The loss of a significant relationship throws us inelegantly into a deep grieving process. The stages of grief over a breakup are sometimes thought of as unfolding in a neat, linear progression, with one step following after the other to their inevitable conclusion of acceptance.
That’s not how it works. Grieving is messy. Its stages are circular, not linear, as we move back and forth among them and visit them again and again. There are probably more than the five stages Elizabeth Kubler Ross set forth. How many among us, for example, have felt guilt after a breakup? At the very outset, how many of us experience shock? Most importantly, some people can get stuck in a stage (often anger or depression) without ever experiencing acceptance and hope.
The stages of grief over a breakup
It can be helpful to have a sense of the terrain ahead, in order to know you are not alone, and you certainly are not crazy, as the grieving process moves through you. Here are some pointers:
No matter how bad things were, when the relationship comes to an end you might be in shock, especially if you are the one being left. You may find yourself literally shaking, experiencing a physical manifestation of shock. It can be very hard to assimilate your new reality. Be kind to yourself. This is a painful stage and one that you will not likely stay in for long, or revisit very often.
This can be denial of the breakup, or denial of your pain. When we experience denial, our subconscious mind is protecting us from our new reality. As Pooh said, you are braver than you think, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. And you will get through this.
It is actually important to acknowledge the ways in which we contributed to our relationship’s demise, or we will be doomed to repeat the pattern. As we know, our lessons become more painful until we finally learn them. On the other hand, holding on to feelings of guilt causes stagnation. Better to learn the lesson and leave the guilt behind. In the final analysis, you and your ex came together in order to teach and learn, and grow and then …go.
Oh, how anger makes us feel powerful! It is ego; our real strength comes from our spiritual side. Yet anger is a very useful stage in our healing process. Go ahead and get mad, especially if you are uncomfortable with anger. Anger can fuel action and help us set boundaries. It is not a healthy place to stay, but it certainly can be a useful emotion to access when we need to draw on it.
When we are bargaining, we tell ourselves we would do whatever they wanted. “It was all my fault. I will never leave a pile of clothes on the floor again; I will pick a better therapist; I will answer your texts right away; I will be your perfect mate.” When we are in the bargaining stage, we over-own our part in the relationship’s demise. This is illusion, and you wouldn’t have liked it that way in the long run. Be real with yourself, and kind to yourself. It’s just a phase.
It is natural and normal to feel depressed after a breakup. You can move through this phase more quickly and smoothly when you engage in activity (walk, run, learn a new sport); set goals (set out to accomplish something meaningful, train for a race, learn guitar); turn to friends (join a meetup, a hiking club); and to recognize, again and again, that this too shall pass.
Acceptance and hope.
After working through all the stages of grieving after a breakup, we find ourselves in the stage of acceptance, with renewed hope for our future. This final stage is not a given, however; people can stay in the anger stage, feeling like a victim of their ex; this prevents healthy growth, forming new relationships, and does not lead to a happy, productive life. Or we can get stuck in depression, closing our hearts and shutting down our energy field, cutting ourselves off from Life. But if you are brave, strong, and smart, then you can dig in and show up for your learning. As you move through the process you will find that you are better off than you were before.
When we lean in to the grieving process and do our work, we have a tremendous opportunity for growth. It hurts… but in time, it doesn’t hurt so much. When we are brave, and strong, and smart about our breakup, we find ourselves on the other side, braver, stronger and smarter than ever before.
One last thought: ask yourself, why would you want to be with someone who doesn’t make you feel wonderful about yourself? You deserve better!