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Dreams, Death, Dads, and Divorce: The Grieving Process of Separation

Divorce is grief. People categorize it differently, like a life change or a transition or maybe even a tragedy. They focus on the finances, who gets the kids, and if the adults are acting decent or like jack asses. But if you look at any one of those factors, aren’t they all loss? Life change, transition, and tragedies certainly are. And economic stress, not having your kids all the time like you once did, and a shift in who you and your partner are (to each other, but also individuals) — all loss. A friend once emailed me that his year-long divorce produced, more than anything, “a loss of Self.” That’s pretty darn grief-y.

Divorce is also at the tip top of the list of life stressors, right up there with death. Even when divorce is nasty and needed for life quality, we cannot pretend that it’s then somehow devoid of stress and loss and mourning. My divorce has not been physically abusive or mired by some of the heavier factors that divorcing people face. So mine could be categorized as “low stress” because of this – that we’re working together well, we can communicate, and our kids seem to be doing great so far. You know what? I was still married and it didn’t work. And my kids cry for their dad. And I fall asleep telling myself it’s OK – that society doesn’t want me to get divorced, but that my heart does. Sometimes those nights, I cry before I go to sleep or I hardly sleep at all, my eyes fluttering open with anxious energy. Because I’m grieving.

When I do sleep, I dream vividly these days. They say dreams are a window to the soul, and sometimes that window blows open. My brain is telling me things, working things out as we do in our dream lives. Many times, luckily, my dreams whisper hope: I see my children older and thriving, or I have coffee with my future self and I’m doing well, or maybe I wake up from the dream still feeling the warm embrace of an imagined new partner. But there are other dreams that terrify me, wake me up with more tears or my heart beating out of my chest or a message that feels to say, “please, slow down.” I have dreams that tell me my pending divorce is wrong or harmful, to me, or a collection of others. I try to balance those with the good ones, and tell myself that’s what life is like, too.

Last week, I had two dreams in one dreadfully low-sleep night, and they weren’t the fun and cozy kind. In one, I was with my dad as he died of a heart attack, a real waking fear of mine. As I held his hand, he told me that he was sorry to leave me, but that he had no regrets. After he was gone, my mother told me we could have saved him, but something had gone wrong. I sat with my sister, sobbing in some lobby, and in my dream, I could feel the heat of the tears and the swelling in my eyes and the stuffiness of my nose as I sobbed. When I woke up, one side of my hair was wet, I assume because I was really sobbing in my sleep? When I shut my eyes again to drift back off, I had a second dream. As my two children and I sat at our little kitchen table, a small girl in a long white nightgown slowly walked towards us. My son did not react, but my daughter said, “Mommy, something is wrong with her,” and just as quickly as I reassured my daughter, the little girl got closer and she had the face of an old woman. I was secretly terrified, but my children were calm.

Don’t worry – the dream didn’t turn into the next iteration of “The Ring,” and the old woman didn’t up being my dad, or something weird. Luckily, I woke up. And although I was unsettled for a while (dreams can hang out in your psyche like a bad smell in the air, can’t they?) I was eventually comforted.

In fairness, there were several things that happened the couple of days prior to these dreams: a tough but honest and thoughtful conversation with my husband about what it would be like to have future partners (!); my dad told me he’d been working on his and my mom’s will and finances; my kids being sick and my daughter having asthma attacks; and out of nowhere, I started getting the strong urge for a third kid (tough when you’re about to be split from your partner.) The holidays had also come to an end, which (as with most years of holidays) brought that mix of relief and sadness – the end of open, boundless “together” time with friends and family, and the marking of another year gone by and all that that can mean. All of these occurrences, although none of them crazy or life-threatening, were enough to stir the pot of my waking emotions, so God knows my subconscious was inside, having a freaking field day.

All in all, I think the dreams were breaking open the levy of grief, of mourning. It was like an egg cracking open, my thoughts and needs creeping out into the pan. My dad’s death: the realization of my own independence, and maybe the fear of being without a male partner, as much as I want this separation (no regrets, he’d said.) The images of death, immediately followed by the arrival of a child: my own rebirth, transition, starting over. The old woman’s face on the little girl: my fear that time could run out (on having a next child, or getting my own needs met, etc.) My therapist suggested that the images of my father could relate to the paternalistic culture that tells me I should feel shame from my divorce, the control that women can feel surrounding their own choices. That rung true. The images of my children and I at the table, calm and well: a self-sufficient unit, good in our new family structure. We are OK. I am OK.

Aristotle said, “Hope is a waking dream.” While grief – yes, of a loss, a death, a subtraction of the norm – takes place, so does new life. The hope of what is to come, the hope of healing and of letting the feelings run their course. I’ve had waves of guilt that come in this process, at unexpected times. But I eventually identified that some of that guilt was because I’m excited and hopeful. I’m looking forward to new life and freedom, and for some reason that made me feel bad. Like most things, there’s a season for it all – for the sitting Shiva and waiting, and for the new hope that comes, almost inevitably.

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