My wife and I ended our 12-year marriage a few months ago, and I find it challenging to delete the pictures from my computer of all of our vacations and family, including her siblings or parents, as well as mine, plus kids from a previous marriage.
I force myself to go through only a few at a time because of the current pain brought on by the memories.
Our separation was less than amicable, and she lawyered up. What’s the secret to getting past this roadblock?
I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your marriage. Twelve years is a long time to build memories and relationships with each other’s friends and families. It’s not easy to escape reminders, so let’s talk about how you can best manage these painful emotions that are surfacing.
First of all, it’s always good to remember that deep healing always takes more time than we realize. There’s no rush to sort through photos or memories if you’re not ready. Trauma healing needs to move slowly, and it’s important to honor the pace that’s best for your healing. If you need to set the photos aside for now, that’s perfectly okay. You get to decide what will work for your healing.
It’s natural to want to get it over with and go faster than you’re ready. I caution you to not rush the process to get through it. When you do feel ready to start sorting through memories, there are more mindful and deliberate ways to do it so you can experience the growth that’s available to you. Even though it’s painful, there are experiences and growth you don’t want to miss.
The former dean of nursing at Brigham Young University, Elaine S. Marshall, shared a important insights about the nature of healing:
On [my] first day as a nurse, I assumed cure, care, and healing to be synonymous. I have learned they are not the same. Healing is not cure. Cure is clean, quick, and done—often under anesthesia. … Healing, however, is often a lifelong process of recovery and growth in spite of, maybe because of, enduring physical, emotional, or spiritual assault. It requires time. … It requires all the energy of your entire being. You have to be there, fully awake, aware, and participating when it happens.
Healing can help us to become more sensitive and more awake to life. … Healing invites gifts of humility and faith. It opens our hearts to … truth, beauty … and grace.
Of course, you can give yourself plenty of time to accomplish your photo sorting task. However, even if you push yourself to finish sorting these photos in a weekend, you’ll still be faced with how to manage the thousands of memories and reminders from these relationships.
When you feel ready to go through the photos, instead of trying to eliminate the reminders, it might be more helpful to give yourself permission to feel all of the emotions when they surface.
This is scary for most people, as we worry what will happen when we feel unexpected and unwanted emotions. However, the worst thing emotions can do to us is cause us to feel emotions. That’s it. The actions we take after feeling emotion aren’t automatically programmed. It’s entirely possible to feel an emotion without doing something you’ll regret. You can just experience it, let it pass through you and carry on with your life.
True, it’s not always convenient to allow the emotions to come and go, as our emotions will often surprise us. We can be surprised by grief, and we also be surprised by joy. I invite you to allow yourself to feel the entire range of emotions and see what that’s like for you. Deep diaphragmic breathing can help you move the emotions through your body and soul so you don’t restrict the flow and cause additional suffering.
You are sitting with images which evoke emotions and thoughts that seem to be at odd with each other. When you’re ready, see if you can allow yourself to connect to the joy and the sorrow of what you are experiencing. Perhaps you do this with just one photo and then put it away for a time. You can allow yourself to develop a great tolerance for integrating these opposing feelings.
I believe the healthiest people can hold opposing emotions without becoming reactive.
Here are a few more suggestions that might help you as you work to experience these different emotions:
- Perhaps you have someone you trust sit with you while you go through and talk about the photos. They can ask you questions and have conversations that will likely include the full range of emotions.
- You might consider sending copies of these photos to the people in the photos. You might find that some of these extended family members and friends still have kind feelings toward you. Allow other people to decide if they want to be in relationship with you instead of assuming they only filter their experience of you through the perspective of your ex-wife.
- Recognize that those are pictures of times that were truly happy with what you understood at the time. Looking back on it now doesn’t mean those people in the photo weren’t truly having a good time. You can cherish a great memory by identifying the parts of that trip that were beautiful and also grieve what’s now lost.
I appreciate Dr. Brene Brown’s reminder about embracing the vulnerable parts of our stories:
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
When you’re honoring the trauma and loss you’ve experienced, you’ll be able to know when it’s the right time to begin sorting. You’ll have an increased capacity to do this very difficult task of embracing your past, present, and future. It’s courageous work, but it will offer you more peace than spending the rest of your life reacting to it.
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