Written By Kara-Lynne Chapman
In her book On Death and Dying, the Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, postulated that there are five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Later, she added that not everyone will experience all stages and clarified that the stages are not necessarily experienced in this order.
While Dr. Kubler-Ross used her work with terminally ill patients to develop her model of grieving, the stages can also be applied to those going through separation and/or divorce. (For the purposes of this article, and to avoid having to write “separation and/or divorce” repeatedly, I will simply refer to the end of a significant relationship as “divorce”, fully recognizing that not all serious relationships involve the legal act of marrying.)
In this article, we’ll examine the five stages of grieving, how they apply to divorce, and the benefits of each stage.
Denial is a natural coping strategy which often arises out of shock. Rather than immediately feeling the full brunt of reality, denial allows us to cling to hope and to numb ourselves to the truth. In other words, it buys us time which is often needed to adjust to the new reality in which we find ourselves after receiving devastating news.
It often comes as a shock to one party when the other announces the end of the marriage. Denial is a very common initial reaction and it allows the spouse time to absorb the news and helps them to avoid becoming completely overwhelmed with grief.
Once reality sinks in, anger can arise. In fact, it’s rare for some level of anger not to present itself during divorce. The good news, though, is that many mental health professionals believe that anger is not only normal, but also a necessary stage of grief. From working with countless clients going through divorce, I have found that fear and uncertainty often manifest themselves as anger.
Allowing yourself to feel and process anger is healthy and can help to spur you into action (i.e. negotiating a parenting schedule). It can also help you to emotionally break from your spouse. It is important, though, not to allow anger to cloud your better judgment and to not allow it to morphe into long-lasting resentment and bitterness. If you are concerned about the level of anger you are feeling, or if you find yourself acting out of that anger (i.e. making disparaging posts about your ex on social media), a counselor can help you process the emotion and move past this stage of grief.
When faced with divorce, it is not uncommon for one spouse to try to negotiate the continuation of the relationship. For example by saying, “if you stay, I promise to never _____ again”. At its core, bargaining is an attempt to gain control over the situation.
Counselling can be of assistance when trying to determine whether bargaining is simply a coping strategy or whether there is a real chance at reconciliation. Attending couples counselling can help you and your spouse explore this further to see whether there are realistic and sustainable changes you can each make to improve and preserve your relationship. Bear in mind, though, that it is important not to take this stage too far and slip into either demanding things from your ex or, conversely, agreeing to demands that you are not comfortable with simply to prolong the relationship. Again, counselling can help you in determining your boundaries and what are realistic and healthy expectations.
In this context, depression refers to the feelings of despondency and sadness that are often associated with marriage and not to the formal clinical diagnosis of depression. It is perfectly normal to feel overwhelming sadness over the loss of your marriage. You may be grieving the loss of your partner, financial stability, your home, and your family unit as you know it. You may also be adjusting to a new parenting schedule, new obligations and responsibilities, and may be living on your own for the first time. It’s a lot to handle.
It’s difficult to paint depression as a positive experience, however, it is the precursor to acceptance. It arises when you recognize the reality of the situation and it marks your journey towards healing. Depression is the melting pot for the emotions arising out of divorce and it is our way of acknowledging this loss and processing it.
I’d love to say that acceptance is synonymous with happiness but these two emotions are not necessarily the same. Here, acceptance simply means that you are able to acknowledge the painful experience of your divorce and you are ready to move forward with your life. In other words, rather than saying “it’s okay that I’m divorced”, acceptance is more about saying “I’m divorced and I’m going to be okay”.
This stage is mainly about peace. You may never be happy to have gone through a divorce, but you can be at peace with it and you can move forward in your new reality, establish new traditions, and forge new relationships. You may still have bad days, and you may feel angry from time to time, but the good days outweighs the bad.