I look back on a life path rich with learning. I’ve learned the most painful loss can set into motion the most dramatic transformation. I use my divorce as an example of an unexpected blow that ultimately brought me to a brighter, happier place. I share some of my lessons in the hope that my perspective looking back can help you if you’re currently going through something painful.
The day I was served divorce papers was a stunning shock. My husband at the time told me, “I’m not happy” on a Thursday, moved out the following weekend, and served me with divorce papers first thing Monday morning. I was stunned and blind-sided. The day the papers were delivered was shocking, devastating, embarrassing, and overwhelming. I had never worked harder on anything in my life than I worked on my marriage. To see it dissolve in the space of five days, without warning, shook me to my core.
If someone told me then I’d look back on the day the divorce papers were served as the best day of my life, I would not have believed it. Yet that’s how I look at it from my current vantage point. That day set me on a new path. It caused me to reexamine everything I believed about how I should live my life. It caused me to show up for myself in an entirely new way. It caused me to transform and grow in ways I never imagined.
So here are lessons I learned in clawing my way out of that dark, depressing pit.
- Get your mind around it.It happened. This is your life now. Your dreams are crushed; you are going through stages of grief – shock, denial, bargaining, and anger. Your job right now is to try to get to the acceptance stage because you don’t want to stay stuck. Do not be telling yourself “this shouldn’t have happened to me” and “I didn’t do anything to deserve this” and “it isn’t fair”. Those are all ways of saying you shouldn’t be having the experience you’re having, and they all keep you feeling bitter at the hand life has dealt you. Holding the belief it shouldn’t have happened closes you off to the possibility of good coming from the experience.
- Do not let that story define you.Do whatever it takes to quit dwelling on feeling wronged and victimized. I’m not saying you weren’t wronged, maybe you were, but don’ttell your sad story over and over, endlessly elaborating on the injustice of your experience, bashing him and every other man along with him. Don’t allow friends, in an effort of misguided support, to let you tell and retell a story that casts you in the role of victim. It may start out as supportive, but it becomes toxic. At a certain point, the story you tell starts to define you, and you don’t want to define yourself at your lowest point. Either tell your story to a professional and process the experience for healing, or give yourself a limit on the number of times you tell it and then stop. Don’t get locked into defining yourself at your worst. I have not told my divorce story in decades, and I only share it now with the intention of encouraging others to hold onto their dreams, even when the circumstances of life feel like an insurmountable setback.
- Do not expect closure. Waiting for closure is a gigantic time waster. This is true when you lose a relationship, job, home, or business. There may be some point in the future when you look back with clarity on what happened, or you get a piece of information that makes all the pieces fit together for your “aha” moment. But don’t count on it and don’t put your life on hold for it. It might take the perspective of decades to look back with enough detachment and accuracy to truly understand.
- Own your piece of it.The more you can take responsibility for your part in creating your experience, the more quickly you’ll bounce back. If you can only see 1% that was on you, own that. In some way you contributed and colluded in creating this experience. Accurate perspective taking is balanced – you don’t blame yourself 100% and you don’t blame someone else 100%. In the moment of being divorced I blamed him, but over time I acknowledged my role in the unfolding of my story. Through honestly acknowledging I had played a part in this drama – at the very least I chose him as the man I would marry – I found the power to change. In looking back years later I was able to own more responsibility – I ignored certain signs, I avoided painful issues, I didn’t always ask for what I needed – in these ways I was complicit in creating mutual unhappiness.
- Give other people their freedom.I had to acknowledge his right to choose. He gets to be happy, he gets to create the life he wants, and if he needs to divorce me to be happy he gets to make that choice. I don’t have to like his process, and the pain it caused, but I do have to accept his freedom to live his life making choices for his own happiness. For me, it was a wake-up call to focus on making choices for my own happiness as well (which required me to get really clear on what I wanted and quit settling for less).
- Commit to reinventing your lifein such a way that you’ll look back on this as a stumble on your journey, not going off the cliff. It is a defining moment, so let it define the moment you fully committed to reinvent your life as something radically better. Commitment to your reinvention is Find a compelling reason WHY you will not let what happened define you as bad, unlovable, unworthy of your dreams, or a failure. Your life has just burned to the ground and you get to build back anything you want. Keep the focus on what you do wantto create (not on reacting to what you don’t want to be happening).
- Invest in yourself. Get the professional help that will keep you moving toward your dreams. You’re at a low point and discouraged, so it is easy to give up. You need to find a supportive person that will hold on to your dream for you during the times you can’t. If you are ever going to invest in yourself, the time is now. Dig into the rainy day fund if you have to. There’s no better use for your money than saving yourself and pulling your dreams out of the fire. Use coaches, counselors, workshops, retreats, spiritual work, energy work, bodywork, whatever resonates for you, whatever helps. There is a vast array of helping professions and professionals – find what works for you to heal the trauma and move forward. This is not the time to go it alone. When you choose your support person, be absolutely sure the person you choose is invested in supporting you to move forward.
- Dream bigger.Counter-intuitively, if your dream has failed, you need a bigger dream. After the stunning crash-and-burn of my first marriage, I set my sights on a different kind of love; I had actually set my sights too lowthe first time around. When I started dating again, I was more true to myself and thus I attracted a man who saw the real me. By being more authentic I found love that was stronger, more committed, and a much better “fit” for me. My new relationship isn’t more work; it is actually much lesswork and struggle than the first time around. I feel the joy and gratitude that comes from being with the right life partner every day.
- Get out of your head.When your head wants to explode with the effort it takes to process all you’ve been through, then it’s time to give the mind a rest. Find something you love, or that you’ve never done, and immerse yourself in it enough to set your mind free from the spin cycle it is on. (Creative pursuits, endurance training, cooking, guilty pleasure reading and movies, volunteer work, taking on a goal such as a job promotion or finishing a degree, learn to meditate, do yoga, kayak, run a race, or sing karaoke). Refocus some energy on something that’s a stretch so it will really consume you, both mentally and physically, in order for you to blow off some steam and have a new frame of mind (or at least get some sleep).
- Become sincerely grateful.I am truly grateful my first husband divorced me. It brought forward issues that needed healing. It caused me to look deeply into my life on all levels and started me on a journey of personal growth that is still evolving. I have changed, grown, and become a person with more capacity to give and receive love. In the process I have learned to manifest every dream for my life. Why wouldn’t I be grateful for that gift?
There is a lot of letting go in moving forward. Letting go of negative stories, circumstances, excuses, limiting beliefs, shame, guilt, blame you are casting on others, blame you are taking on yourself, your comfort zone. You will be letting go of the people who don’t support your change and growth and reaching out for the right kind of help and support.
All easier said than done. These steps are tough and might not make sense until you are on the other side of the wall you need to get over. You may cycle around some of the steps multiple times. It may be a long journey, but if you do the work things can work out remarkably well.
I used the example of the loss of my first marriage – your loss may be something entirely different and you’ll have to apply what I’ve written to your situation. Any loss can be a point of hitting bottom in a way that sparks a new life. I don’t expect you to feel grateful for every loss. When you lose someone you love due to death you may never feel grateful, but it can still be the day that changed the course of your life, the day that started a transformative journey, the beginning of a new path toward purpose and meaning, an opportunity to become a stronger, better, more compassionate person.