The Stages of Grief and Mourning in Divorce

It is well known that grieving is a process. The end of an important relationship, like the death of a loved one, often requires the participants engage in the grieving process. Family law litigants face not only the dissolution of a marriage or domestic partnership with all of the heartache associated with it, but at the same time the stress and anxiety of a court proceeding.

Understanding what to expect during this process is a vital part of successfully getting through it. Grief has been characterized as taking place in five stages:grief1

1. Denial and Isolation

The first reaction to learning of the imminent or actual end of a marriage or domestic partnership is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.

2. Anger

As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends, or family. Anger may be directed at someone who is completely innocent, even if rationally we know the person is not to be blamed.

Do not hesitate to ask your attorney or therapist to give you extra time or to explain just once more the details of what to expect. Arrange a special appointment or ask that he or she telephone you at the end of his day. Ask for clear answers to your questions. Understand the options available to you. Take your time.

3. Bargaining

The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control–

  • If only we had seen what was happening sooner…
  • If only we had gone to therapy or sought a trusted advisor…
  • If only we had tried to be a better person toward them…

Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality.

4. Depression

Two types of degrief3pression are associated with mourning. The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate this type of depression. We worry about the costs. We worry that, in our grief, we have spent less time with others that depend on us. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. We may need a bit of helpful cooperation and a few kind words. The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.

5. Acceptance

Reaching this stage of mourning is a gift not afforded to everyone. We may never see beyond our anger or denial. It is not necessarily a mark of bravery to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to make our peace. This phase is marked by withdrawal and calm. This is not a period of happiness and must be distinguished from depression.

Coping with loss is a ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience — nobody can help you go through it more easily or understand all the emotions that you’re going through. But others can be there for you and help comfort you through this process. The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing.