The 5 Stages of Divorce Grief | How to Understand Your Feelings
The ending of a romantic relationship is a real form of loss, so this is very much a grieving process.
You may be familiar with the concept of five stages of grief. This model was developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross over fifty years ago to describe the emotions of those facing terminal illness and impending death. She introduced a phased process to understand that grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
The Kübler-Ross model has since been widely applied to grief, including after someone else has died. The stages are also now understood to be nonlinear (these phases can happen any time, in any order, and they can repeat). Still, the model helps provide a framework to understand the process of grief, including after divorce.
These feelings can be intense, so remember, it’s okay to reach out and ask for help. On top of the emotional strain, there are financial and habitual changes to work through. That can be very stressful, even if a separation is amicable. Divorce can have psychological and cognitive impacts; having help to understand what you’re going through and to help process these moments can be vital to wellbeing and resilience.
Jennifer Rocha, Registered Social Worker and Psychotherapist says, “Counselling through divorce can be a valuable support by offering a safe and non judgemental space to explore emotions, thoughts and concerns. It can help provide emotional support, coping strategies, communication skills, guide decision making and aid in reframing their outlook on divorce. This process can facilitate the transition from feelings of loss to the possibility of a new beginning.”
What is Divorce Grief?
Divorce grief is an emotional and psychological process that follows the ending of a marriage or romantic relationship. Like any other form of grief, there is a range of emotions and reactions that people tend to go through as they come to terms with a loss.
Divorce grief shares many characteristics with other forms of grief, but with its own nuances. Some of ways divorce grief differs include:
- Ambiguity: Unlike the death of a loved one, the absence of a loved one in divorce is more complex because they are still living. There can be feelings of uncertainty, confusion or unresolved emotions that can complicate grief in different ways. There is also the possibility of continued interaction, especially if there are children involved.
- Social shifts: Divorce is specific to the two people involved. But, friends and family will still react, sometimes in unexpected ways. This can create another level of interpersonal complexity that is challenging to navigate.
- Self esteem: Divorce is a conscious decision, and it can affect someone’s sense of self, identity and self-worth in different ways than the death of a loved one.
- Legal issues: Death and divorce both have complicated legal and financial considerations. However the logistics of dealing with legal issues with a living ex-partner is unique.
- Self awareness: Personal reflection is common through many forms of grief. With divorce, there may be one’s own contributions to the breakdown of a relationship to consider. This can mean some very deep personal work unlike other grieving processes.
Divorce may also be the result of conflict—this may mean a level of trauma experienced by one or both people involved. Trauma can be overt and distinct like physical, emotional or financial abuse; trauma can also be “small t” trauma, which could include more personal level upheaval like bullying, neglect, or chronic stress. This can bring another layer to the grieving and healing process.
Loss is a fundamental part of the human experience, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy. Divorce is sometimes called a “social death;” meaning the end of expectations, dreams, goals, and the loss of other tangential relationships. This kind of a breakdown can trigger a number of emotional responses including a grief response.
The 5 Stages of Divorce Grief
The five stages of divorce grief are a starting point. This is a helpful model to understand the potential emotions and phases someone might go through when experiencing loss. They can happen in any order, stages might repeat or never happen, and there is no defined timeline with grief. This is personal, and your circumstances are individual.
In the context of divorce, there is no clear or defined loss as there is with the death of a loved one. Denial is a common coping mechanism. Denial is not the same as delusion; for a period of time, it’s just a way of protection through the initial shock to survive intense emotional pain and realize the loss is true.
Some of the characteristics of denial can include:
- Shock: Feeling numb or completely detached from the reality of the situation.
- Minimization: Downplaying the severity or reality of the situation, pretending nothing has changed or the divorce isn’t impacting you.
- Fantasy: Assuming or believing the relationship will be restored and relying on wishful thinking.
- Avoidance: Refusing to discuss or acknowledge the divorce is real and is happening.
- Distortions: Remembering the relationship only as positive, and ignoring the real and negative aspects of the relationship that led to divorce.
Prolonged denial is a problem and can prevent you from dealing with your emotions in a healthy way. This can lead to unintended long-term consequences, including impacting other relationships, or having the necessary emotional capacity to handle the very real logistics of divorce.
Believing divorce is true does not mean you need to be okay with it. Working with a counsellor or therapist is a great way to process these realities, emotions and thoughts, and understanding it’s a normal part of the healing process.
Divorce is not a pleasant experience, even if both people are accepting that the relationship is ending. Anger can be directed inward to ourselves, outward to the ex-partner, or directed unintentionally to other people. Anger is a normal emotion that results from feeling hurt, betrayed, disappointed, frustrated or sad.
There are healthy ways to express anger, including:
- Open communication: Sharing thoughts with someone you trust, or your counsellor, can help you understand what exactly is making you angry.
- Physical activity: Our bodies and minds are deeply connected. Anger is a powerful emotion and can bring a lot of nervous energy with it. Exerting that energy physically can help calm the nervous system, express the excess energy and allow the mind to focus.
- Breathing or meditation: Similarly to physical activity, you may need to first calm your nervous system before being able to focus your mind. Breathing or meditation is another way to calm the nervous system and temper frantic energy.
- Seek the help of a professional: If anger is overwhelming, or you’re not sure how to deal with it, a counsellor or therapist can help provide the tools to recognize and manage intense emotions.
Prolonging anger is prolonging stress. Unresolved anger can impact relationships with others, physical health, and overall wellbeing.
Bargaining often involves a mixture of guilt, anxiety, and regret. This could be a misplaced sense of responsibility for the relationship ending (or a real responsibility). Ruminating on what could have been done differently won’t change the current situation.
Bargaining is a means of negotiating the reality of the divorce or trying to change the outcome. It is often characterized by “what if” thinking: focusing too much on what could have been different instead of what is happening now. This is a difficult cycle to break through.
Ways to combat the “what if” thinking include:
- Allow imperfection: You may be applying new information to past choices you made; we cannot always be perfect, we make decisions based on what’s happening in the moment. Hindsight isn’t always accurate.
- Challenge yourself: When you’re feeling guilt about the past, ask yourself if you could add “what if” to your thoughts. If so, you might be dwelling on regrets. Try asking yourself a different question. Not, “what could I have done,” but, “what happened and what do I know now?”
- Be kind to yourself: Give yourself a bit of a break. You’re human. Try to forgive yourself of your perceived shortcomings.
Understanding which thoughts are perceived and which are facts is difficult for people to do for themselves. This is where a counsellor or therapist can help you navigate this phase.
The ending of a relationship can be deeply sad. This sadness can become prolonged and overwhelming if not addressed. While a short period of depression can be very normal after a divorce, it can become clinical depression if the symptoms are experienced daily and for more than a few weeks.
Symptoms of depression to look out for include:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Fatigue or low energy levels
- Avoidance of social situations
- Excessive guilt or self blame
- Suicidal ideation or thoughts of death
If you’re feeling symptoms to an extent that it’s impacting your daily life, consider reaching out to a professional for help. They can help with coping strategies and other interventions to help with these overwhelming and disruptive emotions so you can process what you’re going through and move onto a functional daily life.
Some of those coping strategies might include:
- Emotional relief: Talking with a trained professional and having someone understand, sympathize, and offer new perspectives can be a huge relief and improve overall emotional wellbeing
- Limiting negative self talk: The stories we tell ourselves are impactful. A trained professional can help identify when we’re being unfair or untrue to ourselves, and help interrupt cycles of self abuse.
- Maintaining a routine: It’s very difficult to keep up with daily life when depression sets in, which only makes things worse in the long run. Returning to some kind of routine, even if it’s just the basics, can help provide structure and stability in a new reality.
- Setting achievable goals: Looking ahead after experiencing a separation can be empowering and give focus elsewhere. Having something to look forward to can provide a sense of purpose and hope.
Accepting and embracing a new reality after divorce doesn’t have to mean you’re happy about it. It’s still okay to feel anger, or sadness even if you fully accept this reality. What’s important is that you understand it’s an ongoing process and you’ll experience many emotions through it.
You can also celebrate your resiliency in the acceptance phase—allowing yourself to feel a range of emotions, both negative and positive, while seeing how you’re growing as a person through adversity.
Exploring new opportunities, setting new goals, or changing your routine can inspire happiness and a sense of purpose. Through acceptance, you’ll be better prepared to make decisions in your best interest. Divorce can be one part of your story without completely defining who you are.
Navigating the Stages of Divorce Grief
A common theme through all of the stages of divorce grief is about acknowledging and allowing emotions to surface. This requires time, patience, and emotional, psychological and practical strategies.
No one expects you to be an expert at this and to do it alone (you shouldn’t expect that of yourself). Give yourself a little bit of grace and let yourself grieve.
Seeking support from friends, family, books and podcasts, or counsellors and therapists can help bring clarity in a very confusing time. It can give you a safe space to express yourself, and an option to adopt new coping strategies.
Here are some ways support from your family and friends can help through stages of divorce grief:
- A support system: People who know you best can be your best champions. They can remind you why you’re worthy of love and they can show you love.
- Establishing a routine: Friends’ and family’s lives will continue on through your divorce. They can help bring a sense of normalcy to your life by giving a helping hand to get you to appointments, buy groceries and generally adjust to a new routine.
- Try something new: You may not be ready for a regular routine, so your friends and family can help step in with new activities to promote your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. This could include trying new hobbies, jogging or walking, or spending time in nature. You can also take these steps on your own.
Here are some ways working with a counsellor can help through stages of divorce grief:
- They are trained to help: Finding a counsellor or therapist who specializes in life transitions, divorce, or relationships means they spend the majority of their professional time understanding what you’re going through. They are trained to give you proven tools to help navigate your emotions.
- Access to treatment: In some cases, divorce may result in more serious conditions, like depression. The right kind of licensed mental health professional can provide a diagnosis that may help with other interventions like medication or time off work. They may also be able to provide access to other relevant support groups or even legal networks if they specialize in divorce.
- Offering a safe space: It can be very powerful to speak to someone neutral to your life, and to have a space where you know you can express yourself in whatever way you need to.
- Identifying patterns: So much of the healing process is accepting and allowing emotions to be there, and to have healthy coping mechanisms. Counsellors can help recognize those unhealthy thinking or behaviour patterns.
- Conflict resolution: You may be encountering new kinds of conflict that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. A trained specialist can help offer strategies communication. You and your ex-spouse may even seek the help of a counsellor together through this process. This can be especially helpful if you have children or dependents.
Whether seeking help from family, friends, coworkers, support groups or a counsellor, some tips and strategies to help you through each of the phases include:
- Allow yourself to grieve: Permission is a big theme in self care and mental health. Let yourself feel the range of emotions and give yourself space for those emotions to change.
- Set realistic expectations: Divorce grief takes time. Accept that things might ebb and flow and you may experience emotional and logistical setbacks.
- Explore new interests: This is a time of forgiveness and new self-discovery. Transitioning out of grief will mean exploring your own interests in a new way; this could be returning to hobbies you had before the relationship, or discovering completely new parts of yourself.
Everyone’s journey through divorce grief is different and unique. You don’t have to apply all of these techniques to find success and support through the process. Experiment with different strategies and try new things as your situation evolves.
The Role of Self-Care in Divorce Grief
Self-care simply means finding ways to manage emotions and reduce stress. This can mean eating a balanced and healthy diet, reducing alcohol consumption, taking regular breaks in the workday, crying, lying down and breathing, or taking a short walk.
Having some self-compassion through this process is also a self-care technique: be kind to yourself, try to identify when you’re just being hard on yourself.
Here are some ways self-care can be achieved, and ways it can help when coping with divorce grief:
- Regulating emotions: The emotion and stress of divorce and of grieving can be intense. Learning how to regulate your emotions through counselling or therapy, mindfulness (see below) can make those emotions a little less intense, or at least manageable. Knowing our emotions are manageable, even if they’re intense, can help with avoiding unhealthy coping mechanisms.
- Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness means staying in the present, and avoiding ruminating or worrying excessively about the future. Mindfulness techniques can be achieved through meditation, nature walks, breathing, yoga, exercise or journaling.
- Keeping up social connection: Maintaining a connection to social networks is important for emotional wellbeing; sometimes we need time outside of the bubble of our grief. Spending time with our social networks can help ground us in reality and demonstrate the possibilities of life outside of the relationship.
- Setting boundaries: While social interactions are important, setting boundaries around which activities you choose is important, too. You don’t have to go out to bars or gyms or big events if that’s not fulfilling for you. You can practice social connection without making yourself uncomfortable.
- Taking care of your physical self: Our physical selves directly impact our emotional wellbeing. Eating well, sleeping, and getting regular exercise can all help regulate mood and emotion. When you’re not sure what else to do, a physical activity can be a great tactic to try—you’d be surprised how our minds react to physical care.
Engaging in these tactics can boost self esteem, restore a sense of control, spark a little joy and provide some distraction from the grief. Your self-care tools can evolve and change as you progress through stages of divorce grief and your needs evolve.
Helping Children through Divorce Grief
Navigating divorce grief may involve helping children through the process as well. It’s important to recognize that children will feel a range of emotions that go along with divorce. Their perspective on life is changing and they are not yet emotionally developed with resiliency or coping skills—even as adults, that’s hard!
Children’s reactions to divorce will vary depending on their age and their individual personalities. Kids can retreat, display bigger emotions, or take an outsized responsibility to their adults’ wellbeing (this might look healthy from the outside, but it can impact their long-term wellbeing).
You have a role to play as the parent, and part of that is knowing that these are not innate parenting skills. Seeking child therapy can be a valuable resource in helping children feel safe and to process their emotions.
Some ways you can provide a supportive environment to children through divorce, including with the help of family therapy or support groups:
- Open communication: Demonstrating open communication and encouraging kids and teens to express themselves can help create trust and safety at home. Let them ask questions, and be mindful of age-appropriate answers. Let them express sadness or anger, just as you need to.
- Reinforce and reassure: Let children know their feelings are normal and valid and reinforce continued love. Unless there is a valid reason the child should not be with the other parent, create consistency and encourage them to spend time with both. Positively reinforce the time they spend with the other parent.
- Monitor adult conversations: Even if your child is older, maintain healthy boundaries and be mindful of which conversations they’re involved in. You can be honest with them without involving them in adult matters like legal or financial struggles.
- Monitor their behaviour: It may not be a coincidence if you notice changes in their behaviour or habits. Continue to keep attention on their grades and participation in extracurriculars. Those changes can be clues to negative emotions that need to be addressed.
- Keep their routine: Self care matters to kids too. Keep a steady bedtime, healthy foods and regular activities.
- Give them choice and agency: If it’s age-appropriate and safe in your situation, give them some choice about visiting schedules or activities they do with each parent. They are discovering a new life as well, let them have some choice in what it looks like.
- Consider family therapy or child counselling: This is a big change. Working with a counsellor or a support group can help with emotional expression, conflict resolution, communication skills, and coping strategies. It can take a bit of the pressure off of the parents to have another person step up to help emotionally—you have a lot on your plate.
- Take care of yourself: Kids are very aware of adults’ wellbeing and emotional state. You have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Demonstrating you’re mindful of your pain and are actively working through it teaches kids resilience and self-worth, and helps them feel less scared in the long run.
Just like adults, validating feelings and allowing for time and space to adjust to new dynamics, honouring a range of emotions, and being patient is important for kids. Remember, kids might not express their feelings in ways you’d expect so it’s important to keep attention on other cues and clues to how they’re feeling.
Moving Forward After Divorce
Going through divorce and “moving on” after divorce is a personal and gradual process. No one can dictate the timeline or process of your grief. The five stages of divorce grief is a guide, and a way to help you understand some of the common feelings you might experience along the way. It’s a way to remind yourself that you’re not alone, and that your experiences are normal and human.
That kind of growth and resiliency is worth celebrating. Moving forward does not mean forgetting or ignoring what happened. Here are some signs to look for that indicate you may be moving forward after divorce:
- Openness to new relationships: This may not be a new romantic relationship, but feeling open and excited by new friendships or just connecting with new people can feel revitalizing.
- You’re planning for the future: You likely did a lot of work to carve out a new vision for your future, and now you have new goals for yourself. You’re excited by what’s to come.
- Feeling of peace: Feeling a greater sense of peace after a period of grief doesn’t mean all of those emotions and experiences are gone. It means that you’re living in balance with them and are not driven by them.
We learn a lot from pain; our challenges define us one way or another. It’s not easy to take an active role in how that plays out. Healing is not a linear process and it’s hard to do on your own. You may experience periods of regression or difficulty over time, but having the tools and coping mechanisms in place will mean you can work through those periods with confidence.
Divorce is a disruptive personal experience and can bring about deep and overwhelming emotions. Divorce grief is a valid form of grief after a significant loss.
The five stages of divorce grief are inspired by the Kübler-Ross stages of death grief. They are not linear, there may even be other stages or phases because grief is personal and unique to each person.
The model is a good starting point to understand what you might be going through, and for reassurance that your feelings, while overwhelming, are normal.
Those five stages of divorce grief are:
- Denial: A common way we protect ourselves from initial shock. It’s normal to be in disbelief that it's happening.
- Anger: An emotional expression after something unwanted happens. It’s okay to feel anger, but it’s important to mind your nervous system and find ways to express those emotions.
- Bargaining: Often tied to guilt, anxiety or regret. We might try to negotiate out of our feelings or out of the reality we’re in. It’s important to move from “what if” thinking to “what now.”
- Depression: Sadness can be expected. Prolonged sadness that impacts your daily life needs to be addressed in a different way. Counselling and therapy can help with coping mechanisms to get back into healthy habits.
- Acceptance: Accepting a situation does not mean being happy about it. Acceptance is found in every stage of grief, and is the stepping stone to growth and change.
You don’t have to do this solo; this is a tremendous life change and those are the times it can be most helpful to seek the help of a trained professional. You can start your search for a therapist on First Session. You can filter by location, specialization, modality or therapy type and browse videos to get to know the therapist before you reach out.If you are going through a separation or divorce, it can be a very challenging time. It’s important to remember that it’s normal to go through a process of mourning after a relationship has ended. You don’t have to “bounce back” immediately.
Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.