I felt depressed – disinterested in everything normal – work, eating, socialising.
As I found through the divorce support group run by our church, these feelings are normal grief reactions to deep loss. It was a great help to know others had and were experiencing the same emotions as I felt. Just being able to talk and share my own feelings to others who had been through separation and divorce, relieved much of the emotional burden.
The key, I found, as I experienced these emotions was not to deny or suppress them, but at the same time not to allow their free reign. The need is to recognize, control them and not allow them to control us. If we allow grief to control us we are in danger of falling into a pit of self pity and be of no use to anyone, let known ourselves. If we allow anger to take control the outcome can be devastating both for the object of our anger and ourselves. If we allow feelings of loneliness to take hold we may quickly fall into another relationship to fill the void.
So how can such strong, maybe overwhelming, feelings be controlled? This is where we need to take a spiritual perspective – for if our faith is in God then ultimately, though what has happened is not good, the outcome is in His hands. There is light at the end of what seems a long dark tunnel.
In this life we can expect to be tested – and no testing is pleasant. Jesus Himself experienced times of testing. Did He respond with what seemed humanly normal and natural? No, Jesus’ response was always in line with God’s word. So when we are tempted to respond to our feelings in unhealthy ways the answer is to check them against God’s word. Again we may not feel like doing things God’s way but I have found the way to true, godly contentment is not by following your emotions but by doing what is right according to God’s word.
Although the loss of your husband or wife through separation or divorce is one of the most painful emotional experiences we need to keep in mind that our relationship with Christ is the most important. We need to be on guard against allowing ourselves to be so overwhelmed by emotion that we lose sight of Him. We may become angry towards God: “If You are a loving Father why did You allow this to happen to me?” or thoughts of a similar nature. The reality is of course that God did not cause your husband or wife to leave – they did of their own free will – something God never takes away from us. We can draw comfort from the knowledge God is with us through our time of grief and loss.
So while you may feel God is distant, it certainly is not the reality. He may not prevent our pain but He is with us through it – as He has promised – I will never leave you nor forsake you. So in times of crisis our need of Him is greater and through such times we can find ourselves closer to God than before. Yet, as in all relationships, it takes effort and time. The hardest thing I found was deciding to do things God’s way. Having made that choice God’s grace and strength were freely given. I found talking to God, in prayer, from your heart brings a greater sense of His presence and comfort than anything else, especially prayer that begins with praise for what He has done before we express our own needs. We should also confess our own failings in our marriage. Humility is needed here since it is so easy to justify ourselves. Self-righteousness will always be a barrier.
The sense of loss is great. I know how I felt – the grief and powerlessness to regain that loss. As I mentioned earlier, the emotional pain was like a death, and in another sense greater. With the death of a loved one there is grief but there is finality. With divorce finality never seems to come. I remember, when on seeing my wife on family occasions, feeling a taunting grief, she was there, but in another sense she wasn’t, just tantalisingly out of reach like the ghost of a loved one that you see and reach out to but then vanishes.
Yet as a child of God, though not spared the pains of this life, I did not feel total despair – for I knew my life was in His hands and He knew this would happen. I can understand why those who have no hope despair to the point of taking their own life. More people suicide over broken relationships than for any other reason. This is why it is absolutely essential in times of great loss that we keep our hope in Christ before our mind. This is where Scripture, and spiritual songs can play a crucial role in keeping our spiritual health. Take for instance Jeremiah:
He (God) has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; He turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has besieged me with bitterness and tribulation; He has walled me about so I cannot escape; He has put heavy chains upon me; though I call and cry for help, He shuts out my prayer; He has blocked my ways with hewn stones, my soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from the Lord. (Lamentations 3.2-18, excerpts).
Jeremiah sounded very depressed and in total despair. Yet this is what he goes on to say:
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I will call to mind, and therefore have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I will hope in him. (3.20-24).
Notice Jeremiah does not deny the reality of his circumstances, but calls to his mind the hope he has in God – His steadfast love never ceases, His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is His faithfulness. He meets my deepest needs. My hope is in Him.
Therefore if we remind ourselves, daily, of these things, even speaking aloud to ourselves the great hope we have, the grief and depression will not overwhelm us.
There are many songs and hymns we can listen to or sing which can help us through times of loss and depression. Maybe make a song of your own. The following hymn has been a great source of comfort and assurance to me:
Be Still My Soul
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: your best, your heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: your God will undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds shall know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.
Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.
Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
Merely reading these words or singing them will not necessarily change how we feel. It is only as we believe the truths of them in our heart will healing come.
Coping with anger
If we have been the unwilling party to divorce you probably experienced feelings of anger after the initial feelings of grief. You may have felt, as I did, betrayed by the one you have loved. You probably felt a great sense of injustice. Although you may have been a loving and faithful (yet of course not perfect) spouse, you are now abandoned, maybe separated from your children and your home of many years. The vision of marriage and life, growing old together, has been suddenly and traumatically shattered.
Out of this will inevitably come feelings of anger towards your spouse. Now it is not wrong to feel anger when there has been a true injustice. God shows anger at wrong. Jesus demonstrated anger as a man. However, how we respond to those feelings of anger may be wrong.
We know how destructive the effects of anger out of control can be. We see them daily, on TV and maybe in our own lives. While we might not murder our estranged spouse, morally we may be just as guilty. For even wishing them dead or harbouring hateful thoughts makes us guilty of murder in God’s eyes. The apostle John puts it this way:
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1John 3:15).
So with such a solemn warning the need to keep our anger in check is vital. These scriptures are of help:
Be angry and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity (Ephesians 4.26-27).
For the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God (James 1:20).
These tell us that: 1. Anger itself is not wrong but what we do with it can be; 2. We should resolve our anger on a daily basis. Don’t allow anger to remain and take root in your soul, so giving opportunity for Satan to have his will in you; 3. What might seem to us justice does not necessarily achieve God’s standard of what is right. Many a time angry words or a course of action to achieve justice has come to my mind – but invariably they were not God’s way! Then I recall to my mind the words “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God”.
Other scriptures teach us not to seek vengeance, to pray for those who have hurt us, to return evil with good and to speak graciously of those who have sinned against us rather than maligning them. These all go against the wisdom of this world, yet they are the attributes of God’s children. I have found praying for those who have done wrong does much to dispel resentment and anger.
Nor does this mean we become passive door-mats. Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit and so we should not condone or passively go along with the sinful behaviour of our spouse. Rather we should actively seek their restoration to God’s way in a humble and gentle spirit (this may necessitate getting help and support from your church or Christian friends).
Forgiving our spouse is a part of dealing with our anger. This can be difficult to do if we have been the one wronged. Yet it need not be once we realise what forgiveness means and what it doesn’t mean. First forgiveness doesn’t mean we condone sin or forget about it. Forgiveness means we will not harbour resentment and thoughts of revenge. It means treating the one who has wronged us as if they hadn’t sinned (even though they don’t deserve it). It is a decision not a feeling. Forgiving our spouse won’t necessarily make their life easier but it will make yours.
Many studies have shown that those who learn to forgive have better health and live longer than those who don’t. Yet this is not the most important reason to forgive. When we realise the debt of our own sin before God and how much it cost Him to forgive us in the death of His Son, forgiving those who have wronged us should not be difficult. As the account of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 shows, the debt of our own sin cannot compare to what anyone else may do to us.
This is not to say they are forgiven by God. That can only happen if they (and we) confess and repent. Yet, for our part, we can forgive, just as God has forgiven us in Christ.
After grief and anger came depression. The reality of the loss of my wife began to bite deeper. Despite pleadings and tears, assurances of my love, prayer and earnest hope for her return, it all seemed to no avail.
I began to experience intense feelings of sadness which seemed to come in waves often triggered by a song from our early days together. I became uninterested in socialising, eating, routine work and going to church. I found it difficult to handle additional demands on my time or attention. Sleeping was disturbed, often waking in the early hours of the morning unable to regain sleep.
It seemed as if our 27 years together and all we had done were now just faded pages in a history book. So in an attempt to gain some comfort I reminisced of earlier days of our marriage, going over old photos. I also collected music from my past – which seemed to bring a sense of happier times. While these things brought a measure of comfort, it was temporary. Nostalgia, looking back to ‘the good old days’ may be comforting, but does not help us face the reality of today and plan for the future.
Overcoming depression takes time and positive effort. The saying “count your blessings” is a start to checking negative thoughts. I’m sure you, as I can, think of many things to thank God for each day. As grievous the loss of our partner may be, we have not lost Jesus, He is with us and He loves us. Keeping this in perspective is a great help. Yet, this does not mean we can forget about our estranged spouse. Rather we should still hope, love and work for reconciliation.
Keeping active – for example, physical exercise, hobbies, taking on a project, making or renewing friendships, helping others in need are other things which will help us out of depression. The key, though, is taking control of our thoughts. Keep in mind whatever loss we have in this life is not worthy to be compared to the eternal life we will have with Christ (Romans 8:18).
The feeling of loneliness can be intense especially when it seems to us everybody else in the world has a partner. The temptation to find happiness in the arms of another (and fallible) human being is great. However, while inevitably such will bring immediate relief from the pain of loneliness or rejection, the long term outcome may not be what we hope it would, for statistics tell us second marriages are more likely to end than first marriages and third more so. Therefore I would ask you to consider this: our deepest need is met, not in another human being, but in God through Christ, for He will never forsake us. His love endures forever.
The Bible says a husband and wife are one flesh. So when separation and divorce occur, the one flesh is torn apart. They don’t become two single individuals again, but two parts of the one. This is why the emotional pain is so great. While each may pursue separate lives and in time the emotional pain subsides, there remains a part of each other in each other. This is why I am convinced marriage is for life – as long as each lives, and why we ought to seek reconciliation or remain willing to be reconciled – even if humanly it may seem impossible.