Divorce and the Grieving Process

Photo of Jeffrey A. Soilson

Generally, attendance at an approved Parent Education Program is required of all divorcing parents of minor children in Massachusetts. To better understand what such a program has to offer, and to learn about the grieving process in the context of divorce, I chose to attend such a court-approved program, which was held at a local high school (two sessions over a two-week period for about two hours each session).

One of the most helpful parts of the program was a discussion of the grieving process that one undergoes when dealing with the death of loved one, but in the context of divorce instead of death. Helping divorcing parties cope with the grief caused by the loss of the marriage, the loss of a future that was contemplated at the time of the marriage, the loss of a lifestyle that is centered around an intact family unit, whether a particular party chose to pursue the divorce or not, was the goal of the parent education program that I attended. The message was clear: a well-adjusted divorcing party makes for a well-adjusted parent; and the stress and anxiety of the process that the minor children of the marriage are forced to endure is hopefully decreased as result of the parent education process.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, author of the 1969 book “On Death and Dying”, introduced the Kübler-Ross model, which is commonly referred to as the “five stages of grief”, and which was theme of the parent education program. This model suggests that when a person is faced with the reality of impending death or other extreme or awful fate (like divorce), he or she will experience a series of emotional stages: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Parent education providers will often cite to this model in helping divorcing parents navigate through the emotional minefield of divorce.

First, there is denial:

A divorcing parent at this stage often experiences thoughts such as, “This is not happening to me. This could not be happening to us. We are the perfect couple – everyone tells us that. It’s all a misunderstanding or a midlife crisis. We can work this out. If we ignore this, we’ll make it.” During this stage, divorcing parties often feel completely overwhelmed. Unfortunately, some parties never get make it through this stage, and like a deer caught in headlights, they become immobilized emotionally, and are unable to move on. Immobilization emotionally will inevitably lead to ineffective parenting. An effect parent must be present in an emotional sense. An understanding of the denial stage, and learning how to pick up on the red flags associated with denial, is the first coping skill that we learned at the parent education program, which is ultimately geared toward improving the lives of children of divorce.

Second, there is anger and resentment:

During the parent education class that I attended, the speaker stressed that experiencing anger can be a progressive step, which moves a person beyond the initial stage of denial. Basically, anger will often cause a person to take action, which, in and of itself, is further along the grieving process than being stuck at the initial denial stage. The key here is for a divorcing parent to experience anger without it leading to ongoing, long-term resentment toward his or her co-parent, which will inevitably have a negative impact on a child, who forced to witness, and perhaps feel responsible for, such resentment during, for example, transitions in the parenting schedule.

Third, there is bargaining:

Thoughts during this stage are often characterized by regret. Divorcing parents will often think about how they could have or should have done things differently during the marriage. They will often attempt to negotiate with one another in order to salvage the marriage, often focusing on a willingness and desire to make even the most minor adjustments in the relationship (getting up in the middle night to change a baby’s diaper, not playing as much golf, etc.), long after an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage has already occurred. Although the promises that a divorcing parent may be willing to make at this stage of the process may not remedy the problems in the marriage that caused the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage in the first place, and such promises, even if kept, will certainly not save a marriage that is destined for divorce, working through this particular stage does get a divorcing parent that much closer to the final stage in the grieving process – acceptance.

Fourth, and prior to acceptance, there is depression:

I learned during the parent education program that depression is an appropriate response to loss. It is an important step in the grieving process. People often do not know when they are depressed, or experiencing anxiety as a result of, or along with, depression. A depressed individual may withdraw from family and friends, feel tired all the time, and have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning to face the day. Depressed individuals often have difficulty in many aspects of their lives. They may have a difficult time functioning in the workplace. They may experience difficulty taking care of themselves. It is no wonder that a depressed parent will be less effective in parenting. A well-adjusted individual, who is functioning properly in various aspects of life, and who is not debilitated by depression, will certainly be a more present and effective parent.

And, finally, there is acceptance (hopefully):

By this time, a divorcing parent is ready to accept the divorce, the changes that will occur as a result of the divorce, and will be able to move on with his or her post-divorce life. Acceptance does not necessarily mean being happy with the divorce or the resulting life changes. Rather, acceptance is about being grounded in reality, coping with it, and not allowing the divorce to have a negative impact on one’s ability to parent or engage in any other major life functions.


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