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Grief & Divorce | Part One: The Co-parents

The 1st of a two-part series on identifying and understanding of how grief affects children and co-parents differently when separating and divorcing.
(5 min 15 sec read)

Adya Riss
B.A in psychology, M.S in social work (MSW) Since receiving advanced training in mediation and conflict resolution at CSUN, Adya has been a volunteer mediator and supervisor with the Ventura Center for Dispute Settlement (VCDS), and a partner in Truce Mediation Solutions

Simply put, grief and divorce go hand in hand.  No one is immune, nor should you try to make yourself immune from feeling this sense of loss. There is a purpose. There is meaning. There is a reason why you go through this series of strong, sometimes bone-crushing, experiences before you can see the light on the other side. The parents and children involved in a divorce will each go through their own type of grieving, that is normal. While this process cannot really be avoided, when the person has knowledge of what they are experiencing, and what to expect, the road is a little easier to navigate.

Parents go through a variety of emotions when involved in a divorce. These emotions will frequently lead to the belief that they need to do certain things to (self) manage the grieving process. Some of those things you should avoid doing;

  1. Don’t justify why you should not feel sad when you actually do. Many people are surprised that they are grieving based upon the reason for the divorce.  “I asked him for a divorce.” “She cheated on me.” Grief is OK no matter why the divorce is taking place. Give yourself that needed opportunity to internally process this huge event in your life.
  2. You don’t need to be strong. Our world says you need to be strong for others (like our kids), to always be strong, you have to hide away feelings, which is never a good thing.  Find your ‘safe space’ and express how you feel. Tell people your story. Show others how to reveal their feelings. Cry! Be honest when people check in on you. Hear other people’s stories about divorce.  Group therapy is profoundly helpful in situations like this because when you hear that you are not alone with this struggle you will feel stronger.
  3. [And this may be tough for some people] Don’t attempt to quickly replace your love (sometimes called the rebound). Give yourself time to heal and we’re not talking days and weeks ~think a bit longer. Process the divorce. Allow yourself to properly transition. Enjoy yourself.  If you move on too fast to another relationship, you also send a message to others (specifically your kids) that the role of significant other in your life is easily vacated and refilled.  Show them that you are selective about who is in your life, and theirs.

Similar to the death of a loved one, the grief of divorce typically has five steps.  Keep in mind, people do not conveniently go from step to step, and then graduate out after step five.  We may cycle back and forth between steps, and even experience the steps out of order. Give yourself the time to work through each one. On average, grieving takes about two years. Yes, that’s right ~two years. The ability to recognize the steps and to help yourself through them is incredibly useful.

Step 1. Denial – “This happens to other people, not me.” “He just needs some time.  He’ll come back.” “She will realize that I am the one for her.” These are phrases that are symbolic of someone denying that they are going through a divorce. They are refusing to acknowledge what is happening to them.  This step serves the purpose of dulling the pain of the initial massive shock of the breakup. Once the person realizes and accepts the divorce, and the grief it is causing, they have moved on from this step. Someone refusing to accept the divorce will not be able to move forward emotionally and will not be able to function successfully with their co-parent, who may eventually move on to another partner.

Step 2. Anger – This step starts when the shock is wearing off.  People will initially be overwhelmed with hurt, fear, and pain.  Anger is your mind’s way of protecting you from all these feelings.  It acts as a defense mechanism. You have little control over the hurt, fear, and pain from the divorce, but you can control the anger.  Anger, when experienced properly, can energize you. It can help you take control over something that seems completely out of your control.  Be warned though, when mishandled, it can be very destructive to others, especially the children and co-parent. Someone that does not move beyond this stage will make poor decisions out of anger and spend large amounts of time fighting for things not worth fighting about.

Step 3. Bargaining – At this step, one or both of the people are trying to keep the relationship together by promising to act differently or by asking for changes in the other person.  While reconciliation is not out of the question, it should not be taken lightly. Individual and couples counseling may be helpful at this stage. While this step may result in the reunification of the family, it may also lead to someone being stuck at this step.  This person is going to still believe that they have decision making ability in the lives of their former spouse long after the divorce.

Step 4. Depression – When the person feels the impending sense of sadness, most likely after drudging through the first three steps and acknowledging that divorce is imminent and unavoidable, they are entering a period of depression.  This is when the person needs their entire health support system (i.e. friends and family, your inner circle of friends) around them. Plan lots of gatherings with friends and family. While sadness is necessary to grieve, it should be temporary.  If it is coupled with hopelessness, loss of appetite, sleep problems, and a general disinterest in enjoyable activities, occurs for an extended period of time, mental health treatment should be strongly considered.

Step 5. Acceptance – This step is characterized by the full acceptance of the divorce and the readiness to move forward.  People will frequently recognize their strengths and abilities to make a new life for themselves at this step.

This is the first of an important two-part series on identifying and having a better understanding of how grief affects children and co-parents differently when separating and divorcing.
Grief & Divorce | Part Two: The Children

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