Grief encounters of a different kind

Grief encounters of a different kind

16 October 2013
Grief encounters of a different kind

In our first article in this series Jackie Dee describes her work with clients grieving the end of a relationship.

In our first article in this series Jackie Dee describes her work with clients grieving the end of a relationship. Drawing upon the work of Susan Anderson - a New York-based psychotherapist who has developed a five-stage approach that relates specifically to this kind of grief - Jackie discusses some implications for post-separation mediation.

When I think of Grief and Loss in the context of working with my clients, I immediately think of Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her ‘Five Stages of Grief’ model.2  Kubler-Ross’s model was written specifically to offer support to those grieving the death of a loved one.

Most often, however, I work with clients who are grieving the end of a relationship. Where does that leave the counsellor, then, when offering grief counselling to a client whose relationship may well have expired but whose ex-partner is alive and often actively involved in the client’s life due to a joint parenting role?

Susan Anderson, a New York-based psychotherapist, lecturer and author has also developed a five-stage approach that relates specifically to this kind of grief.3 The core difference between the approaches by Kubler-Ross and Anderson is around the concept of ‘choice’. In the case of a terminally ill loved one, circumstances are for the most part absent of human accountability; it is an inevitable part of our human condition that at some point our bodies will expire.

The same cannot be said of a relationship. When one person chooses to end a relationship, the other may cling desperately to the attachment bond. When that bond is threatened or severed, feelings of overwhelming injustice often results for the non-voluntary party, along with corresponding feelings of powerlessness.

Similar to Kubler-Ross, Anderson describes ‘abandonment grief’ as a cyclic, rather than linear, process. The five stages of emotional injury and healing are as follows:

  1. Shattering: shock, pain, panic; bereft of worth & meaning; suicidal; overwhelming despair; feelings of past helplessness & dependency resurface.
  2. Withdrawal: akin to heroin withdrawal, intense craving & agitation for the love you are missing; ache, throb, yearning; attachment need intensifies; wakefulness, weight loss, anxiety, emotional & physical fatigue.
  3. Internalizing: the wound becomes susceptible to infection but may cause permanent scarring in the form of damaged self-esteem; suppressed anger is internalized and directed at self; the Abandoner is idealized; extreme sensitivity to implicit or explicit criticism from ex-partner; preoccupation with regrets, should haves, could haves.
  4. Rage: turns from victim rage to self-empowering rage; rehabilitative aggression; energy to defend and protect a renewed sense of self; may involve feelings of revenge, fantasies of retaliation; can be energy turned into personal growth.
  5. Lifting: a sense of lifting out of the rage and back into life; levitation of spirit; intervals of peace and freedom; stronger, wiser from the painful lessons learned; release of anger.

Working alongside Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) Practitioners, I’ve begun to understand how ‘abandonment grief’ may severely hinder the successful outcomes of the FDR process. It is clear to me that when working with separated parents, the client who did not choose to end the relationship may be in a very different emotional space and have a limited capacity to engage in the FDR process compared to the party who left.

An individual or group program that offers specific, tailored support to this client population is a “win/win” for children affected by parental conflict and the parents themselves as they make the adjustment to life post-separation. Practitioners could benefit from a greater insight into the impacts of abandonment grief and by offering referrals for these clients to seek additional support and understanding before and during post-separation mediation.

For more information regarding Anderson’s work with abandonment grief go to

A longer version of this article can be downloaded here (PDF).

Practitioner's Corner is a new column on CFCA Connect where practitioners can discuss work-related issues and new resources, and share their insight and practice wisdom. Please contact us if you would like to contribute an article.

2On Death and Dying: Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and the Five Stages of Grief.

3. Anderson, S. (2000). The journey from abandonment to healing: Turn the end of a relationship into the beginning of a new life. Australia: HarperCollins Publishers.


The feature image is by blameless-eyes, CC BY 2.0.

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Jackie Dee

MSP, Interrelate Family Centres

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