The Five Stages of Grief and Loss in Divorce
When a marriage dies and sadness hits, it’s the sadness that will heal you.
I started crying at the café counter of Barnes & Noble last Sunday. Not just a little tear, but full-on body-racking sobs. I was buying my kids croissants, had managed to get them out of the house with minimal bickering, bribed by books and French pastry. I’d been chatting with the cashier, grabbed the food and turned to go sit down when she called me back to the counter.
“Ma’am, I don’t think your card went through.”
I immediately realized why — I didn’t swipe my card. My wallet was in my purse. It was yet the fifth or sixth thing I’d done that morning that smacked of exhaustion, disorientation, losing my grip. And, I started to cry. There in front of that poor girl who’s compassion was so immediate as to make the tears come all the more.
“Oh, ma’am,” she said with kindness, “do you need a napkin?”
“No,” I whimpered, looking down, “it’s just, no. It’s just, thank you. I’m OK, hard day.”
I collected myself and went to sit with my boys. They were eating and reading, their two favorite things, but noticed my demeanor. Both reached over to hug me, give a kiss, and share a bite of their beloved bounty.
“What’s wrong Mom?”
“I’m a little sad, and I’m so tired. I guess I needed to cry a little.”
“Crying helps,” my older son said.
“It does,” I agreed. “Sometimes people try not to be sad, but it does help.”
My younger son said “That’s dumb. Why would you try not to be sad? If you’re sad, you’re sad.”
“I’m glad you and your brother feel that way, especially since you’re boys. Many boys are taught not to cry, but you both know that it can make you feel better, right?”
They nodded, giant flakes of pastry covering their beautiful compassionate faces, the table, their books, the floor.
“It’s going to be OK, Mom. And it’s OK to be sad.”
As we left, my six-foot-tall thirteen-year-old put his arm around me and guided me out. I glanced back at the girl behind the counter and she smiled, gave a little wave.
The well documented five stages of and grief and loss are universal. No one is exempt, although many get stuck, try to skip a stage, or distract to avoid the feelings. Mourning is a human response to loss. These five stages of normal grief were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.”
As I go through this divorce, now three months in, I can safely say, I’m in the sadness and depression stage of grief and loss. The weight of crippling emotional pain has been lurking, invading my dreams, and now seems firmly rooted in my daily being.
Denial and isolation come first. Emotions are overwhelming with a death or loss so we may isolate. We may be unable to acknowledge the loss. This is temporary. It helps us deal with the first wave of pain. I remember feeling numb for weeks. I had to function for my children, but I felt hollow and out-of-body.
Anger is next in the grieving process. As reality hits, the pain can be too intense to bear. Anger comes, justifiable or not, and we have to let it come. In my case, I was blindsided and betrayed. There was anger to get out. When a loved one dies, we still feel anger and it may come out at inanimate objects, strangers, friends or family. For me, anger has been healing. It has been productive and cleansing to get angry about things I’d let go for years, ways I’d been treated, and to what I’d lost. Anger can be harmful if misdirected. So, be aware. I found ranting with friends, sometimes chanting a mantra while exercising, burning a picture or breaking something (in a safe private manner), all these rituals were physical releases that helped. My anger started to dissipate. There’s more there, but I’m not stuck.
Bargaining is next. With feelings of helplessness, it helps to be in control. In my case, the out-of-the-blue “I want a divorce,” prompted thoughts of: if only I had done this, or why did I say that? What if this, what if that? The truth is things happen. In a relationship, as in life, you can only control you. While my soon-to-be-ex forced the decision, ultimately, this is the right thing for everyone. It’s not my fault, it’s not his fault — it just is.
Depression is the next stage. Although experts call this phase depression, real depression is a long-term mental health issue. I prefer to call this stage sadness and mourning. The grief I’m experiencing as a result of the divorce is not a depressive episode. Anyone would be prone to it. The key is, feeling it. It won’t last forever. But it has to come.
For many, sadness is terrifying. No one wants to be sad. It’s easier to be angry, to blame, to rage. So, what to do when the sadness comes? For me, as I proved at Barnes & Noble, and in the parking lot at the grocery store yesterday, and while waiting in line to pick up my son from school, and while writing this post, there’s not much choice, I have to let it come.
The fears are that I’ll look weak, pathetic — no, in fact, I look human — and, that I may never stop crying. But, I do stop. And there comes a wave of relief. I start again later, with some other trigger; this is a major life-changing event. Divorce is a huge loss, a stressor beyond any I have ever dealt with as an adult. As a child, my parents had a horrible divorce, but I was not responsible for two other’s lives then. I’m a mom, I have children to care for; this is a lot to absorb. I have to be the adult. And I’m sad. But, I am also functioning and taking care of my kids and we are all going to be OK.
With this loss, my life has changed dramatically. Everything that I knew and could count on for almost twenty years is now different. But, I have myself and I always did. I have my family and my friends and my sons. And I always will. So when I’m sad and overwhelmed, I cry. And then, I think, I can do this. I have support. And, I need to grieve. We loved each other once, my soon-to-be-ex and I. We had wonderful times together. We traveled, we laughed; we made a family. It’s OK to cry, it’s OK to be sad and to talk about it and to ask for a hug. So, when I need to cry, I just let it out. I try to limit my public outbursts, but sometimes, that’s when the sadness comes. Oh well.
Acceptance is the final stage of loss. Not everyone makes it to acceptance. In the case of sudden death, especially of a child, one may get stuck in denial or anger. In my case, for my future happiness, and for my children, I will get there. I have no deadline; I was married for seventeen years. Grieving is a unique process; no one does it the same way, and there is no time limit.
Coping with loss is a personal experience, but you don’t have to be alone. Get support and comfort from family, friends, professionals. Allow yourself to go through the stages, and move back and forth between them if need be. Feel the grief, let out the anger. Resisting will only prolong the healing process. I still have more crying to do and more anger to get out. Once in acceptance, I would expect to feel calm and at peace, and able to move on. I’m not there, but I will get there, in time, and when I’m ready. And I will be better than OK. I will be happy.