It was a gift, a full and beautiful French hydrangea, with it’s startling blue pom-poms of flowers perched above the simple white wrapping over the pot. I placed it on a counter, where it was out of the reach of the dogs, and for several weeks, I tended to it carefully with the enclosed fertilizer packet and a carefully metered watering schedule. In return, I was awarded with stunning and tenacious blooms for many days.
Then, so slowly that it was hard to notice at first, the plant began to languish. New buds were no longer forming and the ones that held tight were beginning to turn to parchment with age. The leaves, once a deep, leathery green, began to yellow, their pallor hinting at ill health.
At this point, I was a complete neophyte when it came to plant care. So, I turned to the wisdom held on the shelves of my public library combined with the practical advice delivered by a seasoned gardener who was volunteering at the library that day. I learned that the gifted shrub would only survive for a brief period in its small pot but that, luckily, it was suited to the climate found in Atlanta. I was instructed to purchase some planting soil, pick a suitable spot in my yard, and transfer the plant to its new home where, I was assured, it would thrive.
I followed the instructions as I understood them, holding visions of a huge hydrangea soon becoming the stunning focal point of my tired front yard.
Instead, I found myself pulling its skeletal remains from the earth a mere four weeks after planting. In my ignorance and haste, I had failed to adequately protect my charge against transplant shock, and it succumbed to the stress.
Years later, I again thought of that little plant. I, too, had gone from being in full-flower, content in my small world, to suddenly being ripped out and forced into a new – and harsher – environment. In the interim, I had become a competent gardener, successfully transplanting many plants. Now, it was necessary for me to apply that knowledge to myself so that I could survive the transplant shock after divorce.
With plants, it’s best to move them during their more dormant season and when they will not face the additional stress of extreme weather conditions. When it comes to divorce, we may not have the option to make the move at a time when the rest of life is relatively inert, so we have to be mindful of the additional pressures the timing may entail. As much as possible, try to push the pause button on the non-essential demands for the short term, so that you can direct your energies to getting settled in your new space.
Be Mindful About Placement
One of the many mistakes I made with my first hydrangea was siting it where it received afternoon sun, a death sentence for this shrub in the south. I almost made a similar mistake with myself, placing myself in an environment – alone in a rental – where I would receive too little social connection. Instead, I resided with a dear friend, where I had the connection and sanctuary I needed. Don’t worry about what others say you’re “supposed” to do or the mental image you’ve held for this life stage, place yourself where you will thrive.
Add a Little Bit of the Old
When I moved my little shrub that day, I carefully brushed away as much of the old soil as I could, thinking that it was stale and barren and needed to be replaced with completely new earth. Except that new soil was a huge blow to the struggling roots, with nothing familiar to comfort them, they simply froze from the shock. We’re not that different. When everything is new, we have nothing to rely on as we begin our exploration. Keep some things constant as you move from your old life to the new.
Provide Plenty of Water
It turns out that stressed plants need more water. They’ve not yet acclimated to their site, so they’re not yet completely efficient and the growth of new roots requires plenty of moisture. We also have a tendency to need more of the things that sustain us during a period of translate shock. We require more attention, more sleep and more support.
Don’t Try to Grow Too Fast
I fell for the advertising. While purchasing the planting soil for my little shrub, I picked up a gardening magazine from the checkout line. A two-page advertisement showed a glorious hedge of hydrangeas with the tagline, “Brought to you by Miracle Grow.” So, of course, I added the fertilizer to my cart and liberally applied to over the next two weeks. It was a huge mistake. I was forcing the plant to put out new stems and leaves while the rootball beneath the soil was still too small to support the new growth. We can easily fall into the same trap after divorce. The deep work, the root work, that we need to do to thrive isn’t fun. It isn’t sexy or beautiful. It’s easy to try to spread out too far, too fast and ignore what anchors us. And, just like the plant, it cannot be supported long term.
Loosen the Barriers
I probably killed that plant in fifteen different ways. When I finally removed its remains, I saw evidence of some root growth. To a point. I had made the planting hole too small and the roots had stopped growing once they reached the barrier of the rock-hard Georgia red clay. Sometimes, after divorce, we can find ourselves in a pocket of compassion and intervention and then once the empathy and concern of others begins to fade, we feel as though we’re up against a rock wall of indifference. Strive to integrate those barriers so that support is slowly decreased as you gain your strength.
So many of my mistakes with my little shrub were made out of impatience. I wanted it to be fully grown. Like yesterday. But, as with anything, there are no shortcuts. Instead, it’s a process of trial and error, adaptation and setbacks, and learning from each mistake. Only then, and with time, will the blooms return in full.
When bad things happen to good people, the calvary arrives soon after with food and flowers. Level surfaces soon fill with cards expressing condolences and well wishes. Money is collected to help with both normal and unexpected expenses. Friends and family all want to help and being unable to change the circumstances, they respond with whatever loving gestures they can.
At first, the attention is overwhelming. The outpouring of affection comforting. But eventually, the letters stop arriving. The casseroles are consumed and their dishes returned. The dried flowers have been relegated to the bin. The calls to check in are fewer and further between and when they do occur, their is an undertone of impatience that the crisis wasn’t over once the initial offerings faded.
And yet the need is still there.
The loved ones still care, but they’re busy with their own lives. Consumed with their own problems. And perhaps most of all, they find it difficult and uncomfortable to sit for any extent of time with the harsh realities that life can bring. It’s easier to simply pretend it isn’t there.
Our culture is uncomfortable with grief. With pain. With anger that rises unprovoked. We’re expected to be gracious at the onslaught and then to suffer in silence so as to avoid the discomfort of those around us.
The initial outpouring of support is needed. It’s the transport when you cannot manage any movements unassisted. But it’s rarely enough.
Both because grieving does not speak calendar and because it’s a journey that often requires assistance.
Which is why I propose another way to support those going through crisis – a contribution to a well-being and mental health fund.
These monies would be earmarked towards services and modalities that help support mental health and healing – therapy, medications, retreats, specialized trauma care, mind-body practices – whatever is deemed applicable and helpful by the recipient.
The benefits are multifold. First, it helps to normalize the idea that attention towards mental health is important and should carry no more stigma than care towards the physical body. It allows the professionals to pick up where the first responders left off, helping the person move through their grief and pain. Contributions to a fund signify that grief is a process, not an event. It allows that it will be ongoing for some time. And most practically, most insurance plans only address mental health needs at a minimum and the fund can help to make up the difference. A mental health fund is a gift that truly can keep on giving because it will help people regain their lives after crisis.
I’d love to see an app or website designed and marketed around this idea. More of a Please Comfort Me instead of a Please Fund Me. Any programming-minded takers?
At some point, your excuses of, “I have to shampoo my cat” will wear thin or you’ll be confronted with the nuptials of a person you can’t refuse.
And you’ll be faced with attending the first wedding after the demise of your own marriage.
Okay, not really. I mean, you feel happy for the couple and all. It’s just that you also feel sorry for yourself. Sorry and a little ill.
How in world are you supposed to attend this bridal bash without choking on a big glass of bitterness and jealousy spiked with a pinch of cynicism?
It’s not easy. But it’s also not impossible. Here’s how to help make the big event a bearable one:
Before the Wedding –
If the first time you see a wedding dress or hear the vows since your divorce is in the ceremony, it’s going to be a shock to your system. Desensitize a little first by watching a wedding-themed comedy in the privacy of your own home.
You will have nervous energy before the event. So plan to bleed some of it ahead of time. Not only will it relieve some anxiety, exercise releases some feel-good hormones. And goodness knows, you’re going to need them!
Divorce can make you feel like a failure. Especially when you’re confronted with the smiles and sap of a wedding. So go all out on your outfit and wear something that makes you feel good. Engage in something ahead of time that you’re good at. Remember – you are not your divorce.
Practice Your Elevator Speech
“I’m fine, thank you. The roses in the backyard are really getting tall!” Or whatever canned response you decide on.
During the Wedding –
Accept That You Will Cry
Hey, it’s a wedding. Lots of people cry. No biggie.
Choose Your Seat Wisely
Plan to sit at the end of a row (in case you need to escape) and next to a “safe” person who has been warned of the significance of this day for you. If you are not seated at the front with family, try to secure a seat towards the back. The space acts as some emotional insulation.
Give Yourself Permission to Hide in the Bathroom
Just knowing that an escape is available is priceless. And take it if you need it. Anyone who judges you for it has either never been divorced or is being an obnoxious jerk.
If Your Ex Will Be There
(Blech)^2 The world can really be an unfair place, can’t it? Fantasize all you want about them getting pulled along behind the wedding limo, but please don’t put those dreams into action.
Avoid if you can. Apply the elevator speech if you cannot. And if all else fails, excuse yourself by saying you have to go shampoo your cat.
If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…
You will be flooded with all sorts of emotions, from happy/sad ones of your own wedding to angry/despondent ones of your divorce to cynical/bitter ones about this wedding. Keep your mouth shut about them all. This isn’t the time. It isn’t the place. Those words can wait.
Hang With the Single People
Divorced, widowed, never married, under 18, four-legged? Who cares. Just seek them out. For today, they’re your tribe.
It’s Okay to Have Fun
Be careful not to make such a big deal out of this that you forget to have fun. After all, a wedding is about the marriage, but it’s also about the party. Focus on the latter!
Watch the Alcohol Intake
No, really. I know it’s tempting to numb and distract with the booze. But just say no. Lowered inhibitions + overwhelming and often downward trending emotions = no bueno. Save the drinks for when you’re home after the wedding.
After the Wedding –
Be Kind to Yourself
Ask any divorced person, the first wedding is big deal. And often the aftereffects can last for a few days. Be nice to yourself.
Oh, and if you are suffering from a post-wedding emotional hangover, stay off of the social media for a few days. You don’t need to be subjected to an endless stream of wedding pictures or, even worse, lovey-dovey honeymoon photos.
Remember those words that can wait? Write them out now.
Have Something Planned
Schedule something that you like to do and find engaging and/or restorative for the next day. If the wedding totally sucks, at least you’ll have that to look forward to.
You just survived the only first wedding you’ll have to experience after your divorce!