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How to Make it Through that First Year of Grief

By Kelly Wilson

On an afternoon in mid-July, my then-husband said to me, “Perhaps we should separate.” This was the day before we went on vacation to Niagara Falls. It was not a great trip, and thus began what I call The Shitty First Year (SFY, for short) of our divorce.

The Shitty First Year is the 12 month time period between when a Hard Thing (that’s what she said) happens and the first anniversary of this event, otherwise known as a Griefiversary. With a trauma background and resulting post-traumatic stress disorder, I have a few significant Griefiversaries throughout the year, and keeping track of them helps me manage my mental health.

While I don’t like to compare or make a “best to worst list” of grief experiences, I can say with utmost confidence that the first year of a divorce sucks. The divorce process is the death of the life built with another person, what I thought my life and relationship was, who I assumed I was, and the certainties and plans of my future, just off the top of my head.

There are no reference points for how to navigate this new relationship with an ex or the kids or the people in your extended family or social circles. There are no rules or instructions for how to deal with holidays or lonely Sunday afternoons or the emotional minefield that is divorce. There’s simply a stripping-down (that’s what she said) of everything I felt and thought and believed and knew, until I found myself again.

Yes, there’s hope. This mid-July, I officially made it through the Shitty First Year of my divorce. While this doesn’t mean that everything is magically smooth sailing from now on, it does mean that at least I have reference points throughout the year. The end of the Shitty First Year means that – like my junior high career – I don’t have to live through that particular hell again. And while there are many good self-care lessons to help get through the Shitty First Year, this is not that article; these lessons are the result of the stripping-down and finding myself again. Here are some things that I learned from the Shitty First Year.

Pursue Your People

My people were my kids. In the course of events, I was the one who moved out of the home. This both chewed up my soul and gave them a stable home, with understandable emotional consequences.

I quickly figured out that in order to maintain a relationship with them, I needed to pursue them. Relentlessly. Enthusiastically. Regardless of how they rejected me, which was actually a healthy emotional response to the changes in their lives. From their perspective, I was a catalyst for the changes; therefore, I was to be avoided, at least as a knee-jerk response. Plus, I have teenagers, which come with the phrase, “Do Not Take This Personally,” whatever “this” may be.

Pursuing my people continues to help me assure them of my love. No matter what.

Embrace the Fear

There is plenty to fear. Inside of us, outside of us. No shortage of stuff to scare us. One particular evening, I was making my bed with clean sheets and thought, “What if I die alone?”

The panic bloomed. I couldn’t catch my breath and I lay down on the unmade bed. As an introvert, this was a little confusing as I enjoy being alone; to not die alone would probably be a weird thing. But I digress. The point is that the fear was real.

The thing about fear is that it is not a complex emotion. Fear is an evolutionary emotion meant to keep us alive. It warns us to pay attention, that something is important, whether that “something” is happening inside or outside of us. Your brain wants you to survive, and when there’s a perceived threat, fear is the result. But fear is not nuanced, there are no shades of gray, like the fear of jumping out of an airplane to starting a new job to watching your kid climb to the top of the jungle gym. It’s all one giant lump of fear.

The Shitty First Year taught me that fear needs acknowledgement. Invite it in. Sit with it. Embrace fear instead of fighting.

More than One Thing is True

More than one thing is true at the same time, especially emotions. I like to say that I feel a minimum of three emotions at any one time; this relates to people, events, circumstances, choices, even the weather.

This can feel especially confusing during the Shitty First Year. In one moment, I could miss my ex, feel gratitude for getting out of that relationship, feel certain I was doing the right thing, and feel anxiety about my children. All at the same time.

Life is not neat and tidy, either or, black and white. When I feel these huge balls (that’s what she said) of tangled emotions, I remind myself that all of my feelings are important, and that more than one thing can be true at the same time. Helped save my sanity.

Know and Own Your Shit

One of the things I appreciated about dating in my 40s is that the guys I went out with either knew their shit, owned their shit, or both. They were willing to talk about themselves and their challenges and to, in some cases, take responsibility for themselves. If they didn’t, then it was a lot easier to say, “See ya.”

At this point in my life, I know many of my pitfalls, my flaws, my weaknesses, as well as my strengths and beauty and general awesomeness. I know my mental and physical health challenges and I love myself enough to get what I need, from self-care practices to professional help. That’s how I own my shit.

Don’t Settle for Crumbs

Too many of us have been conditioned to believe that we are worthless. Ugly. Less than enough. Lacking in one or more ways.

This is not true. Life is precious.

Do not spend one more second with people who do not value who you are, especially as you begin to love and value yourself. Seek out love, inside and out. Do not give more energy to people who clearly do not like you.

Do not beg for love. If you have even the slightest idea that the love you yearn for is out there, then perhaps it is time to go and get it. Inside and out.

Expect the Unexpected

Life can be far better than you ever imagined. Even in the midst of grief.

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