Divorce is one of the most emotionally difficult and legally challenging life experiences. Sadly, those who experience grief during the divorce process often feel isolated in their grief. Unlike grieving a death, people don’t often talk about this aspect of divorce. According to psychologists, divorce grief is common and often follows the same five stages of grief experienced by those mourning a loved one’s death.
Divorce is the death of an intimate relationship, a companionship, a family, and a way of life; it’s entirely natural to feel a sense of grief during and after a divorce.
What is “Ambiguous Loss?”
One reason that divorce grief is often unacknowledged is that the spouse is still physically there. Unlike a spouse’s death, during divorce one or both spouses may experience a grieving process, but it isn’t death they’re grieving but the loss of the relationship. Psychologists call this type of grief “ambiguous loss” because it isn’t as tangible and openly acknowledged as a death. After all, others assume that one or both spouses chose the divorce.
Understanding the Five Stages of Grief in a Divorce
Every divorce is as unique as every marriage. Even in the most ideal divorce scenario in which spouses agree to part amicably and without a contested courtroom battle, they may still experience a sense of loss and grieve the ending of their union. In other circumstances, one spouse may want the divorce while the other doesn’t, adding an element of frustration to the grieving process. Even in the most contentious, emotionally fraught divorces, spouses may internally grieve the loss of the marriage even while outwardly displaying only anger and resentment.
For most divorcing spouses, the five stages of grief are as follows:
Before the divorce or during the early stages of the process, many spouses feel a sense of denial. They may believe that their spouse will change their mind, or that their own love and devotion will return. Especially in divorces between spouses married for many years, it may be difficult to accept the ending not just of a marriage, but of a family and a familiar way of life.
Whether you are the petitioner or the respondent, and regardless of how contentious or amicable the divorce is in your case, you may feel surges of anger at any stage of the process or simmering anger throughout the divorce process. You may feel angry at your spouse, at yourself, or at life and marriage in general.
A great deal of bargaining goes on between spouses during a divorce. As well as bargaining over the division of assets and child custody, one or both spouses may experience attempts at bargaining with each other for reconciliation, making promises to change behaviors, and trying to resolve differences. In other cases, spouses may spend time bargaining with themselves or with God, making promises like, “If only I can have the house, I’ll be a better parent,” or “If I get full custody I’ll never yell at the children again.”
Once spouses get past the anger, denial, and bargaining phase, they settle into the process of finalizing the divorce. Often, depression accompanies this stage, as they face a tremendous change in their way of life as well as the loss of a companion and life partner. Depression may last for months or more following the final divorce decree, sometimes exacerbated by feelings of isolation as they settle into a new life without their partner.
Once a divorced spouse settles into a new normal with a workable routine for home, work, and sharing child custody, they may eventually notice that the depression has lifted. This is the acceptance stage of the grief process. In this stage, spouses begin to move on from the divorce and may even begin to enjoy their new life, opening their minds to the possibility of a new relationship or simply enjoying their new independence.
There is No Right or Wrong Way to Grieve a Marriage
Divorce comes with tangible losses like money, property, and sometimes a home. It also causes the loss of a relationship and family. Besides losing your own family, a divorce means each spouse must sever relationships with their spouse’s parents, siblings, and other family members. This is a difficult process. There is no right or wrong way to deal with this grief unless you let it impact others. Be sure to prioritize the needs of your children through the process and avoid bad-mouthing the other parent as you navigate the stages of grief in your own time.
Children Also Experience the Stages of Grief During Divorce
Children also experience a “break up” during a divorce. A divorce essentially breaks up their family into two distinct halves. Children commonly experience the same stages of grief during the divorce process including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Parents should be especially alert to a child’s attempts to bargain during the bargaining stage of the grief process. Children commonly say things such as “I’ll be good if you don’t leave” or “I promise I’ll do better in school and do my chores if you stay together.” It’s critical to do everything possible to reassure children that they are not the cause of the divorce and that you will remain a family despite living in different homes.
Grief, healing, and acceptance may look different for each child. Parents with several children may notice that one child acts out and voices their concerns openly, while another child says very little and keeps their feelings to themselves. It’s important to reassure children that their feelings are normal and valid and encourage them to talk openly about their concerns.
Moving Past the Stages of Grief After a Divorce
Each stage of grief has its own timeline depending on the unique circumstances of the relationship and the divorce. Some divorcing spouses may experience the stages out of order or may skip some stages completely or backtrack and experience an earlier stage again. It’s important to have strong emotional support from family or close friends, as well as the legal support of a Denver family law attorney, during this difficult process and to be open about the grief and other emotions that you experience during divorce.