I find that there are so many misconceptions when it comes to grief, especially when a relationship ends.
When I wrote Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You, I wanted there to be a great deal of emphasis placed on grieving the lost relationship. When I wrote the book, I thought that was one thing that was conspicuously absent in breakup literature. After working with clients for years, I knew that many people needed to know that they are normal if they are grieving and that grief after a breakup is normal and natural. What is NOT natural is our society's inclination to encourage people to blow by their very real grief.
I am a certified grief counselor who has been doing this work for many years. I'm someone who believes describing grief work in "stages" is misleading. "Stages" seems to indicate that you go neatly from one to the next. That is not how most people grieve. I prefer Beverley Raphael's description of grief as phases. This acknowledges that phases can go in and out and back again. Grief rarely, if ever, goes from one emotion or state to the next. It's much messier than that.
Using Raphael's idea of "phases" I see grief as being fluid. I identify 3 phases: 1) shock and denial, 2) great emotion, 3) acceptance, reorganization and integration.
The bulk of grief work is done in the middle phase which is where all the emotional turmoil takes place.
Phase One: Shock and Disbelief
Sometimes when a breakup is sudden, it seems too much to deal with and the mind goes numb, shutting down and refusing to deal for a time. It could be a minute, a day, weeks or months. Sometimes people stay in contact to avoid truly moving on or facing the cold, hard fact that they have broken up. They will call each other, write each other, not tell friends and family and generally play the “if I don’t acknowledge it maybe it will go away” game. If one person is taking it hard and maintaining contact, the other may indulge them for a while, unsure of how to go on from here. Either way, both people are in denial and need to decide if they are broken up or if they’re not.
To move through this phase, acknowledge that you had a loss and resolve to work through it.
Phase Two: Review and Painful Relinquishment
If you are the person who did not see the breakup coming, the shock stage will probably last longer. You may feel as if you were punched in the solar plexus. You might feel as if the world is moving beneath your feet. You may feel that there is an unimaginable void in your world that you can’t do anything about. You may feel lost, and alone, and in incredible pain. These are the normal emotions of grief.
Review is a necessary part of the grief process. This can be upsetting because it may seem like you cannot stop thinking about your relationship or your ex. You might recount the breakup scene over and over again. You wish your mind would shut it all off, but it doesn’t. It seems to continue on and on.
This can be maddening, but it is necessary to review the relationship in order to work through it and be over it. Thinking about them constantly does not mean that you can’t get over it, it means that you are getting over it. While it can be crazy-making, the constant rumination is about letting go, not holding on. Yes it will drive you crazy but just know that the healing process DEMANDS that you play the movie in your head over and over again to sift through the ruins. To cry about the good times, to get angry (again) about the bad times, to wonder where it all went wrong. Yes, this phase is HARD and it HURTS but its necessary. Don't think that just because you can't think of anything else that there is anything wrong with you or that you'll never get over it. You will.
During this time journal about it, talk about it, walk the floors and wring your hands, curse the process but let it happen. Avoid getting in touch with the ex to share any little insightful nuggets you may come up with. It’s not worth it and it only postpones the process.
Let’s go back to the breakup scene. The person you are in love with, and whom you thought was in love with you, says it’s over. Even if it was expected, even if you were not getting along, even if you knew there was a chance that things were not going to work out, you are devastated.
If you did not see it coming, you’re even more devastated. If it ended because they cheated on you, or they lied to you, or they abused you in some way, it’s even more devastating. Even if some of those traumatic scenes did not happen to you, do not minimize your feelings. Do not say, “Oh, but it didn’t happen in a bad way.” It happened the way it happened, and it hurts, and that’s all you need to know. Do not rationalize or justify your feelings away. Your feelings are not right or wrong, they just are. Let them be.
Do not mistake the amount of pain you feel for the amount of love you had for that person. Your level of pain has to do with your own sensitivity, the other unresolved losses in your life, and how many secondary losses you may have experienced as a result of this breakup. The pain is normal and healthy even if it feels like it is not.
Disorganization and Confusion
After a breakup, you might also feel physically incapacitated in some way. You have trouble sleeping, or you sleep too much. You can’t think. You become accident-prone. You have trouble putting a sentence together. You have no idea what’s going on. This is normal. It is all part of the disorganization of grief. You feel scattered; you feel overwhelmed by feelings.
Grieving causes confusion and disorganization. For the grief process to be successful, emotion must be expressed, and the disorganization and confusion tolerated as a normal response. Be gentle with yourself during these many iterations of the grief process. Allow the normal and natural grief process to happen. It is an ultimately healing process and you will be glad you went through it.
The sadness and disorganization feels extreme to people who are experiencing it for the first time. This is often when people try to shut it down and repress what they are feeling. Don’t do it. It’s hard but allow yourself to fall apart; allow yourself the disorganization and confusion. Recognize that you are accident-prone, and take care, especially when driving. People should not drive drunk, but often they should not drive when they are grieving. You might not be okay to drive on a day-to-day basis, or some days might be worse than others. Recognize when you’re not capable of driving, and be responsible toward yourself and toward others on the road. They didn’t do anything to you; they don’t deserve to be hurt because you’re not being responsible.
There will be days when your mind feels fuzzy, like you have a mental flu or something. You might find yourself unable to remember things. You might miss appointments or forget important matters. Write things down. Keep your schedule light. Realize you're going through something and don't chastize yourself for being forgetful. Try to put some reminders in place and don't overload your schedule. Be gentle with yourself.
After a breakup, anger is an appropriate reaction. When something has been taken away, people feel angry. Feeling the anger is okay. Acting on the anger is not. You can and should acknowledge your anger, own your anger, write about your anger, talk about your anger and eventually it will dissipate. What you should not do is act out or lash out in anger. That is not okay.
If you try to repress your anger because you think that your anger is “unacceptable” or “bad” or “wrong” it will manifest itself in other ways. Some people refuse to acknowledge anger but go through life taking it out on other people, acting irritated all the time, being prone to bad moods and acting generally foul and bitter. These are all variations of unexpressed anger. If you have been going through life in an unexplained sour mood, you may have anger issues.
Facing the anger for the first time may result in not just feeling angry, but feeling rageful. Acknowledging your losses and your anger can be overwhelming. It’s good to acknowledge it and let it out but not to TAKE IT OUT on anyone. Be mindful when you are driving or interacting with other people that you are angry and don't take your anger out on the wrong people. That is NOT okay. It's not even okay to take it out on the person who is the reason for your anger. Your anger belongs to you. Own it. Deal with it.
These are ways to deal with anger:
1. Write to the people you are angry with, including your parents and former lovers, just make sure you don’t send the letters.
2. Talk to friends.
3. Talk to your therapist.
4. Hit a heavy bag.
5. Smash old dishes.
7. Scream in the car
There is an expression that depression is anger turned inward. Conversely, anger is often sadness turned outward. After you express anger you may feel incredibly sad and exhausted. Working out anger often leads to sadness and visa versa. Know that sadness and anger are two sides of the same coin.
Guilt is a normal part of the grief process. No matter how good you were in the relationship, we are human, and there will always be guilt about what was done or not done, what was said or not said. The guilt can lead you to think you caused the breakup, and if you just apologize enough or do things differently, it will all be okay. You cannot move on if you still think you can fix it, or obsess about what you did or did not do. Guilt often comes from thinking we have control where we have none. Guilt stems from our inability to accept what has happened, and a misguided sense of having power over the situation of being able to go back and fix it.
There is no way to go back and redo it, and even if you could, it does not change the outcome. What happened has happened. Going back is not going to be productive. Everyone makes mistakes, and if you made a really horrible mistake, if you did something really terrible, doing this work and healing yourself and taking responsibility for your actions is the most important form of amends that you can make to yourself and others.
After any loss, the mind tries to put the world back the way it was. If someone or something is lost, there is an impulse to look for it. It is the mind’s way of reordering the world the way it “should” be. This results in the urge to search.
Even people who have experienced the death of a loved one experience the urge to search. They will look for a deceased person in a crowd or find themselves dialing them on the phone. This is a normal and natural part of the grief process where the mind tries to suspend reality and put things back the way it was.
When the person is alive and there was a breakup, this is often when people will try to open up communications with the ex. Recognize that the urge to search is part of the grieving process and you should not act on it. When you are pining and searching, you are in a temporary state and anything you say now can and will be held against you at a later date.
It is uncomfortable but it passes...the less you give into it, the easier it gets. The more you give into it, the harder it gets. You don't want to lose your way or get into an accident...you want to stay strong and know where you are. Journal. Write letters to the ex that you don't mail. Sit on your hands. Call a friend and say you're going crazy can you talk. Go to a movie. Do SOMETHING but don't connect.
The desire to search for and recover that which has been lost is a very primal desire and it feels like a compulsion or an impulse that must be acted upon. Don’t do it. It’s not going to help. Tolerate the searching feelings without reaching back. It gets better if you don't give into the searching behavior. Sit with it and know that it passes and that it gets better. Stay off social media. Put the phone in your car if need be. Don't do ANYTHING to connect.
You will cycle through all these emotions several times. It's hard and it hurts but get enough rest, have support in your life, eat right, exercise and start finding new interests and new friends.
You can get through the feelings. It's all just temporary. YOU CAN DO THIS.
Don't listen to anyone who says don't waste your tears on this person. These are your tears about YOUR loss, not a waste of tears ON someone. Don't listen to "There's a lot of fish in the sea." These types of statements come from people who are uncomfortable with YOUR grief. It's not your job to make them comfortable. It's your job to grieve your loss. In Getting Back Out There, I talk about the 5 R's—the bumps in the dating road and one of them is Readiness. Don't push yourself to be ready if you're still actively grieving.
Phase Three: Acceptance, Reorganization and Integration
Acceptance is not about being happy but it's the end of a long search for peace. If you do your work, you come to this. It's when you can sit back and understand that was not meant to be. If you did the Relationship and Life Inventories in GPYB and the Standards and Compatibility inventory in GBOT, you have learned so much about yourself and what you need to do in the future—who you need to BE in a relationship and who you need to LOOK FOR in a relationship. If you have learned to do the self-care which GPYB recommends to balance the hard work of grief, you have learned to make yourself a priority in your life and insist that everyone else treat you with love, kindness and respect. That learning is priceless.
Integration is when you can truly be glad for the presence of your ex in your life. We all learn from partners—whether it's how to do something or a type of music or an author...we all pick up things that are valuable from someone else.
Integration is when you can appreciate those things without feeling pain or longing. When you are able to hold onto the positive things your former partner gave you without feeling hurt that they are gone, that is integration. You have INTEGRATED the good back into your life.
If you grieve your relationship, you will get to this place and you will be healed.
Wishing you peace. Remember, you can do this!
Click HERE for my list of recommended resources to help you on your journey.
Click HERE for the GPYP Workbook which has an entire chapter devoted solely to the work of grief. The workbook contains the worksheets I have been using in my classes and seminars for years and complements the work in the books and includes a few chapters not in either book.
Click HERE for the GPYB/GPYP YouTube videos
The next GPYB bootcamp starts in March. To get support and a structured program to get OVER a breakup go HERE
GBOT and GPYB are widely available at bookstores and on-line. They are available in paperback, electronically and in audio. Click HERE for a list worldwide and in several languages
GPYB is available in 7 languages with more coming! I have copies in French and Polish. If you pay the shipping (whatever way you want it, from media mail to overnight) I will send you a copy while supplies last. You can estimate the shipping from where you are to New York and I will send it out. I also have audios of GBOT and same thing, if you want one pay the shipping and I'll send you one while supplies last.
Stay tuned to the GPYB blog for upcoming webinars, seminars, podcasts, courses, workshops and bootcamps!