Grieving through divorce

We all know that divorce or separation is one of the most difficult processes a person can go through, and yet you may not immediately link these with grief. After all, they are not the same as a bereavement for example, and it may feel odd to grieve a relationship that is likely not to have been satisfactory.

 But divorce and separation, like a bereavement, mark the loss of something important, even defining in your life. It should therefore come as no surprise that they will take you through the same stages of grief. Spence, Kagan and Bifulco in their 2019 article defined what it is that makes a life event difficult or troubling, and concluded that if an event threatens any of these four psychological areas, it is likely to have a negative effect: attachment, achievement, security and identity. Divorce and separation hit all four of these areas hard, and therefore usually lead to the beginning of a cycle of grief.

The traditional five-stage grieving process, known as the Kübler-Ross model, comprises denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The process is not linear, and you may exist in several of these states at once, or come back to a stage you thought you had left behind. It is also important to remember that you may go through this cycle on multiple occasions at different stages of the divorce/separation (deciding to divorce/separate, planning the separation, separation, post-divorce/separation and moving on).

  1. Denial: initially, you may find yourself thinking that you can’t believe this is happening to you. This is your brain’s way of protecting you from trauma, and is perfectly natural.
  2. Anger: this can be directed at your partner, at yourself, at your children, even just at the situation in general. It is important to acknowledge that this is an emotion you need to go through, but also to realise that you cannot lash out at everyone; anger needs boundaries.
  3. Bargaining: at some stage, you might consider that you would do anything not to be in this situation, and you might even try to reconcile with your partner. While reconciliation is the right answer for some couples, it is important to navigate this stage carefully, as you don’t want to move backwards for fear of moving forwards.
  4. Depression: this is where traditional mourning kicks in. You might be sad for what you once had, scared about the future, or feel lonely and isolated. Again, this is perfectly natural, and the most important thing is to take care of yourself: reach out to family and friends, or a medical professional if necessary, to ensure that you don’t spiral into full-blown depression.
  5. Acceptance: this is the moment you have been waiting for. It isn’t giving in, but letting go of all of the previous stages, enabling you to move on and find a relationship with someone new if that is what you are looking for, or a fulfilling relationship with yourself.
If you and your partner have children, remember that they are likely to be going through these same stages, and difficulties can arise when you are in different stages at the same time. Bear in mind that a child rarely lives better than their parent, and if you are struggling your children are likely to be as well. Reach out to them, particularly if you feel them retreating, and allow them space to go through their own grief cycle accompanied by you.

Knowing about these stages can help you prepare for them, but does not mean you will necessarily avoid them. If you are struggling with your emotions, there are divorce coaches and therapists available to help. 

Paola Cuffolo Solicitor

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