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Understanding Gray Divorce and the Grieving Process

Learning about the grief process can help you and those you love.

Key points

  • The losses from gray divorce can overwhelm you, your family members, and your friends.
  • Grief is a natural reaction to loss.
  • Learning about grief theories can help you and the people close to you heal and move forward.
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Man experiencing gray divorce grieving.
Source: Kindel Media/Pexels

John Bowlby, the developer of attachment theory, said, "There are few blows to the human spirit so great as the loss of someone near and dear."

Undoubtedly, the best-known grief theory is Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five-stage theory described in her book On Death and Dying. While the book was about facing one’s own death or that of a loved one, the stages can often apply to losses that arise from any life-changing event in which a person experiences a profound loss, such as trauma, the loss of one’s home or job, or divorce—and, specifically, for adult children, the feelings of loss brought on by their parent's "gray divorce" (the term for a split that occurs in a couple over 50). Kübler-Ross explained that these stages are not linear, as people may often move back and forth between them:

  • Denial. “This can’t be happening to me! I’m not going to talk about this. I’d rather be alone.”
  • Anger. “Why is this happening to me?" Often this anger is directed outward at others: "How could you do this to me?”
  • Bargaining. This stage is about having irrational hope that they can change something unchangeable: "If I do this, maybe I can make it go away.”
  • Depression. “I give up. Nothing matters now.”
  • Acceptance. “I am willing to accept this new reality.”

Less widely known, especially to lay audiences, is Bowlby’s theory of grieving, developed from his attachment theory, which states that humans form strong attachment bonds with important people in their lives. Many theories and models of grief have built upon Bowlby’s work, which asserted that adults’ mourning processes were similar to the anxiety children experienced when separated from their mothers. Bowlby emphasized the survival purpose of attachment bonds, and this provided a plausible explanation for grief responses like searching and anger. Separation and divorce can strain and even break attachment bonds. Bowlby explained that adults respond to separation and loss when attachment bonds break, and grief is the natural reaction.

Grief psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes joined with Bowlby to develop their four phases of grief theory:

  • Numbness. This allows a person to cope initially with the loss. “This is unreal. I feel numb.”
  • Searching and yearning. This includes a variety of emotions such as anger, anxiety, uncertainty, guilt, sorrow, restlessness, and confusion. The person searches for meaning and reasons why the loss has occurred. “I yearn and search for the comfort I had before this loss occurred. Why has this happened?”
  • Despair and depression. This causes the person to feel that everything is surreal, and that nothing feels right. The person may want to be alone, withdraw from activities, feel hopeless, and lack self-care. “I have lost all hope. Nothing will ever be the same.”
  • Reorganization. The person begins to realize the reality of the loss, accepts that their old reality is gone forever, and has increased energy and interest in activities. They may still have moments of grieving, though they are moving on with her life. “I will find ways to integrate this loss and the memories we shared into my own identity and life.”

Bowlby stated that these phases were not discrete and that individuals may oscillate back and forth between them. He noted that for grieving to result in a favorable outcome, the bereaved person must express their feelings of yearning, anger, sadness, fear of loneliness, and desires for sympathy and support—and that the person may need the support of another trusted person.

Courtesy Anja Hughes
Source: Courtesy Anja Hughes

Contrary to Bowlby’s assertion that for grieving to result in a favorable outcome a bereaved person must be able to express his feelings, Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno found that many bereaved individuals exhibit little or no grief, and that these individuals are not cold and unfeeling, nor lacking in attachment, but instead capable of genuine resilience in the case of loss.

Many people ask how long grieving should take. Since many variables affect the grieving process, no one answer applies to everyone. Sometimes people experience what is known as “complicated grief,” which feels like being in a constant, heightened state of mourning that prevents a person from healing.

Another grief theorist, Harvard University psychologist William Worden, developed a model involving four tasks of mourning designed to help a person work through grief:

  • Acceptance, that the loss has occurred.
  • Experiencing the pain, during which the person works through the pain of grief by talking and acknowledging the loss and how they feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
  • Adjusting to the accompanying losses, such as the loss of a family home or the loss of identity, or specific financial losses.
  • Letting go and investing energy in life, activities, and relationships.

Like Bowlby, Parkes, and Kübler-Ross, Worden reminds us that grief is not linear, nor are the tasks intended to be, and a person may revisit a task as needed.

Although not specifically about grieving, the research of W. Thomas Boyce, chief of the Division of Developmental Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, echoes Bonanno's work. In his book The Orchid and the Dandelion, Boyce writes describes his discoveries into how genetic makeup and environment shape behavior. His research indicates a pattern that appears to apply to children worldwide and to continue into adulthood. He found that about 20 percent of children experience over half of all psychological illnesses, while others remain comparatively healthy. Boyce calls these children, who are fragile, sensitive, and susceptible, but can also thrive more than other children if given the right environment, "orchids." He refers to the approximately 80 percent of children, who are healthy, hardy, and resilient, and can thrive in any environment, "dandelions."

Perhaps Boyce's findings explain the varied reactions and coping capabilities of adult children and their parents to the losses that ensue from divorce. Maybe the “orchids” are the adult children and parents who have the most difficulty dealing with their emotional reactions to parental divorce. At the same time, the “dandelions” continue to adapt and even thrive in the new divorce environment.

Specific to divorcing couples is the work of University of Virginia psychologist Robert Emery, who differentiates grieving an irrevocable loss like death from grieving a revocable loss like divorce, in which the possibility of reconciliation remains for the former spouses and their children. Based on his case observations and research, he developed a theory of grief in divorce that describes a cycle of grief for the divorcing couple. Emery postulated that the emotions of the spouses swing between feelings of love, anger, and sadness, and that these emotions diminish over time. Often adult children of divorcing parents swing through cycles like those Emery proposed. He also stated that divorce's uncertainties mean that grief in divorce can be delayed, interrupted, repeated, prolonged, and unresolved. Applying his findings beyond divorcing couples to their adult children, extended family, and community members may illustrate why it can be difficult for loved ones and friends to process and accept what they experience during and after gray divorce.

Remember that understanding is the first step in healing for you, your family, and your friends. Assess how these theories help you understand what you have been experiencing and where you are in your grief process. Also, ascertain where your nuclear family, extended family, and support system members are in their own grief processes. You are all on your paths of grieving and eventual healing. The paths and timeframes may not be the same. Grieving takes time, sometimes a lot, and tends to take its own path. Although it is often difficult to maintain an attitude of hope while grieving, hope is essential to help you heal.

Some people think holding on makes one strong; sometimes, it’s letting go. (Author unknown)

Click here to read the first post in this series.

I have included in the references section below additional articles and books about other grief theories that gray divorcing parents and their adult children may find helpful.

Copyright 2021 Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT.


Bonanno, G. A. https//doi:10.1037/0003-066x.59.1.20.

Bonanno, G. A., et al., https//doi:10.1037//0022-3514.83.5.1150.

Bonanno, G., and Kaltman, S. https//doi:10.1037/0033-2909.125.6.760.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3. Loss: Sadness and Depression. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. https//doi:10/1080/00797308.1960.11822566

Bowlby, J., and Parkes, C.M. (1970) “Separation and Loss within the Family,” in The Child in His Family ed. E. James Anthony. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Bowlby, J. (1979) The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. London: Tavistock/Routledge.

Boyce, W.T. (2019) The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive. New York: Knopf.

Emery, R. (2012) Renegotiating Family Relationships. New York: The Guilford Press.

Horowitz, M. https//doi:10.1176/ps.37.3.241

Mayo Clinic. “Complicated Grief,” Retrieved from….

Neimeyer, R. (2001) Meaning, Reconstruction, and the Experience of Loss. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Stroebe, M., and Schut, H. https//doi:10.1080/074811899201046.

Worden, W. (2018) Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy Fifth Edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company.