7 Stages of Grief and the Separation Process

Grief is an overwhelming experience. It is messy, destabilising, and can be paralysing. It can grip us when we least expect it or haunt us when we do.

For many of us, the grief surrounding the end of our committed relationship is like the grief following the death of a loved one. It takes time and space to process and recover from a separation.

Unlike an actual death, no one will really grieve with us. They may feel sad about our separation, yet ours is a lonely grief. There is no funeral or gravesite, no body or ashes, no religious service or wake. It’s just over – the death of our relationship.

It’s incredibly painful and sometimes we can feel frightened by the enormity of our grief responses. We may withdraw, isolate ourselves, become angry, cry, be numb, or be distressed.

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published a seminal book called ‘On Death and Dying’ drawing on her working with terminally ill patients. She outlined 5 Stages of Grief, which were – 

These stages have been revised and have been updated to 7 stages. They are typically not linear, yet they are shown as discrete stages to highlight the process.

The 7 Stages of Grief

Stage 1 – Shock & Denial

As the news of the separation feels so painful and overwhelming, we often react to the news with numbed shock, disbelief, and even denial. These responses are coping mechanisms as the news is too sad, frightening, anxiety-provoking and confusing. Examples include – “Jasmine just needs a few days; she will change her mind soon and come home”.

Stage 2 – Pain & Guilt

When the shock and denial start to subside, the immense pain floods in. We do not appreciate this and often want to run away from our distress and despair. We may turn to an unhelpful coping strategy or two. These include alcohol, drugs, overeating, controlling food, over-exercising, excessive spending, indiscriminate sex, or gambling. Guilt and remorse may fill our minds. For example, “How did I not see how sad he was?”

Stage 3 – Anger & Bargaining

As our pain is huge, we may mask it with anger and resentment. We may lash out at others, throw things, send threatening messages to our ex-partner, or get a nasty lawyer. We need to be careful with our anger and become responsible for our actions, keeping in mind that a judge may hear all about it.

Bargaining is a form of denial as the sadness and distress is too immense. We don’t like our reality and use “what if…” and “if only” statements to get our relationship back together. For example, “If only I lose some weight, she will find me attractive again.”

Stage 4 – Depression

This stage occurs when we understand that our separation is final, and there is nothing we can do to alter this. This is a quieter stage. We may feel defeated and exhausted. We forget that this time will pass and may have some or many suicidal thoughts. Examples include, “What’s the point?” or “I can’t do this on my own”. This is our time up our supports. Get help from a therapist and potentially a psychiatrist, especially if we cannot imagine a future without our relationship intact.

Stage 5 – The Upward Turn

The upward turn brings some relief from the sadness, fear, and anxiety. We may be able to focus again and want to reconnect with friends. Examples include, “It’s been a turbulent ride, but I feel I’m getting off the rollercoaster!” or “I can be more present again.”

Stage 6 – Reconstruction & Working Through

In this stage, we feel we have more self-direction. We are more alive in ourselves, and more capable practically, financially, and mentally. Examples include, “I will make sure I really know someone before I commit again” or “I did not know how much my childhood experiences impacted my marriage.”

Stage 7 – Acceptance & Hope

In this stage, we accept the reality of the separation and have made meaning of it. We may still feel some sadness, anxiety or miss our ex-partner, but it is not consuming. Examples include, “Karl needed more intimacy than I was able to provide”. Our future feels more hopeful, and we are ready to plan events and experiences again.

These stages are emotionally taxing. To heal from the separation, we need to look after our wellbeing.

We need to prioritise our self-care and make sure we have a healthy support team. This can include – 

It is also a great time to learn about ourselves and the separation process from – 

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