Death, Divorce, and the Shared Stages of Grief

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When going through a divorce, you might anticipate that the end will feel like a relief after all the pain and turmoil. The intensity and complexity of the divorce process can obscure the depth of your grief for a while. It’s easy to be blindsided by grief at unexpected times—even with your final decree and beyond—waves of bitterness, rage, resentment, remorse, regret, sorrow, or second-guessing. You may find yourself reliving it all, questioning everything, doubting yourself, feeling lonely, or afraid you’ll never love again.

As excruciating as they are and as endless as they seem, these feelings are normal and will improve with time.  It’s tough because well-meaning people around you may start to expect you to move on sooner than they might if you’ve been widowed, for example.

When it comes to mourning, we tend to put divorce and death into starkly separate categories. But the truth is, while they are distinct experiences, death and divorce have a lot in common as life-changing events. In both cases, the loss is monumental—encompassing everything from the hopes, dreams, and grand plans you had together to the simple routines and rituals of ordinary life as a couple.

In divorce, you lose your spouse, lover, best friend, and date for special occasions; your teammate dealing with life’s logistics, from finances to family schedules; your fellow homemaker and troubleshooter. You lose the cohesive family unit and daily contact with your children; the friendships you shared, the family traditions and inside jokes; your security, shared vision for the future, and sense of self as part of the marital unit.

Divorce is, in essence, the death of a marriage—and all that comes with that. Death and divorce are both traumatic and share a very similar grieving process. The heartbreak isn’t less because the loss came to you for different reasons than if your spouse had passed away. It’s essential to recognize that fact and allow yourself to process it.

In her groundbreaking 1969 book, On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five grief stages, revolutionizing how we think about loss. Although her theory was initially somewhat misunderstood (viewing the stages as linear) and has since been expanded into seven, more fluid categories, those primary five stages are still extremely helpful in understanding what you go through in a divorce.

Grief is deeply personal and as unique as the griever. Grieving isn’t tidy and organized. No two processes are identical, and there’s no set timeline. The stages may overlap, blur, combine, repeat, happen out of order, or cycle back. But typically, in a divorce, both spouses—no matter who initiated the split—will go through all the stages of healing.

Denial. The end of your marriage, even if it was a long time coming, may bring shock and a sense that it can’t be real. You may feel numb, like you’re running on autopilot, pretending you’re okay or that nothing has changed.

Anger. In this stage, your ex probably seems like the worst person on earth. You have many mixed emotions, but anger seems to overpower them all. It may last quite a while and return at times which is normal, but it’s important to find healthy ways to deal with your anger so you don’t take it out on others (especially your children) or let it dominate your life. If you’re having trouble managing, talk to a therapist.

Bargaining. You feel flooded with questions, self-doubt, and what-ifs. You wonder if you tried hard enough to save the relationship. You think you’d do anything to relieve the pain. You may try to win your spouse back with promises or make deals with God or your higher power. Some couples try to reconcile now, but if the root causes of your divorce remain, it’s unlikely to work.

Depression. The sadness and loneliness can be hard to bear. You may cry a lot or feel exhausted and drained, which may last quite a while, and you might go through this phase more than once, perhaps triggered by holidays, anniversaries, or even some tiny daily activity. It’s easy to become isolated, so lean on friends and family and surround yourself with love. Practice self-care. Reality settles in, and you know the marriage is over.

Feel your feelings. Recognize signs of clinical depression, including persistent sad mood, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, and loss of interest in things you usually enjoy. Other telltale signs of trouble are sleep disturbances, change in eating habits, difficulty concentrating, extreme fatigue, thoughts of self-harm, or not wanting to go on. Seek professional help if needed.

Acceptance. In this phase, the feelings of loss are still present, but you no longer struggle to change the reality. It’s a time of adjusting to the new normal and beginning to feel that you can move forward with rebuilding your life; you’re going to be okay.

In addition to seeking support from loved ones and/or mental health professionals while you grieve, it’s critical to work with a skilled family lawyer. The experienced and compassionate attorneys at SFLG can help smooth the divorce process so you can focus on healing.

by Debra Schoenberg

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