The Grief Cycle and how it plays out in your divorce

We don’t just experience grief when people die. Grief shows up for any loss – and even if divorce is right for your future, it’s totally valid to grieve the loss of your marriage. Even when divorce is your idea, you can be hit with waves of grief: sudden, violent and unexpected. And they don’t just affect you. Grief impacts your soon-to-be-ex-husband and your children too.

In this blog, we look at the various ways grief may manifest and tips for managing both yourself and others. 

What is the grief cycle?

Whilst everyone experiences grief differently, there are stages we all pass through. And grief isn’t a one-way ticket either – you may find yourself jumping back and forth through them as you work through your grief.

Originally developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s, the grief cycle is made up of five stages:

Stage 1: Shock and denial

Stage 2: Anger

Stage 3: Bargaining

Stage 4: Depression

Stage 5: Acceptance


What each of these stages looks like can be different for everyone. Your experience of depression might be carrying on as normal, but shutting out all emotional support. For someone else it might be late nights and too much booze. The point is to recognise that grief will affect you every step of the way as you go through your divorce. And while it may be hard, it’s necessary.

You and your grief

We feel loss in many areas of life and the end of your marriage is a big one. You may grieve the loss of connection, friendship and intimacy you once enjoyed with your spouse. Conversely, your grief may be for the lack of connection and intimacy that longed for but never had. Both of these are valid and real. 

Generally speaking, the instigator of the divorce will be further ahead in the grief cycle than the other person. Perhaps you ‘put off’ divorce for several months, years or even decades. You didn’t want to accept the reality of your situation and how unhappy you’d become. You hoped that things would change. Perhaps you tried to make it change. Counselling, holidays, initiating romance – you name it, you did it. You just weren’t quite ready to accept your marriage was over. What you were experiencing is denial.

Perhaps you were confronted by the irrefutable evidence that your ex was in an emotionally or physically inappropriate relationship with another person. It shocked you to the core and then you buried it deep and vowed to ‘try harder’ as a wife. But you were miserable and over-functioning. 

Then you decided to get real with yourself. You decided to put an end to the charade and move forward – because you know you deserve it. 

So you thought you’d come to ‘acceptance’ then, bam, you get hit with waves of grief. You thought that you were ‘over this’. The reality is, you’ll go round the grief cycle several times on your divorce journey. You’ll be triggered sometimes by the obvious – Christmas, Birthdays, Anniversaries. Other times by pieces of music, scents and phrases. TV shows and other everyday things. 

With grief, expect the unexpected.

When grief arrives, allow it. Ride the waves as they happen. In allowing and feeling you’ll process it more deeply and move through with greater ease. Perhaps the sense of loss will never entirely disappear. But you will get to a point where it doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Where the positive things your future holds outweigh your sadness.

Him and his grief

If you’re the instigator of your divorce and you’ve experienced at least one wave of acceptance, you’re likely to feel a sense of relief and clarity alongside the pain of grief. But your soon-to-ex might still be in blissful ignorance – either because they have no awareness of your feelings, or they’re in denial you’ll actually initiate separation. 

Sometimes, the particularly arrogant soon-to-be-ex will ‘humour you’ and either move out or support your decision to leave – because they think you’re going to come back. Now, to be fair, that might be because you’ve done it before. But you’re serious this time. How’s that going to play out?

Your ex is going to get a shock. They might become angry telling you that you can’t do this. It’ll be ‘Armageddon’, you won’t cope.

They’re behind you on the grief curve right now. And that’s their business, not yours. You need to keep your grief curve and theirs separate. Understanding that their grief curve is not your responsibility is essential. Yes, you may feel for them, yes you may be sad they’re hurting right now, but it’s not like you haven’t been asking them to listen, asking them to make changes. They’ve chosen not to. We spend many hours with our children teaching them that actions have consequences – this isn’t any different.

You are responsible for you. Your ex is responsible for themselves.

Children and the manifestation of grief

Grief can manifest itself in children in different ways. They may not see that their emotions stem from grief, but they’ve lost something too, and they will express that in their behaviour. They’ve lost the family as they know it and it will take time for them to adjust. They may refuse to engage in conversations about changes to the family set up, in denial that things will need to be different. Other children will have accepted the end of your marriage before you!

Each of your children will experience their grief differently. You may notice them ‘bargaining’ with you, promising to be ‘better’ if you get back together. It’s important to let your children know that there is nothing that they could have done differently – that the end of your marriage is nothing to do with them. It’s not their fault. And remember, all the research shows that ‘staying together for the children’ is never a good idea – your children will not benefit from you staying in a bad marriage in the long run, however unhappy they are right now at your separation.

Some children express their anger by acting out. They are rebellious, rude and disrespectful because they are hurting. Others may become silent, withdrawn and show signs of depression – all similar behaviours that we as adults can exhibit in grief. 

Encourage your children to talk. If they don’t want to talk to you, let them know that that’s okay too – they can talk to someone else: a family friend, teacher or counsellor.


The impact of grief on Family Mediation

As a family mediator myself, one of the most frustrating things I see is separating couples starting mediation when one of them (at least), just isn’t ready emotionally. I’m a huge advocate for mediation: it’s quicker, less expensive and more person-centred than the courts. But it takes two willing participants, able to engage in the process together. When one party is still in denial, anger or depression, it makes mediation extremely difficult.

A skilled mediator can support a reluctant participant into acceptance and engagement but that isn’t the true purpose of the mediation process. If you find that either you or your ex aren’t ready for mediation, a good counsellor or therapist can help you work with your grief first.

Negotiation in the midst of grief

Negotiation in the midst of grief is challenging, whether that’s happening in Family Mediation or not. 

Denial, anger and depression can mean that one or sometimes both parties fail to engage. They bury their heads in the sand. They don’t respond to requests for mediation, disclosure or conversations about the children. And sometimes the person shutting things down might be you. One party might be keen to discuss the children and the other will only engage about money – that’s not necessarily because that’s all they care about it’s because in grief we can only deal with what feels safe and certain. For some that’s cold hard cash. 

Where possible, avoid negotiating when either of you are in the midst of grief. It tends not to bring the best out of us. We can be irrational and unable to compromise. Of course, if you have a divorce plan, it’ll be easier for you because you’ll be able to refer back to that. 


The grief cycle and high conflict personalities

High conflict personalities are already shut off from their emotions which makes dealing with the grief cycle doubly hard – for you and them. They aren’t able to work with their emotions, so it’s likely they’ll lash out. You’ll experience their grief as anger, blame and resistance.

For individuals with abandonment issues, being ‘left’ is crushing, humiliating and scary. For some, the end of the divorce process doesn’t mean acceptance and the end of their anger – it may go on for years. 

The narcissistic personality will not have any ability to empathise with your feelings, even as time goes on. This may make your own grief cycles far more complex. Not only are you grieving the loss of the relationship you thought you had, you grieve for the parent your children won’t have, and the loss of a peaceful co-existence once divorced.

If you are separating someone with a high conflict personality, it’s important to get as much emotional support around you as possible. I highly recommend therapy to help you with your own grief and establish boundaries so you’re not managing your ex’s grief as well.

The 6th Stage of grief

David Kessler talks about the 6th Stage of grief: finding meaning. He sees meaning as a way to help us heal and move on. What meaning or purpose can you find in your marriage? Perhaps your marriage was great at the start and gave you great memories. Perhaps it was miserable all the way through, but has taught you lessons about what you don’t want and need in your life.

What did your marriage give you? Your children? Experiences, networks and friendships? Resilience and strength you didn’t know you had? Finding meaning in the marriage and its end allows you to find peace.

If you are struggling with grief, I strongly encourage you to reach out for support. A good therapist or counsellor can help you work through your emotions. If you want someone to listen and understand as you try to make sense of your divorce and plan for the future, I can help. It is far easier to work through emotions and ideas with a trusted, professional confidante. And it’ll save a tonne of money in solicitor’s fees too.

Just book in a chat to see how I can help you.

Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com

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