Intro: The sixth phase of grief for couples and families after divorce bring meaning and renewal.
By Hiram Rivera-Toro & Karen Shipley
Entering autumn is a time of goodbyes. Of saying farewell to summer and all the special memories the season brings: family get togethers, backyard Bar B Q’s, beach outings, and long road trips. September 22, 2020, however, marks the passage of a summer that never was: cancelled proms and graduation ceremonies, June weddings rescheduled, and sheltering at home instead of hanging out. COVID has rendered our lives unrecognizable as we come to realize there’s no going back to the way it was. The past is lost, and the future is uncertain.
Parents facing divorce is much like facing Autumn in the time of COVID. It produces “anticipatory anxiety”, that feeling of dread that accompanies unwelcome change. It is part of a painful divorce experience that, in many ways resembles the type of grief associated with tremendous trauma and loss. Professionals trained in the behavioral sciences identify this as the Grief Cycle (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD), which include five distinct emotions and thoughts: denial, anger, depression, bargaining (often experienced as wishful thinking, what if’s, and “only If I had . . .”), and acceptance. These five stages do not arrange themselves linearly. Any one stage can be revisited, or even cause an escapable trap. Ideally, however, a grieving person moves through the five stages until arriving at a sense of acceptance, strong enough to prompt moving on. However, individuals overwhelmed by the experience find themselves awash in negativity, with emotions endlessly cycling through all five stages of grief without resolution.
In truth there is little about divorce that can be described as anything but easy, but it does not have to be traumatic. It may be devastating, but it does not have to be destructive. It reshapes the family system, but it does not have to annihilate it. Exchanging the ideal of what was supposed to be for the reality of what is does not have to be perceived as a loss of dreams, an endless loop of grief and loss, but as an opportunity for a new beginning. David Kessler, grief expert and colleague of Dr. Kubler-Ross, understood grief as a six stage process, wherein the last step lifts us up and out of the grieving cycle to a place of resolution and inner peace, which he terms as “finding meaning” (Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, 2019). In turn, Tedeschi and Calhoun, in their book Trauma and Transformation (1995), took another look at Post Traumatic Stress as an opportunity for Post Traumatic Growth – a process by which individuals emerge from trauma stronger, better, built up rather than beaten down.
Navigating this process requires a focus that constructively steers the family toward a positive outcome. Your collaborative team draws from a bedrock principle grounded in the child’s perspective: Mom and Dad are, have been, and always will be Mom and Dad, and the role of parent, unlike the role of spouse, cannot be dissolved by a legal document. Even as the marriage you once had is drawing to a close your children’s development continues forward. As our colleagues, Bruce Fredenburg and Carol Hughes, say in their recently published book, “Home Will Never Be The Same Again”, 2020, this holds true at any age, and adults may be as affected by parents’ divorce as their younger counterparts.
The collaborative team works from the standpoint that parenting is really coparenting – it is a shared endeavor that joins two individuals in a common goal of raising secure, confident, and productive individuals. Even in the most ideal situation, where the external shape of the family unit remains relatively unchanged, coparenting is a challenge. But when the ideal is no more, and the family finds itself torn apart, effective coparenting is more necessary than ever. In the storm of uncertainty, it is the one immutable factor that children, as well as parents and extended family members can hold on to. In the spirit of this philosophy, the team assures that visitation schedules, financial agreements, residential arrangements take place in an environment of mutual respect rather than acrimony. And, as actions unfold on the principle of respect, you and your children will once again experience mother and father interacting as a team.
This is possible because the collaborative process teaches the importance of communicating to be understood, and hearing to understand the other parent. It teaches resolution in a peaceful manner. It teaches us that we don’t have to become entrenched in the negatives of divorce, but to focus on the positivity of new beginnings. So, we end with the title of this blog, “Out of every ending, there is a new beginning.”