Good Grief

A client of mine, “Sam”, once complained to me: “Enough already. It’s been a year. Why aren’t the kids accepting this and moving on?” As the spouse who asked for the divorce, Sam was feeling guilty. He was having trouble witnessing his children, and even his soon-to-be ex, going through the stages of grief, and he was wishing and hoping for speedier progress.

Yet there’s no rushing grief. Accepting that your spouse or children are working through one of the stages can give you the patience and compassion you need to stay calm and wait it out.

It’s been well documented that divorce is the second most stressful life event after the death of a loved one. Death and divorce are closely related because both involve significant loss. Early in my own divorce process, my husband and I turned to a parenting counselor for guidance concerning our children. The most valuable words she shared with us were: “Divorce is all about loss. There is no winning. Expect nothing more.”

Hard words to hear when you’re struggling to gain ground – and maybe looking for someone else to blame. Hard, but true. Everyone touched by your divorce will experience loss. Everyone will transition through the grieving process. You, your spouse, and your children, at different times and at different paces, will likely all face the five universal stages of grief more often associated with death. Even if you were the one to initiate the divorce, there’s no escaping it.

Check out the 5 stages of grief listed below and see where you are, and where your spouse and children are. It may help you better understand their (and your) behavior.

1. Denial

This isn’t really happening. It just can’t be!

If you’re the initiator of divorce, you may be in denial about the pain your decision has caused. If you’re the other spouse, or a child, you may be unable to admit the relationship is over. Denial is a natural defense mechanism. Be aware that in this stage, no one is thinking clearly.

2. Anger

Why is he such a horrible person? Why did he/she do this to me?

In this stage, the individual feels they’re being treated unfairly and frequently often lashes out. Listen for “why” questions, which tend to frame the speaker as the victim. Rephrase the questions, starting with how, what, where, or who – words that activate the problem-solving areas of our brains. For example: What is his/her perspective? What am I missing? How did I contribute? What do I need to do in order to feel better?

3. Bargaining

I can change – just give me a chance!

In this stage, we attempt to gain control over an unacceptable reality by pleading or negotiating. Children, in particular, often feel helpless and try to bargain for a different outcome. If you find yourself bargaining, understand that it’s part of the process. If your spouse resists your proposals, he/she may actually be helping you let go of unrealistic expectations.

4. Depression

It’s hopeless. My life as I know it is over.

Often parents, or the initiator of the divorce, are relieved to hear that the bargaining has stopped. Understanding that the next stage is depression will give you a heads-up that additional support may be needed. This stage can include emotions like sadness, guilt, and worry. It’s an important stage because reality has set in.

5. Acceptance

This is how it’s going to be.

Accepting that the marriage is over allows everyone to move forward with their lives. Perhaps you are not completely over the loss, but you’re finished with going back and forth among the stages.

Key: The faster the parents reach acceptance, the easier it will be for their children to follow. That doesn’t mean rush it… but knowing this may help you be that much more accepting.

How long will the process take? As long as it takes, for better or for worse. Recognize that grieving takes time. The initiator must not become frustrated when others are not moving through the stages as quickly as he/she is. Remember, in most cases the children will be behind the parents.

Where are you in the grieving process? To whom can you turn for support? What can you do to help others who may be stuck?


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