October 13, 2013
The Power of Grief: What Can’t Be Denied
Grieving is a deeply personal experience, but one can still recognize some commonalities running through most people’s grieving process. One way of looking at it states that there are six stages of grief: 1) Shock, 2) Bargaining, 3) Guilt, 4) Anger, 5) Depression, and 6) Acceptance. After a decade of working with people in various stages of the grieving process I believe this view can be helpful in understanding how the personal experience of grief can dovetail with the legal divorce process.
When we think of getting a divorce in California, we usually don’t think first about how to address our emotional experience or well-being, but instead we go right to the legal divorce. We start with protecting ourselves, with going to the place of the facts and logistics of legally disentangling two lives. But considering the stages of grief, is everyone really ready to get a good divorce in the first five stages of grief, the kind of divorce that brings the specter of dignity back into an adult relationship in transition? Now that California has made speed the number one priority of our Family Law Courts, where most people still turn for their divorce, there is no time to pay attention to giving people the skills needed to create understandings and agreements that will help people through their grieving process.
Considering that the Family Law Courts have had their budgets gutted in the past few years—no longer fully funding quality mediation for divorcing parents or giving Judges the time to focus on anything other than disposition—we should not be surprised that the legal divorce is still a devastating experience for most people decades after it has become a common experience. What makes divorce ugly is that most of us behave badly. We fuel the legal process with behavior modified by our stage of grief…whether it’s motivated by shock, bargaining, guilt, anger, or depression. Because we deny as a culture the power of grief on our behavior and decision-making, we continue to pretend that the power of grief is not what permeates everyone’s divorce experience.
magine what divorce would be like if people were first taught the stages of grief, to be able to recognize what’s happening to them, and understand the impetus for their behavior and use self-awareness to make different choices. This is what often goes on, implicitly or explicitly depending on the people, during the mediation process. When people choose mediation they choose a process that has room for people to realize that they are grieving, and gives them the opportunity to look hard at that fact, and work with it—wrestle with it, in fact—and to come up with a divorce that is not ugly, that instead reflects the larger values of the personalities and lives of the people going through it.
- I dedicate this writing to my ex-husband on his 60th birthday and to his first ex-wife and their beautiful daughters.