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Grieving in Divorce

I suppose it's possible that there are people who can get through divorce without grieving, but I sure don't know anybody who's done it. The ones who say they aren't hurting after their divorce are the ones who may in reality be hurting the most.

Short-term marriages, long-term marriages, violent marriages, quiet/dry marriages, the leaver, the left, all involve painful grieving. This page is all about the grief process and how it works in divorce.

 
The faces of grief. You don't have to click on this. I draw heavily but not exclusively on the work of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic work, On Death and Dying.  

There's been a great deal of discussion in the wake of Kubler-Ross's book about the stages of grief, which I think has confused people more than it has helped them. Because we move in and out of these in maddeningly random order, I speak instead of the faces of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Denial

Surely this isn't happening to me. Surely this isn't happening to us. Even if it's happening, it's just a stage. He's left before; he'll come back. She's talked this way before; she doesn't really mean it. Even if he means it, he'll soon realize the error of his ways, and our marriage will survive. Even if she's telling me she wants a divorce, it's just because of her monthly cycle or because she's been talking to that friend of hers. Everything's really okay.

Denial is powerful, effective, and sometimes essential for dealing with crisis. There is a time and a place in which denial is perhaps the most healthy response. Eventually, however, there is a time and place for denial to end so you can confront the problem and begin the healing process.

Then in the middle of healing, you may resume your denial. That's okay. That's normal. That's sort of what's supposed to happen when you're grieving.

Anger

I'm ready to kill her. I want to hire the meanest, ugliest lawyer I can find and take him for all he's worth. I'm ready to go to war, and I'll beat her to a bloody pulp. I want to see him spread-eagle on a rock and watch the buzzards eat his insides out one bite at a time (that was an actual quote, by the way, from Helen, a sweet Southern magnolia talking to me right after she had learned of Ted's affair).

Anger is normal and appropriate in divorce. Let me say that one more time: it's okay to be angry when your marriage is falling apart. Let's be honest, you've got a lot to be angry about. Your primary task in dealing with anger, of course, is to acknowledge and accept the feelings of anger you have toward your spouse and others, while at the same time avoiding behaviors that will hurt you, your spouse, and your children.

This is where a friend can be so helpful. You need someone who can listen to the sometimes terrifying thoughts and feelings you have without feeling a need to respond to them, to tell you you're right, or to defend your spouse. There's a page all about how your friends can help you get through this.

Bargaining

Here's what I'm willing to do. Okay, honey, here's a long letter in which I spell out for you how I've changed. See, I'm different. I've solved all the problems you told me needed to be fixed. You can come back now. 

I know. I'll give him everything. He'll see how foolish he is to leave me, and he'll want me back. If you'll give it another chance, I'll . . .

Understand, I'm not talking here about the task of negotiating the terms of your divorce; that's an entirely different use of the term. I'm also not speaking here of a plan that you and your spouse work out in counseling a plan to save your marriage; that requires some negotiating or bargaining too.

I'm speaking here of the desperate, "I'll do anything -- just tell me what" kind of statements that people make when they're clinging to their marriage. This is the most painful stage of the grieving process, because it's demeaning for the left, distasteful for the leaver, and almost never successful for more than a fleeting moment.

That doesn't mean, though, that it's wrong to engage in bargaining behavior. Again, it's a normal part of the process; it's just that you need to move through it so you can continue the grieving process. And just like denial, bargaining will pop back up when you thought you were past all that; again, that's normal.

Depression

This is the end. I am nothing. I am so small. I don't think I exist any more. I'm ugly. I'm fat. I don't matter. I think I'll just lie here.

I'm worthless. Nobody cares if I live or die. I can't go on. There is no "I" left. He's much better off without me. I can see why she's so glad to get rid of me. I hate myself. This is all my fault.

Jimmy came to see me long after his separation. For reasons he could not understand, he melted into tears as he described his most recent conversation with his wife. Initially he was embarrassed to be crying, but as we talked, he began to understand that, although he was really quite far along in his grieving over the end of his marriage, he was just beginning to come to terms with the loss of relationship with his two sons. He was in deep grief, which manifested itself that particular day as depression. 

Depression is merely a different flavor of anger. Instead of being directed at your spouse, or your spouse's lawyer, or someone in your spouse's family, depression is anger you turn toward yourself. Not surprisingly, then, your task is to handle depression in the same way you do anger -- to acknowledge and accept the feelings you have of your own unworthiness without acting on those feelings to hurt yourself or others.

Like I did with bargaining, I need to clarify here the way in which I use the term "depression." I'm not speaking here of the clinical depression that is so prevalent in divorce; you may want to read the page on clinical depression so you can understand whether you may need professional help for that. I'm speaking instead of the normal, temporary feelings nearly everyone has during the grieving process. Remember, your friends can be essential if you're dealing with depression in your grieving.

It's no mystery why people going through divorce are at such great risk for suicide. Know that it's okay to feel depressed. If you're thinking about killing yourself, though, there's help available, and you need to get it.

Acceptance

I don't like this, but it's going to happen, and I need to get through it. I'll make it. Our marriage is ending. We're divorcing. I need to let my marriage go. My wife is leaving. My husband and I won't be together any more. We're getting a divorce. I'm ready for my co-workers, my family, and my friends to know that I'm going through a divorce. I'm ready to negotiate with my spouse.

Acceptance is difficult, painful, and curiously, often liberating. Some of the crud is gone, because now you're down to working it out. The task is simpler, cleaner. Maddeningly, though, you may think you've accepted the reality of divorce and then realize a day or two later that you've begun bargaining again to save your marriage. Again, that's normal. It's okay. Just acknowledge it and get back on task.

Ideally, you and your spouse can both accept the reality of your divorce before you negotiate its terms. To the extent you can do that, you will both be more comfortable with the terms you work out, because you will be able to stay in control. You will be able to think strategically. You will be able to focus on the all-important task of getting on with your life.

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