The 5 Stages of Divorce Grief

Grieving the loss of a spouse after a divorce is normal. Processing the 5 stages of divorce grief can help you adapt to your new life.

By , Journalist

You've probably heard of the five stages of grief following the loss of a loved one—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The model was developed by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying to describe the series of emotions a person experiences when faced with death.

Similarly, divorce is a "social death," explains Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., psychologist and creator of the psychological well-being initiative Mental Drive. Losing a spouse through a divorce can trigger a grief response.

So, what are the five stages of divorce grief, and what can you expect as you proceed through them? We asked Dr. Klapow to provide some insight.

5 Stages of Grief in Divorce

It's normal to grieve the loss of a spouse due to divorce. "It's a death whereby the relationship itself, as it was, has died and can never exist again in the same manner," Dr. Klapow says.

And while your ex remains in this world, the "social death" of losing your spouse "creates both parallels and distinctions with what we more commonly understand as the grieving process associated with physical death"—namely denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

But, no matter the reasons for the split, not everyone will experience every stage, and the stages might come to the surface in a different order.

The Denial Stage

When you are first faced with the prospect of divorce, you might feel confused and overwhelmed, even incapable of processing the news. You might even deny that divorce has been discussed in the first place. Or, you could believe that your spouse didn't mean it and will apologize for bringing it up.

"The most challenging part of a divorce is accepting at a deep psychological level that the relationship has perished," Dr. Klapow says. "We go through the motions while on an emotional level we have not come to own that the relationship has died."

Shutting down emotionally may not seem like a healthy coping strategy, but denial is the body's natural defense mechanism. It helps you survive the initial shock of the loss by easing you into grief rather than allowing you to face the full impact head-on.

Denial has specific symptoms, including:

  • shock
  • numbness
  • confusion
  • shutting down, and
  • avoidance.

The Anger Stage

Once you ease out of denial and recognize that you are truly facing a divorce and a major life change, anger might set in. You might direct your anger toward your spouse or close family and friends. You might even question your faith and find yourself asking, "Why me?"

"In divorce, the logistics, the change, the new relationships, the arguing, the confrontations can make the processing of the end of the relationship a very emotionally charged experience," Klapow says.

It's normal to be angry. The rug has just been pulled out from under you and your life, as you knew it, is changing. You shouldn't suppress your anger, but it is important to express it in a healthy way. Doing so will help you overcome it and move on to a healthier place.

The signs of anger include:

  • frustration
  • impatience
  • resentment
  • rage
  • feeling out of control, and
  • increased use of alcohol or drugs.

The Bargaining Stage

In times of immeasurable grief, it's not uncommon to ask yourself, "What if I'd … done more to save this marriage, been more patient, nagged less?" You might even plead with your spouse: "I promise never to fuss at you again." Bargaining is an attempt to eliminate any doubts that your marriage could have been saved.

The bargaining stage is often fueled by guilt and may also accompany fear, anxiety, and blame.

"Bargaining becomes very interesting in divorce. As our lives continue to separate physically from our partner, we begin questioning how and why it happened," Dr. Klapow says. "We begin to look for modifications that might fit in a way that could make the relationship work."

Bargaining manifests a number of symptoms, including:

  • ruminating (repeatedly asking yourself "if only")
  • guilt
  • blame
  • fear
  • anxiety, and
  • over-thinking.

The Depression Stage

It's normal to feel great sadness when you are going through a divorce. "As time goes on in both the case of physical death and the social death of divorce, the reality sets in that we are no longer going to be the way we were with the person we were meant to be with for the rest of our lives," Dr. Klapow says.

Depression can make you feel helpless and hopeless, it can zap your energy, and take away your interest in activities that once brought you joy. It's normal to feel some degree of sadness or even depression when you lose a spouse due to divorce. This feeling should pass in time. But if you struggle to move beyond the sadness, it's important that you seek help from a mental health professional.

The signs of depression include:

  • feelings of despair
  • feeling helpless
  • feeling hopeless
  • loss of interest in social activities
  • changes in sleep and appetite, and
  • increased alcohol or drug use.

The Acceptance Stage

Acceptance is when you feel you're healing from the pain of divorce and find clarity in the changes it brings to your life. At this stage of divorce grief, acceptance comes in fits and starts. But eventually, you'll feel whole again.

Feeling whole doesn't always mean that you are okay with the loss, but it does mean that you have an understanding that you'll be okay in this new reality.

Acceptance—or, as Dr. Kaplow prefers to describe it in the divorce context, "adapting"—is a time of adjustment and readjustment. You learn to navigate life as a single person and possibly as a single parent. And, in doing so, you feel the fog lift.

"We really never accept death, and we do not have to accept divorce," he says. "What we do is learn to adapt, to continue, to move forward with our lives. Once we begin to move forward, we start the path to a new beginning."

The signs of acceptance include:

  • becoming more mindful
  • adapting and coping
  • practicing self-compassion
  • tolerating vulnerability, and
  • feeling validated.

If You Feel Stuck in the 5 Stages of Divorce Grief

Be aware you will experience many emotions as you grieve your divorce, Dr. Klapow says. "It's critical during and after a divorce that we give ourselves the permission to feel the stages of grief." And if you get stuck along the way, seek help.

"This is the absolute most important time to see a psychologist or therapist," he adds. "When divorce occurs, you have a chance to understand yourself—your tendencies, your strengths, and your flaws—in a very basic and primal way. You have the chance to explore how you got here and what you should and should not do moving forward. Take advantage of it."

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