The grief of separation and divorce

grief of separation/divorce

A separation or divorce is a significant life event. It is painful. We grieve. We all experience the grief of separation or divorce at a different pace. If you were not the one to initiate it, you may be at a disadvantage when it comes to making decisions about your children’s parenting arrangements after separation.

Grief is a natural response to loss. We experience grief when we suffer any significant loss – the loss of a loved one, a job, a relationship, a place. Whilst grieving is a very personal experience, we all go through similar stages.

In separations, the timing of grieving may have a significant impact on the quality of the co-parenting decisions you make. It may cause or aggravate conflict due to misunderstandings of each other’s response to what is happening.

If you leave

The grief of separation if you are the one making the decision, is a process of accepting that you are no longer happy as part of that relationship and letting go of everything attached to it: your sense of identity as a partner, your habits and living environment, your common friendships and social relationships. You grieve for everything that you are deciding to let go of.

It is also a time of also self-reflection, changing your mind a few times, checking pros and cons, and shifting from focusing on yourself to focusing on your partner and your children. You may work through feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, fear of the future, and of being alone.

As you process, your courage grows, you feel more able to take a step forward. You have time to prepare. You may seek professional advice on the financial and legal consequences of the decision you are about to make.

The decision to end the relationship marks the point of readiness to move on.

If you are left

The grief of separation and divorce when you are not the one making the decision feels very different. You get told. Rejection. It feels like a punch in the gut. Even if you had sensed a breakup was a possibility, shock and anger are the first responses to a loss and the start of the grieving process. You may experience strong feelings of loss for

  • your partner
  • love and a dream
  • the family structure and routines
  • contact with your children
  • the family home
  • friends and the social life you had
  • meaning and identity

Whilst your partner may have taken years to come to the decision to end the relationship, for you, things happen faster, often prompting unplanned changes to where you live or how you live in the short term. You must process strong emotions and make practical decisions at the same time, such as who lives where, the children’s routines, short term financial arrangements, and maintaining your work commitments.

In conversations about arrangements, you may feel frustrated, respond with hostility, and refuse to have the conversation. You may not be stalling, you may not be ready yet.

Why does the timing of grief matter?

The time right after separation is when the discussions on parenting arrangements start. These decisions operate at two different levels:

  • What do we do NOW? Considering the current structure of your life as a family, the children’s age, their routines, and activities, and your own commitments, you must decide how to tell the children, if you continue to live together and, if not, what is the least disruptive arrangement in the very short term. You must be able to answer the question – what are we doing tomorrow?
  • How do we organise co-parenting in the long term? This will involve more in-depth discussions about the future and about what kind of co-parent you each want to be. It may need the involvement of family law professionals, many conversations, patience, and time.

If the decision to end the relationship was not mutual, the one who initiated the separation tends to be readier than the one who did not. Why? Because of the misalignment in the stages of grief. One is already moving on, the other may be feeling anger, frustration, overwhelm, hostility, and resentment.

This disconnect may result in unnecessary conflict and affect the decisions you both make.

To achieve a cooperative outcome for your children, you will both need to understand and make allowances for, where each other is emotionally and how the grief of separation and divorce is affecting both of you.

What you can do if you are the one who left:

You may experience intense feelings of hurt and disappointment when your ex responds with hostility to your ideas about the children’s care. You may find yourself retaliating. To prevent disagreements from escalating into conflicts,

  • Understand that there may be differences in the grief cycle and they may not yet be ready to look forward.
  • Be patient. Decisions will take longer than you expect as they work through their grief.
  • Focus on your children, not your ex. Focus on reassuring them, as their grieving will also have started later than yours.

What you can do if you did not prompt the separation:

  • Find support to work through your feelings: friends, other family members, or professional help. The intense pain will pass but the decisions you make now will impact your future life and that of your children.
  • Understand that there may be differences in the grief cycle. Your ex’s calmer approach says nothing about their character or the quality of your previous relationship. It may be that they are further along in accepting that the relationship has ended.
  • Provide emotional support to your children and shelter them from your extreme feelings. They are grieving too and don’t understand that they are.

Relationships are complex and separations are not straightforward. Yet, how you separate will set the tone of how you co-parent. And the way you process the grief of separation and divorce is the first step of the co-parenting journey. Don’t let conflict set in and become a habit. Start by understanding that we all grieve, but we do it differently and at a different pace.  Your children will thank you.


If you want to learn to co-parent amicably with your ex-partner, Amily can help with our separation and divorce coaching for parents.
Book your free discovery session today by selecting an appointment here, or call us now on 0411 173 147.
Your children will thank you!

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