Often I am reminded of the grief and loss that spouses must go through emotionally while I handle the legal aspects of the divorce. Sometimes, clients have already processed through the grief before they come to us and their point of acceptance makes handling the divorce from a logical, business standpoint much easier. However, frequently, the divorce comes as a surprise to one spouse and they have to work through the grief while also processing the legal side. These people are usually much more emotional about the divorce and uncertain about their future. Decision-making is difficult because they are processing so much. These people often process through the stages of grief concurrently with the stages of the divorce. There are even times where a person remains in so much denial that they don’t enter the stages of grief over the loss of the marriage/spouse until the divorce is final.
According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 groundbreaking book On Death and Dying there are 5 stages of grief and mourning that are universally experienced by people from all walks of life, including the loss of a close relationship. People may work through their bereavement in a different order, spending more or less time at each stated.
Denial and isolation
The first reaction to loss of a relationship or other form of loss is to deny the reality of the situation. This acts as a defense mechanism to buffer the immediate shock of the loss. It carries a person through the first wave of pain.
As the denial wears off, reality sets in. Anger is an intense emotion that stems from vulnerability. Sometimes anger is directed inappropriately, like at the lawyer who is trying to help the person process the divorce.
The normal reaction to the feeling of helplessness and vulnerability that loos brings is the need to regain control. Bargaining with your spouse, or God, or the universe in general is a weaker line of defense to protect from the painful reality. A person may try to say, “God I promise I will never do ______ again, if you will just save my marriage.” But, frequently, the action the subject of the bargain is not the cause of the breakdown of the marriage relationship, so it doesn’t really help. Or, it may be too little too late.
Depression is the stage where many people spend the most time in processing grief. There are two types of depression, according to Kubler-Ross. First is the immediate stage of depression, filled with sadness and regret. The other type of depression may be more subtle and longer lasting. This stage involves the release of the emotional ties to the other person.
The last stage of grief is an acceptance of the loss, marked by a calm withdrawal from social interaction. This stage is not to be confused with depression. Acceptance is more of a coping with reality and moving on.
Working through the stages of grief is important – resisting any part of the grieving process can only prolong the natural healing. Allowing yourself to feel the emotions is important, as is allowing others to comfort you through it. But, also remember that people are resilient with a strong survival instinct. Many people endure terrible losses, including divorce, to thrive in the end. Throughout each stage of grief and through the process, remember where there is life, there is hope and where there is hope there is life. Just keep moving forward, one step at a time.