Most often people associate grief with the loss of a loved one; more specifically, the death of a loved one. What is seemingly less understood is that grief (or bereavement) accompanies any significant loss in life and is not limited to death. Divorce certainly falls into this category. Knowledge of the stages of grief, also known as the grief cycle, is an important element in regrouping after a divorce.
Several theories exist on the grieving process. Some identify seven stages in the cycle, others combining some of the seven and calling it five. Regardless the argument of seven versus five, there are a couple of things all theorists agree on:
- The grieving process will differ between individuals: No one set of circumstances is the same. No two people have the same perception of seemingly similar events. As such, there is no one definition of how grief will manifest itself or what the process will look like for every individual.
- The grief cycle is not a linear process: The grief stages outlined in the cycle are not a step-by-step process for overcoming grief. Divorce and the grief that comes with it is full of varied, intense emotions. Grieving, and the associated emotions can ebb and flow. Do not become discouraged if you understand yourself to be in Stage Four one day, and back to Stage Two the next. As this is not a fixed sequence of events, you can rest assured that you are making progress even if it might otherwise seem you are losing ground.
The Grief Cycle: Seven (or Five) Stages
An example of the grief cycle, when broken out into seven stages includes the following:
- Shock and Disbelief
- Acceptance and Hope
If you’re wondering how stages are sometimes combined to call out five stages rather than seven, here is that breakdown:
- Shock/Disbelief and Denial
- Bargaining and Guilt
- Acceptance and Hope
Grief Cycle Stages Defined
Shock and Disbelief
Generally, the first response to an impending divorce is shock and disbelief. Even if it was somewhat clear that the marriage wasn’t destined to go the distance, getting to the point of actually separating or filing papers for divorce can throw a person for a loop. Pondering questions like, “is this really happening?” and “how did we even get here?” is quite common and representative of shock and disbelief.
Once the shock wears off (or in the moments of time that it does, again, this process is not linear), people facing significant life changes as a result of loss find themselves in a state of denial. Reminiscing about the good times that were had, or the perfect and beautiful circumstances that brought you and your <soon to be ex> wife together in the first place. Inability to believe that you can’t, somehow, make this work. Maybe even refusing to accept that this is the end because you’re from a good family in which no one gets divorced and “people who grow up in good homes, where marriages always last, don’t have marriages fall apart themselves, right?”.
Anger often encompasses a variety of emotions. In fact, it’s probably the best understood (and most readily accepted) emotion and therefore many times becomes a “cover” for everything else felt. For those of you who grew up with the teaching that “boys don’t cry,” you probably learned to channel any emotions associated with tearfulness into something that is expressed as anger. Similarly, it seems anger requires less an explanation than so many other emotions, so we’re drawn to just “go with anger.” Resentfulness, confusion, helplessness, frustration, panic, irritation and downright anger are just some of the emotions that may be experienced within this stage of grief. You might find yourself obsessing over how unfair all of this is – and, you’re not wrong! It’s totally unfair, and your emotional response isn’t wrong.
Bargaining comes into play as one fights against the inevitable end. Pleading, for example, with your <soon to be ex> wife that you will become a better person if she allows for this to blow over. Hoping against all hope that you and your soon-to-be ex can reconcile, make changes and try harder. Most often this bargaining is futile and unrealistic and comes from a place of panic and desperation as the end is certain.
Guilt can serve as a sort of defense mechanism in situations involving loss, especially divorce. Attempting to make sense of the situation and feel as though one can regain some variety of control, thoughts, and feelings of guilt emerge. Determining that it must be your fault, or that you should have tried harder, and any other variety of these types of statements are examples of thoughts linked with guilt. It’s easy to understand how guilt and bargaining are sometimes a combined stage of grief in the grief cycle. As the thoughts and feelings of guilt wash over an individual, bargaining often becomes part of the equation.
As the reality of the unavoidable end begins to sink in, and possible attempts at bargaining have failed, it is common for individuals to feel depressed. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM 5) indicates the following symptoms of depression:
- Depressed mood (i.e., sadness, emptiness, hopelessness) most of the day, nearly every day.
- Decreased interest or pleasure in formerly enjoyed activities.
- Significant changes in eating habits (i.e., eating significantly more or less, and associated weight gain or loss).
- Significant changes in sleeping patterns (i.e., excessive need for sleep, or inability to sleep).
- Fatigue or loss of energy most days.
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
- In severe cases, psychomotor agitation (purposeless, repetitive motions such as wringing hands, tapping of the foot, pacing the room, etc.) or psychomotor impairment (slowed physical reactions as a result of sluggish cognitive processing, for example, slow speech and walking).
- Also in severe cases, suicidal thoughts.
If you or a loved one are in need of immediate support for depression or suicidal thoughts, please access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to the nearest emergency room.
Acceptance and Hope
Eventually, individuals who have experienced a significant (or impending) loss, divorce included, reach a point of acceptance. They are no longer in a state of denial or feel anger, depression or guilt and have hope for what the future holds. This doesn’t mean the moment an individual is feeling accepting of the situation and hopeful for the future that they have reached the end of the grief cycle. It is entirely possible that acceptance and hope are short-lived, and one can transition back into any of the other stages described above.
There WILL come a time when true and lasting acceptance and hope are reached, and the grief cycle is complete. Until that time comes, keep in mind the way in which emotions are connected to processing through grief. This can be a powerful tool in feeling more in control of seemingly out of control emotions. Finally, never be afraid to reach out for help. Friends and family are great resources for support. Also, working with a mental health professional who has expertise in the grief cycle can help you more efficiently sort through the mess of emotions; assisting as you achieve true and lasting acceptance and hope!
To jumpstart your journey through healing, listen to this motivational Ted Talk by Gary Lewandowski: Break-Ups Don’t Have to Leave You Broken.