Death, Divorce, and Other Catastrophes
By Kate Stewart, MA
The worst thing you can ever imagine just came true: your mom/boyfriend/sister/best friend was just diagnosed with a very ominous terminal illness, and your brain is screaming “WHAT THE F***!” over and over again, to the point where you can’t focus on anything. How is this even possible?
Or maybe it was that your wife just asked for a divorce, or you just lost your job? On the off chance it makes you feel any better, the rollercoaster of emotions you’re feeling right now is normal. The bad news is: that probably doesn’t change the fact that you’re on the rollercoaster.
So take a deep breath, I’m pretty certain you’ll get through this, and if you don’t, you can come in to see me, and your first therapy session is on the house.
The strange thing about loss is that it happens to everyone, but a lot of us are completely unprepared for it when it does happen. Grief counseling may seem to focus mostly on coping with the death of loved ones, but many other traumatic life events also fall under this heading, such as divorce, loss of a job, or other life changes like bankruptcy. As a therapist, one of my specialties is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a cousin of grief recovery in the therapy world. The difference between the two is that PTSD is usually caused by more invasive events like medical trauma, violent attacks, or combat, things that are very scary to the person going through the experience. With loss, the tone is usually one of sadness, although anger and fear can both play a large part of the process. Both PTSD and grief are similar in that the person experiencing them may go through a series of phases in their recovery, and may feel shock for a while after both experiences.
Many books and articles have been written on grief and loss, one of the most well-known recent authors on the subject is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who wrote On Death and Dying (1969). Kubler-Ross described the grieving process in five distinct steps: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Denial: When we are dealing with the loss of a loved one, this phase almost needs no introduction. As a society, we spend 95% of our lives avoiding discussion of death; we pathologize it so much that people who talk about death are thought of as morbid and creepy. That said, it’s no wonder death catches us off guard when it finally becomes a reality in our own lives. No matter what the event is that causes your sense of loss, it’s usually a pretty big deal. Even a pet dying can throw your whole world into chaos if Fluffy was the dog that you’ve had since you six years old. The point is, it may take you weeks, if not months, to regain your equilibrium and fully wrap your mind around what is actually happening to you, or what has already happened. It’s definitely possible that a family member could become sick and die, or that a divorce could be started and finished before you even know what hit you.
Anger: When loss touches your life, you may get really, really angry. If this happens, write down everything you’re angry about, beat (sturdy) furniture with a wiffle bat, scream if you have to, but by all means do what you have to do to express it. Thwarted anger, like all other emotions, can be poisonous once it starts to impact your physical health.
If you find yourself feeling so angry that you are surprising yourself, take note. Ask yourself, what am I angry about? Is there an unresolved issue between you and the dying person/soon to be ex? Many people have to carry on unresolved ancient disputes that were never addressed fully because their mother, father, etc. died before the living person got a chance to attempt to express their hurt feelings.
Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up for being angry. Anger is a natural expression. Your husband or wife asked for a divorce? Yes, that would make me angry, too. Losing your job, your home, your mother, or your best friend would make anyone angry. Remember that being patient with yourself teaches those who come after you how to cope with loss. Your children may learn how to cope with loss by watching you go through the process. And don’t let anyone else tell you to “get over it”. Forgive when you are ready, and move on only when it makes sense to you.
Bargaining: This stage is probably the hardest for me to wrap my mind around. What happens during this stage is that a person tries to bargain back what they lost. Imagine this scene from a movie: someone’s wife or husband is dying, and in one tear-jerker scene, they plead with God to save their wife/husband, promising to be on their best behavior henceforth. This stage could probably manifest very differently in someone who is going through a divorce, maybe they are trying to bargain with God, or maybe they are trying to bargain with their soon-to-be ex.
Depression: This phase can be one of the hardest to get through, because it is the lowest, for lack of a better word. After my dad was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer, I struggled to accept what death and loss in general meant, to me and to everyone. Once I had digested that he would be dying very shortly, I went through a pretty major existential crisis. What was the point? I thought daily. Why are we even here if the only thing we can be sure of is death? Everyone I love will be gone someday, and a lot of those people will die before me.
In existential therapy, there are four paradoxes that are filters that we look at depression and maladjustment through. These are: meaning versus meaninglessness, being versus nonbeing (or life versus death), freedom versus responsibility, and isolation versus connection. When I went through the depression phase after my dad was diagnosed, my biggest struggle was in the life versus death and meaning versus meaninglessness paradoxes. These paradoxes manifested themselves like this: I couldn’t understand the meaning of life in general, or my life in particular, when faced with a death so near to me. As for life versus death, I became acutely aware of the shelf life of human beings when I came “this close” to mortality in seeing my dad die. This caused a multitude of questions to spring to mind—the old standards—What happens to us after we die? Does karma exist? Am I going to heaven or hell or just some city in Iowa? And let me tell you, a person could lose years chewing on these questions.
Acceptance: At some point, after wrestling with the above mentioned questions for a number of months and not coming to any satisfactory answer, I threw up my hands and said “Meh! Nothing can be done!” I was able to find meaning in my graduate program in clinical psychology, and I figured I should live my life as well as I can and worry about death later. Eat more chocolate! Kiss more babies! Hug strangers! Things like that. In a way, I started running in circles as fast as I can, causing enough movement that I was distracting myself; once again, from the why question that had always been buried in my subconscious but had come to the surface after my dad’s death.
This part of the process might look different for you. The Acceptance phase can be a lot sadder than I described. Loss can do that to you. What I find really tricky about this phase is that sometimes backsliding occurs. You will think that you have thoroughly dealt with the loss you have been through, but one day a photo will remind you of the good times you had with your ex-husband or your mother, and you will lose hours crying. This is also very natural. Sometimes others have a hard time understanding what’s bringing on this sadness, I know more than one person has had to listen sympathetically while blubbered on about some item or song reminded me of my dad. My Mom and Dad were married when my Dad passed, and I wonder if it is hard for my mom to lean on her now fiancée when something reminding her of my Dad makes her feel sad.
Grieving over what you have lost can be rough–and that’s an understatement. Try to be as accepting towards yourself as possible, because feelings of grief can result from a number of different losses, not just death or divorce. I found that one of the hardest things to wrestle with after my Dad died was a loss of time, a loss of years that I was never getting back, years when my Dad was alive. It was hard for me to accept that those years with him were gone for good.
Please respond with your own experiences with grief and loss. Don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions you might have about books on this subject or resources. I look forward to hearing from you!
Final Gifts, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. A very helpful book written about the grieving process by two hospice nurses.
Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. This is a landmark book written by one of the earlier writers on existential therapy, focusing mostly on finding meaning in life. I’m warning you now, it’s pretty intense.
On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. A standby. She pretty much wrote the book (or the first book) on coping with loss.