Elisabeth Kubler-Ross coined the five stages of grief in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Initially, it was in reference to coping with the death of a loved one. It has since taken on many other meanings and applies to all forms of loss and grief.
Divorce is much like a death.
It's an enormous loss. A loss of love. Dreams. Partnership. Friendship. Family. Life.
It rocks the core of everything. Even when the decision to divorce is the healthy decision for everyone involved, it is devastating. It's a process to heal from the pain of such a life-altering decision.
So in keeping with the original stages of grief, here are the five stages of grief as it pertains to divorce.
"I can fix this. He will change. We will be ok. Etc."
This stage of denial for me was something more relevant leading up to the decision to separate, but it has shown up throughout the entire divorce process. The belief that someone can change, that my love will be enough, that somehow the choice to be a family would be bigger than the choice to drink and live for oneself.
The protest against truth and the effort to catch the uncatchable. That's denial.
We don't often want to accept reality. We run from it, try to change it, work to convince ourselves and others it can be different, and exhaust ourselves in the striving toward something unattainable.
We deny there's a problem. We deny that it all fell apart. We deny our role in the demise. And then we deny our pain.
Once it finally sets in, that reality is where we have to live and there is no more running from it. Anger sets in. And I'm not just talking about, "I'm mad."
I'm talking about Diary of a Mad Black Woman, crazy-feeling, stabby, rage that makes you want to jump out of your own skin and punch walls.
The anger can come for different reasons at different times.
For your children and what they have to endure. For yourself and what you've been through. For your choices that lead to this point. For the other person and their behavior that contributed to the downfall of your dreams. For all the wasted time, money and energy into something that fell through your hands in the end anyway. For your broken heart. Your busted wallet. Your shattered hopes, and your shaken family.
It's a different type of anger than I've ever experienced, because fueling it is pain that goes into your bone marrow. Every situation is different, but in every situation of divorce, there will be anger. Lots of anger.
In between the various stages of grief, there will be bargaining. This is when one or both partners decide, "Hey, let's forget all the reasons we made this decision in the first place, jump right back into the denial phase and try convincing each other that maybe this time things will be different."
Someone might make a lot of promises. All empty in my case. There will be guarantees of a brighter future, assurance of increased effort, vows to change and pledges for love.
You will try to convince yourself that maybe you made a mistake and you should try again because maybe things weren't actually that bad and maybe the other person was right and if you didn't suck so bad, things could be ok. You will listen to the lies that might come, either from your own head or the mouth of the one you love(d), and you will think, "That's true. I owe it to the free world to try and save this failed marriage."
And then you will slap yourself in the face, wake up and realize all of that was a bunch of nonsensical bullshit and that you made the choices you made for a reason. Or you will realize you have no control over someone else's feelings and choices.
And you will get depressed.
You will be sad. Heartbroken. Devastated. Despondent at times.
You won't want to move. The edge of a cliff might sound more appealing than you ever expected. You will feel a gnawing pain in your stomach that feels like your soul is rotting out of your body.
You'll cry. Sometimes for no reason. You'll be so depressed you can't cry. You'll go so low into a valley that you'll feel numb. (Many times this numbness cycles itself back into anger.)
You'll feel like you just lost everything in the world that mattered to you. Like someone plucked you out of your life, stripped you of all you have and left you in a jungle somewhere.
Your hopes and dreams will be shot and you'll feel a despair you've never felt before. Even if you made the decision to separate or divorce and even if you are stronger and better off, depression will come. Because divorce sucks, regardless of the reason for it.
At some point in between feeling homicidal, suicidal and schizophrenic, you'll come to a place of acceptance. You still might not like what's happening or where you are at this point in your life. But you will find a peace. You will understand that reality is the best place to live even when it hurts.
You'll release the dream. You'll let go of the person you've lost but continued to hold onto. You'll acknowledge the truth and begin to really heal.
You'll take steps into the light and with each one you will gain strength. You'll find your hands move from clenched fists to open palms as you allow yourself to just be. You'll accept the brokenness, the sadness, the anger, the rage, the loss. You'll grieve it, but you'll assent to it. Because you will have no other choice.
And then, you’ll cycle through again. You’ll weave your way in and out of each of the stages, sometimes all at once. You’ll feel each of these things sometimes in a matter of moments. And sometimes, you’ll stay in one phase for days or weeks.
Divorce is painful. No way around it. It sucks.
So the most important thing is to recognize and accept that truth. When you stop fighting the reality that this sucks, it’ll become easier to cope with the reality of your life.
The grief process will take time. It won’t be fun or pretty, but like all grief, it is necessary to go through it in order to eventually get to the other side of it.
Some feelings will never completely go away. Much like a death, the sense of loss may always be there. But you will learn to adjust to it and carry on living with a renewed sense of hope and strength.
Give yourself permission to grieve and don’t fight the waves of each stage, however they come.
photo credit: model on the beach via photopin (license)