There is a unique kind of grief that comes with divorce. There is no funeral, no death of a person, no obituary or burial, and yet there is loss just as deep as if someone has died. In another sense, there has been a death – the death of a dream, of a way of life, of a family unit, of lots of things that can’t even be named. Perhaps we should have a funeral after the end of a marriage. Perhaps that could help the grieving process along in some way. Ceremonies often give closure and respect to the magnitude of change.
I think that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief are relevant after a divorce just as much as after other types of losses. If you are going through a divorce, the stages below will probably sound familiar.
1. Denial: While denial can be useful in helping us get to work, fix dinner for the kids, and do the daily things we need to do, it can also be overused. We pretend that everything is fine even when absolutely nothing is even remotely ok! We pretend that we can handle all that is going on even when we go to be with a migraine night after night. Sometimes we must deny how deep the pain is or we would not be able to function. Denial is a normal stage, we all go through it. Know that it helps us function when we need to, but eventually we will have to look at reality. Be there when you need to, but don’t prolong the visit with denial. Denial can easily become guest who overstays their welcome and begins to stink like the proverbial fish.
2. Anger: This can show up in all kinds of way. We might be angry at our ex, angry at ourselves, angry at our parents, our job, our religion, even at the rabbit that is eating nibbling peacefully on the lawn! Anger helps us protect ourselves – it often empowers us to keep ourselves safe. Anger is not the enemy if we don’t let it control our behavior in destructive ways. Most of us are not comfortable with anger so we try to ignore it or go back to number 1 and deny it. It hurts, it is powerful and it is untamed. Let it be there. It won’t hurt you. It is a necessary part of the process.
3. Bargaining: This is usually a desperate attempt to make things go back to the way they were, or at least how we wanted them to be. We might decide the marriage wasn’t so bad after all, or there was that one thing that we could try that would make all the difference. You know – that one special blend of herbal tea that can fix everything. For me it was more bargaining with myself than anyone else – “you can suck it up, can’t you? Really, things were not all that bad.” Or “wow, divorce is so much harder than whatever you thought was tough in the marriage. Just try one more time to make it work. Look at all the fun you had on that one vacation 7 years ago!” Sometimes we bargain with our ex, or sometimes with God or anyone else in the universe who will listen! We are willing to do whatever it might take to make this divorce go away.
4. Depression: This is the stage when you eat a lot of ice cream, stay in bed all day and watch brainless TV. Who knew they could make a reality show out of people who like to dress up as mermaids and stay in their bathtub all day?! Stock up on tissue because you will need it for this stage. Cry every tear that wants to be cried. Feel the depression in the depth of your bones. The best way to not get stuck here is to embrace it fully and let it be as big as it needs to be. Then, allow it to move through you and into the atmosphere or down to the center of the earth.
5. Acceptance: This is when you can finally feel the air fill your lungs and it doesn’t hurt anymore. This is when you can get out of bed in the morning and say, “I think I can do today.” This is when you feel like there is a life out there beyond the dark muck of divorce. You can see a future, you can even see the present without the theme of divorce running your day. You know there will be challenges, but you no longer feel unable to handle them. You’ve got this.
What you really need to know is that this is not a linear process. It’s more circular, or spiral, or something along those lines. You might start with anger, then get depressed, then be in acceptance for a while, and then go into denial. You will visit each stage more than once. Hopefully after the first couple of rounds with the stages each will get less intense, and will be less difficult to move through. There is no right way to do this. Everyone’s process is different and yours will be unique to you. Settle in and let the process unfold as it needs to. The less you resist, the less it will persist. Be gentle and patient with yourself. You will make it, and you will find the other side.
Gwen Bartran, MA, LPC