I feel like I've been forgotten not only by my ex-husband but also by the family I'd been part of for over 15 years. It's felt like a slow, suffocating deprivation of oxygen. Sometimes I desperately want to breathe them all back into my life before they slip away forever. But I know that's just magical thinking. I didn't face the reality of what was going on in my marriage and since then I've learned to readjust my rose-colored filter.
Stage One. Panic.
I felt the first bit of panic when I handed the gold-framed Christmas family photo to my husband on the evening he offered me an unfulfilling apology for his quick exit from our marriage.
Eleven of us stood next to the Christmas tree at his parent's house. It was the first year we wore color-coordinated outfits for the annual photo.
What are you going to tell them? I asked. Fear coursed through my body. I had a dreadful realization; I was going to be photo-shopped out of their lives forever.
Our divorce meant I wouldn't be part of the family anymore. His family. My future died in that moment and has putrefied in my stomach for years, churning over the losses.
There would be no more new memories to create. My thoughts raced forward to birthdays, holidays, graduations and eventual weddings, even funerals that I would not be attending. I thought of my in-laws growing older and how I wasn't going to be there to help care for them.
Stage Two. False Hope.
I desperately guzzled the sweet but empty calorie promises that I'd always be part of their family. My former in-laws kindly allowed me to make a few visits during the first year of my separation if I agreed not to talk about my feelings. Emotional support was something they said they couldn't offer.
False hope blinded me to the fact that no one ever even acknowledged the impending divorce or expressed their feelings about my not being part of the family anymore. I sat precariously on top of the big divorce elephant in the room. But unlike a pachyderm, I was thin skinned and desperate to grieve as a family. Unlike losing someone to a physical death, with divorce you're left to grieve alone. Despite this, I foolishly believed I could maintain my relationships with them.
Stage Three. Starvation.
Like a lost soul wandering in the desert, you may feel parched and hollow from the starvation of having a source of life and love fade away.
It's as if all the nutrients you have ever received from your extended family are purged from your body in the violent upheaval of divorce. The tiny muscles between each rib are left achingly sore from the emptying of your heart.
Starvation is often served with a side dish of delusion. This is the course of questioning Did I mean anything to any of them? Was I ever really loved? How can they just forget about me so easily? You question your perception of reality when you're haunted by the fading ghosts of old memories and wonder if any of it was real. And then you may ask yourself if you loved them enough and convince yourself there must be something wrong with you.
Stage Four. Awakening.
The reality check. You emerge from the fog of false hope to see the situation a bit more clearly for what it is and not what you've been deluding yourself into believing.
At this stage, I opened my eyes to see the relationships I had with my ex-husband's family were conditional, based on my marriage to their family member. If the divorce escorted me out the door from the hearth of the family, his remarriage turned the key to lock me out.
My work in the awakening stage is to process the residual painful emotions of longing to belong.
It's in this stage that I start to believe there is nothing wrong with me and I re-read the "Second Agreement: Don't Take Anything Personally," from Don Miguel Ruiz's book, The Four Agreements, over and over again.
Stage Five. Acceptance.
I'm not there yet but I know about acceptance from other life events. Acceptance will bring a sense of peace with the way things are while having gratitude for the way things were. It will be the stage of focusing on the good I experienced with a wonderful family, not wallowing in the pain from the absence of them.
It will also be the stage of fully embracing the lessons and insights along the path of healing. It is from the place of acceptance that we are then ready to explore the possibility of entering into a relationship with someone else. We've let go of the past, we feel whole and complete, happy with ourselves and proud of our growth. It is a time when we feel like we are back to being who we really are.