On Death, Dying and Divorce

It’s not surprising that when people talk about their experiences with separation and divorce, they often use words and imagery that relate to death and dying. We know that divorce is the number two most stressful life event, second only to the death of a spouse. However, in reality, divorce delivers both of the top stressors: It represents not only the death of a marriage, but figuratively, of a spouse as well. Sure, your ex-husband or -wife is still alive, but because he or she no longer fills the role of spouse, you are left to mourn a marriage and a spouse — a nasty one-two punch.

That’s why we can learn valuable lessons about surviving divorce’s challenges by looking at the ways people cope with death and grief. For that, we turn to the expert, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who literally wrote the book on the subject. Her On Death and Dying (1969) introduced the world to the five stages of grief: denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Anyone going through a divorce will no doubt recognize these stages as part of their life experience (especially those who did not initiate the divorce). Although Kübler-Ross based her findings on interviews with dying patients, the parallels to those going through divorce are striking.

One caveat: the five stages are not necessarily linear. You’ll likely revisit some of them, possibly multiple times (perhaps several at the same time). Nobody ever said divorce is easy.

  1. Denial and isolation: Kübler-Ross describes this stage as “No, not me. It cannot be true.” She found that every terminally ill patient goes through a denial phase — not only during the first stages of illness, but also from time to time later on. When the subject of divorce first comes up (especially if you’re not the one who wants the divorce) it’s natural to deny that the end of your marriage is even a possibility. To make things worse, if you can’t face what’s happening, you certainly can’t talk about it, so you don’t receive the support and comfort you need. It’s interesting to note that even after you “get it” that your relationship is over, denial can and will sneak up on you at odd moments, as Kübler-Ross found. Just when you think you’re over it, there it is again, like an unwelcome guest.
  2. Anger: If your first reaction to catastrophic news is to deny it, the next response will be: “Oh, yes, it is me; it was not a mistake.” This realization leads to feelings of anger, rage, envy, resentment and the next logical question: “Why me?” When you’re in the midst of divorce, it can be pretty upsetting to see the smiling faces of your couples friends on Facebook, off on a romantic vacation or celebrating a milestone anniversary. It’s natural to ask yourself, “Why are they still married, but not me?” Intellectually, you know it’s not healthy to envy others, but the feeling of “why me?” is a tough nut to crack. You just have to consciously fight against it. Also, beware: although your spouse is the object of your anger, since he or she is no longer around, you may unwittingly displace your rage onto others. Don’t fall into this trap. You could unintentionally alienate those in your inner circle, just when you are most in need of their support.
  3. Bargaining: To describe this stage, Kübler-Ross uses the analogy of a wheedling child: “If I am very good all week and wash the dishes every evening, then will you give me what I want?” This behavior is an attempt to postpone a bad result. During a divorce, you may use bargaining as a desperate plea to stave off the inevitable, telling yourself, “If I keep the house perfectly clean, he will come back.” Or, “I’ll lose weight and become so attractive that he’ll never leave.” Among the terminally ill, as well as those going through a divorce, these bargains are often made with God (they are rarely shared with others). However, they all boil down to “magical thinking” and they have no real effect on your marriage’s survival.
  4. Depression: Kübler-Ross identifies two types of depression: “reactive,” which in the case of divorce, is sadness over the end of the marriage itself, and “preparatory,” which looks at impending losses. It’s the second type — thinking about losses that may occur down the road — that can be the most challenging to someone going through a divorce. After you realize that despite your denial, anger, and attempts to bargain your way out, your divorce is really happening, you’ll starting thinking about all of the unpleasant ways your life may change because of the divorce. You might have to sell your family home and move to a new, smaller, place. The move might necessitate finding new schools for your children. And what about the holidays? Chances are you’ll no longer spend that time together as a family. You may also feel panic about jumping into the dating pool after many years as part of a couple.

    Depression is a critical step in moving forward to the next stage, acceptance. Kübler-Ross makes it clear that “The patient should not be encouraged to look at the sunny side of things… If he is allowed to express his sorrow he will find a final acceptance much easier.” Discuss your feelings of sadness and impending loss, whether with a therapist, clergy person, or wise, trusted friend or family member. It’s essential to acknowledge, not ignore, the sorrow and fear if you are to eventually move beyond it.

  5. Acceptance: Kübler-Ross concludes that in time, a patient will achieve acceptance of his fate:

    He will have been able to express his previous feelings, his envy for the living and the healthy, and his anger at those who do not have to face their end so soon. He will have mourned the impending loss of so many meaningful people and places and he will contemplate his coming end with a certain degree of quiet expectation.

    Keep in mind that the amount of time it takes to arrive at acceptance depends on many things: the circumstances surrounding your divorce, your capacity for change and resilience, and your financial situation, to name a few. Perhaps you’ll progress quickly. Or maybe you won’t truly accept your divorce until you sign the decree. But if you consciously and diligently work through the five stages, eventually, you’ll get there.

Here’s the really terrific news: Unlike Kübler-Ross’s patients, you’re dealing with divorce, not actual death. You’ve got a life to live! For you, acceptance brings the promise of a new beginning — one filled with infinite possibilities — not an end. And that’s a precious gift, as any dying person would tell you.

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