kubler-ross grief cycleOften 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.


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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW for multiple years. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

Author and Speaker

A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.