Time does not heal all wounds. If it did, no one would have unresolved loss or be bitter years after a breakup.
Why We Don’t Know How To “Do” Grief
If you were hurt long ago, even as a very young child, you are most likely carrying it around inside. Every new loss triggers the old grief and, before you know it, you are awash in crippling, debilitating grief that you attribute, wholly, to the most recent loss. For those whose most recent loss is a breakup, many times they believe that the depth of the grief signifies how much they loved their ex-partner, how they will never get over it, and how – SOMEHOW, they have to put the lost relationship back together.
When little children hurt over a loss, whether they’ve lost a cherished toy, a good friend, a family member, or a pet, well-meaning but ill-informed parents, try to take the hurt away.
They offer ice cream, a new puppy, a better toy. It’s about distract and replace. Children get the message that showing hurt is not okay and they shut it down. They think that replacing the loss is okay. They think that eating ice cream or going shopping is the right way to deal. Very bad habits, sometimes full-blown addictions, are formed early in life because our caretakers taught us how to deal (or not deal) with loss and our feelings about it.
Even if a child or young person is encouraged to feel their feelings, they are not taught how to manage the feelings. Therefore, most of us go into adulthood, not knowing how to grieve and we can suppress, repress or deny our grief or behave our feelings by acting out in self-destructive ways or replacing every loss with a new person, place of thing so that we never address the loss we’ve had and the way our lives have been impacted by them.
In the beginning of Getting Past Your Breakup (GPYB), I recount the story of my divorce where I was paralyzed with grief over the breakup from a less-than-wonderful husband. I thought it meant I had made a huge mistake. He was a cheater and an abuser and I had asked him to leave. Yet, I was overcome with grief within days. It didn’t make sense. Eventually I was able to put the pieces together and learn that its meaning was clear: I had never dealt with a long history, beginning with my biological mother, of abandonment, loss and grief. As a result, I was a mess. A huge mess.
When it all flew in my face, courtesy of the latest loss, I became crippled with emotion. What I had to learn, with the help of a great therapist, that the only way you can unpack all your losses and feel your feelings, is to balance the grief process it with self-care. Each concept was foreign to me. I had never been taught that it was okay to have a feeling, let alone many. I had never been taught that it’s okay to take care of yourself. And I was never taught that you can and should feel bad when you have a loss, even one that should be a change for the better.
Your Relationship Ended. Now What?
There is always grief when our life circumstances change; even when it’s a positive one. If we move to a better house or get a promotion at work, these are great changes, but we still need to recognize the loss of what we knew and who we were so that we arrive at our new destination with a clean slate. It’s a brief process, but it’s important to say goodbye and recognize what we’re losing even when we’re going on to a better thing. Otherwise we stifle how we feel, including some fear about the new life and losing some security that we had. When we rush past a change, we lose an opportunity to “close the book,” and keep our side of the street clean by resolving our loss, even one that comes from going onto bigger and better.
So when we go through a breakup, it makes sense that you should feel tremendous loss. Even if you were the one who did the breaking up, you are still moving forward through life without a relationship that once meant so much.
If you didn’t want the relationship to end, you are even more bereft. But sometimes we refuse to cry over someone who hurt us or we feel anger more than sadness. There are so many factors that go into how we respond to a loss but rarely is our response to feel our feelings while taking care of ourselves so we can heal and go onto new love in the future. In fact, almost never.
When we first experience a loss, any loss, our response is rarely universal. Some deny it, some suppress it, some over-react, some emote minimally. But almost to a person, unless you are specially trained in grief counseling, you have no idea if what you are doing is normal or not and if you should be doing what you’re doing or maybe you should do something else. And if so, what? We compare ourselves to others:
When Jeffrey left Quinn, she wailed and couldn’t sleep. I can’t feel a single thing.
When Sarah took up with a new guy, David threw himself into his work. I can’t even concentrate on the smallest thing.
When Jeb and Alex broke up, they each dated others right away, I don’t want to even get out of bed in the morning!
Few people understand that the grief process is different from person to person and even fewer understand that it’s not linear…it doesn’t happen in “stages” as people frequently say, but more in phases that are fluid and go back and forth. You can think you’re done and you’re not. You can think you are sliding backwards and you aren’t. You “recycle” in grief because of a date or a piece of gossip and you have no idea what is going on.
You have a hard time assessing your progress through your process. Is it over? Am I in denial? Am I suppressing this? Am I stuck? What is happening? The grief process is daunting and so challenging to understand, but it’s so much easier to navigate when you know what’s happening and why:
Phase One: Shock and Denial
The beginning phase of grief is usually shock and denial. Even though you know, intellectually, you have had a loss, you either shut down any feelings about it or hope that it’s not true or go into “ACTION” mode where feelings have no place. Like all phases of grief, you can go back to this even later after you’ve emoted and allowed yourself to be in the process. Sometimes people who know better and who are dedicated to doing their work, no matter what it takes, get to a place where they will start to feel bad and distract themselves or shut it down. They don’t want to “go there” again. When that happens, it short-circuits the grief process. It’s natural to want it to be done with and you can get sick of crying but if your emotional state or your moods tell you that you’re not done, acknowledge it and make a decision to lean back into your grief or accept you’re not done but you’re not continuing FOR NOW. Make sure you get back to it after a short break.
Middle Phase of Grief: Review, Relinquishment, Deep Emotion
The second phase of grief is review, relinquishment and much emotion. When you give into your feelings (and this might not happen immediately), you feel devastated. Again, it could be a lifetime of losses hitting you at once or it could be real, deep anguish over losing this person that you’ve cherished.
Dr. Therese Rando talks about grief pangs or grief “spasms” when you are devastated by your sense of sorrow. It’s a hurt so deep, you feel run over or crushed by it. Many times it comes in a tidal wave of emotion that feels as if it’s going to knock you over.
It may be so brutal, that you actually feel it physically. People report a deep body ache, as if they have the flu. The area under your heart, the grief spot, hurts all the time. You are overwhelmed by a deep and difficult sense of sorrow
This is the time you need to follow the advice in Chapter 4 of GPYB and take care of you. Without the self-care, the grief process becomes overwhelming and you suppress it or deny it and then you have yet another unresolved loss. The next loss will feel even worse and even if your relationship is unhealthy, you will fear ending it for fear of the overwhelming grief spasms.
You need to grieve but without the self-care, you can’t and if you can’t grieve, you can’t heal and if you can’t heal, you can’t be a healthy person and if you can’t be a healthy person, you can’t be in a healthy relationship. So it’s imperative that you resolve this loss and any other loss this one is triggering. It’s so important to do your self-care while feeling your feelings so that you heal and move on in a healthy way.
The grief process brings about endless rumination sometimes. You have questions with no answers. You have a movie of the two of you playing in your head, constantly. You dream about it. You can’t stop thinking of it. GPYB suggests a Relationship Inventory as a way of healing. During “rumination” it’s a good idea to journal and to write down the thoughts and questions you have. Not to ask them of your ex in the future but to figure it out when you’re ready to do your review of things.
Disorganization and Confusion
During grief you may feel forgetful, disorganized and confused. It’s normal. Your mind is attempting to understand the “new world order” that doesn’t include your relationship and many of the things tied to that relationship. Mutual friends, the ex’s family that you liked, maybe the place where you lived or the things you shared. There are so many secondary losses tied to one loss and we tend not to acknowledge the enormity of our loss. The sense of losing so much tends to affect your memory and your day-to-day activities. You may feel bewildered and unsure. You may find yourself accident prone or losing your sense of direction. It’s normal to feel challenged by the small things that keep you safe and logistically on-course throughout your daily life.
Where did I put my car keys? Why did I miss the exit I always take to work? I almost walked in front of that car! What is WITH me? It’s SO important to understand this is normal but to write things down and take extra precautions when you’re driving or walking. It’s okay to be like this…it’s temporary…but you have to be safe and know that checking and double-checking and being alert has to be part of how you function right now.
Most people feel anger. Some feel it right away and some insist they never feel it. You may be unprepared when it comes. Sometimes you may feel irritation or lashing out at people who have done nothing to you…friends and strangers alike. It may feel intense and you may think of doing things you’ve never thought of before. Don’t repress it but don’t act out. Talk to friends, journal, go to therapy. Beat pillows with a bat. Scream in the car. Rip up paper. Smash old dishes in the garage (with safety goggles and gear on, of course). Know that your anger belongs to you and you will deal with it and own it. Many people have been angry a long time and don’t know how to deal with it. Anger is exhausting, but expressing anger in a healthy way is an important part of healing. Depression is anger turned inward, but anger is often hurt turned outward. I remember snapping at a friend and he asked, “Why are you so angry?” and I broke down and cried. I had been repressing a loss and all my feelings of loss about it and that one question brought me to my sorrow over the loss. It’s what I needed to do: have a good cry instead of taking off the heads of those closest to me.
Guilt is a normal part of the grief process, but its function is very limited. Use it to figure out what you need to improve on in the future; don’t use it to beat yourself up or stay stuck in the “if only”s. Even if you could go back and do things differently, you have no guarantee it would change where things are today.
It’s important to understand that regretting and recreating the past does nothing for your process. It’s useless thinking and feeling. It goes nowhere and solves nothing. You can’t go back there, and what is done is done. All you can do is learn from it and do better next time if you truly did do something wrong.
Write a list of things you’d do differently but save it for your Relationship Inventory in Getting Past Your Breakup and the Standards and Compatibility Inventory in Getting Back Out There. Each exercise will be more meaningful if you work on what you want to improve. But make sure you’re not striving for perfection, not beating yourself up but that you ARE allowing yourself room to grow and change. If you get bogged down in guilt, healing will not happen. Figure out what you did wrong, decide how to do better in the future, forgive yourself and let it go.
Many people experience debilitating anxiety as part of grief. Some report that they thought they were having a heart attack. Even if it’s not that extreme, some are unable to sit still or to relax long enough get to sleep.
Many times taking up a hobby that has to do with working with your hands helps. Some suggestions from former clients and students are: ceramics, knitting, tiling, jigsaw puzzles, or woodworking.
Some discover a love for painting or drawing. If you don’t feel artistically inclined, do something simple, like coloring mandalas (intricate patterns that have their origin in Eastern and Native American cultures).
Knowing what you might enjoy may not come immediately. When I separated, I had to try a few things before I discovered crocheting. I had tried ceramics and a few other things that I was too anxious to enjoy or I was so bad at it, it wasn’t calming at all. I switched from crocheting to coloring mandalas which are intricate patterns. I also did some oil painting – abstracts that are not very good, but I liked the movement and I used soothing pastel color, and it calmed me. Try a few things…some easy (like coloring) and some harder…it’s important to know the goal is to address anxiety, not to become the next Van Gogh.
Put on some soothing music, light some candles, buy some great pens or pencils and color mandalas or crochet or knit. Work in polymer clay or bead weaving. Learn guitar or keyboard. Take up jewelry crafting or stained glass. Sketch or do crossword puzzles. Do macramé or model airplanes or cars. You will be amazed at how calming that can be.
Use aromatherapy to surround yourself with soothing scents such as lavender. As you’re going to sleep, use a spa mister (or scentifier as they’re called), download some meditation and/or relaxation audios. A few nights of this and you will find yourself drifting off to sleep.
Pining and Searching
GPYB devotes an entire chapter to the feeling of wanting contact with the ex and how to avoid it. Part of the grief process is pining and searching to put the lost object of your affection back in the picture. It’s a normal part of grief but contact will stall the process so it’s important to not make contact. There are many “reasons” people give for wanting / needing contact but it’s important to understand that it hurts you in the end and doesn’t solve anything.
Sometimes we simply don’t know what we feel. We should never force feelings if we’re feeling ambivalent or not up to feeling. If we’re upset we haven’t cried and feel as if we need to, listen to sad songs or watch a sad movie. Feelings are not right or wrong, they just are and sometimes they disappear to give us a break. So long as you’re not shut down too long, let it be okay.
Ending Phase of Grief: Reorganization, Integration and Acceptance
The last phase of the grief process is reorganization, integration and acceptance. We may get glimpses of this as we’re still in the middle phase and then it feels as someone or something just snatched it away.
When you first begin to feel it, it can be short-lived. The first feelings of “I think I’m over it” don’t really signify that your process is over. It means you’re starting to put some distance between you and your loss. You’re healing. The “I’m getting over it” feeling will happen more often and last longer as time goes on and you feel as if you’re accepting the breakup. Acceptance isn’t about jumping for joy that you have had a loss but that something happened that cannot be changed. What’s done is done. It is what it is. And, amazingly enough, you’re beginning to be okay with that.
If you’ve done your grief work you have a new understanding of life and love and loss. You start to realize you have a life and it’s one worth living. You realize you are beginning to “get on” with things and you begin to realize that you will be okay.
Integrating the loss means you can remember things about your ex and not hurt all the time. You can listen to that band he introduced you to. You can see that movie again that she said reminded her of you. You can take the things your ex introduced you to and be okay with enjoying them again. You make peace with the peace.
Many times we experience this for a short while and then go back to our active middle phase. The first few times we catch a glimpse of what “over it” looks like. It’s a tantalizing morsel of things to come if you stay the course and trust the process. When it fades, it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. It means there’s still some cleanup to do. Don’t worry, you will come back to it.
Moving On: Renewal
The ending, the true ending, the last time you’re in the acceptance phase comes very quietly. There is no flash of brilliance, no clear cut understanding that you’re over it. No neon flashing lights. No banners. No parades. It comes very slowly and quietly and one day you get it that you are healed.
Somehow, you have managed to turn the page and may not have been paying attention when it happened. Now you can go on, free to love again, and to tell others that there is a beginning, middle and end phase to grief and you sometimes cycle through each one a few times.
Many people begin to understand they are truly moving on when they start planning a new life. They get serious about life-long goals, some that they didn’t even know they had. Working through the grief process brings with it a new understanding of who you are and a new courage you never knew you had. GPYB encourages you to have goals, take up new hobbies, meet new people, and make your dreams come true. If you’ve been doing your self-care, the end of the grief process should be balanced with a true sense of where you’re going and how you’re getting there. This can be an exciting and rewarding time. You’ve worked hard. You deserve it!
Share your story with others so that they know what is “normal” and how knowing how to grieve makes knowing how to love that much easier. Let others know there is peace in your heart and that it’s possible to get there if you allow your grief process to happen and resolve your loss. As I have been telling clients and readers for 25 years, you can do this!!!
Partially excerpted from Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Da Capo Lifelong Books 2009)
Getting Back Out There: Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Da Capo Lifelong Books 2015)