When someone figures out their marriage is not going to make it, the grief cycle begins. It is similar but also unique from the well known grief cycle brought to us by Kubler Ross.For some, this realization arrives well before the decision is made so they have worked through much of the grief and the paperwork is all that is really left to do once the decision has been made. For others, the divorce process coincides and alongside the grieving process. And still others have a mixture of both timings.
It is individual. It is rarely predictable. But it will happen.
Here is how it may look if you are the one going through a divorce or have been in one or if you are supporting a loved one through it.
Shock and denial.
A state of disbelief and a thousand feelings and numbed out ones as well. Some variance of ‘What is happening?’ is a question asked over and over.
“She’ll snap out of this. I’ll just give him some time to cool down.”
“This can’t be happening. Where did this come from? Why is he doing this?”
While in this phase, some people keep the decision to divorce private either waiting for it to sink in or in hopes that the decision will be reversed or stalled. Or they just can’t deal with making it real by stating it out loud.
Pain and guilt.
This phase is often filled with a focus on losses due to the divorce. The changes, the unexpected hardships and situations. There are often deep emotions related to the losses. As reality sets in, things logistically change and relationship differences begins manifesting, pain often grows.
Guilt can become an overwhelming emotion during this phase-particularly when children are involved but also in seeing the effects of the divorce on family and friends. The loss can feel unbearable and the realization that the divorce is making other people’s lives harder because of the divorce can bring forth lots of pain.
“I can’t bear to hear my mother’s stress when I call her to tell her what my ex did again.”
“ I look at my kids and think I have ruined their lives. They are innocent and don’t deserve this.”
“I just don’t know how to get through this. I can barely shower. Am hardly paying attention at work. All I want to do is cry all day and tell strangers that my world just fell a part.”
Anger and bargaining.
This is often an intense feeling stage. A lashing out and inward lashing. It typically arrives when fears begin dissipating. Although anger can be damaging, it can also be empowering and the catalyst for action. Anger can be a guiding force to gain perspective and make changes that support a new, healthier next chapter.
“I’m going to do (this and that) and he’ll regret ever leaving me.”
“How could God let this happen? How could she do this to our family?”
“I’ll change this. Try that. Just give us one more chance.”
“If there is any hope left for us to make it, we owe it to our kids to try. I will do _____ if you do _____.”
Depression.If anger is the active stage, depression is often the stage of inaction. Inwardness. This can be a phase of isolation and loneliness and a sinking in of the hard reality of divorce. Some focus on the shame of feeling like they are a failure or an embarrasing statistic. Others are overwhelmed with the sharp change of their financial situation. Some feel that they repel friends because all they think about and talk about are things related to their divorce and negative reactions to the world. Love songs are hard to listen to, romantic comedies feel like the work of the devil.
Everything. Feels. Hard.
“I failed at the one thing I wanted most to succeed in.”
“ I feel like everyone is avoiding me….I cry too much. I’m too negative. I am desperate for help and relief from all this hardship but people don’t want to hear about it.”
“I feel like I am drowning. In debt. In heartache. In overwhelm. How am I going to do this alone?”
The upward turn. The stages of anger, depression and guilt are less prevalent and things feel less cloudy and hopeless when looking ahead. The plan may still feel vague and hard but the possibility of happiness and okay-ness ahead now starts feeling more likely and achievable. Overall, this stage is dominated by more calm and relaxation day to day and when thinking of the future.
This phase is the beginning of acceptance and is led by surrender. It has happened. It is happening. Unknowns are prevalent but not as oppressive.
“You know I kind of love having the bed to myself!”
“I’m going to start working out again and take that art class he made fun of me for wanting to do.”
“I think I’m going to start dating again. I can’t even begin to know how to do it after all these years but it is kind of exciting thinking about meeting new people. And I don’t want to go another year without having sex.”
Reconstruction and working through.
This stage focuses piecing things back together. Decisions are made without considering the ex. Hope becomes a guiding force in plans and goals. Moments of joy start replacing anger and depression. These feelings no longer seem mutually exclusive but can co exist and eventually moments of joy outshine anger and depression.
Finances are sorting itself out, the losses seem less tender and making choices feel empowering. There is often a feeling of wonder and pride that the worst has been survived and good is ahead.
“I’m going to be okay. Me and the kids are going to survive and thrive in our new normal.”
“ Things seem less hard. I’m starting to look forward to my freedom and getting to know me again.”
Acceptance and hope.
The pace of acceptance is different for everyone but this phase is led with healing, renewed strength and profound feelings of gratefulness, joy and relief. Life isn’t perfect or always easy but there is an optimism that guides decisions and relationships.
There is a general sense of moving forward with self agency and empowerment.
“I love getting to know the new me.”
“If I had known how good this would feel and how much more I would like my life after all of this, I wouldn’t have fought it so long.”
“I am okay. I will be great. I heal and learn more every day.”
How Grief Works
Grief isn’t linear. It isn’t a step by step process that is neat and predictable. You don’t ‘complete’ a stage and never see or experience it again. Some people stay in one stage for a long period of time while others move for that stage quickly. You may jump back in forth from stages that are listed at opposing ends of the grief cycle.
It is all individual.
But, in general, everyone goes through these stages and most cycle through several of them multiple times.
You do what you need to in order to heal and move through to the next chapter.
So How Does Knowing This Help?
What you are experiencing or what your loved one is feeling is normal. And expected. It can help to learn what the stages are, what they feel like and what they sound like. So you can name them and claim them. You can also celebrate when a stage lifts and take note of the progress in grief.
Sometimes knowing there is a structure and methodology to it all helps make the intensity feel less chaotic and out of control.
What You Can Do About It.
Grief cycles can happen within days, months or years. Grief can turn you inside out and upside down. It is a process of intense scrutiny from others but mainly on the self. Use grief to inform and enlighten. To help you get to know yourself better and to make choices that serve your best self and life’s purpose.
Know you are not alone. Not in grief. Not in divorce. Not in life.
It gets better. It gets different. It gets to be on your terms.
X oh, Dr. Juliana