By Carol Drury
Losing someone, or something you love, or even something that has been a part of you for a long time is agonizing. You experience excruciating emotions, including shock, anger, guilt, and eternal sadness. While these feelings are overwhelmingly frightening, they’re normal reactions to loss. Accepting them as part of grieving and allowing yourself to feel what you feel is necessary for healing. There’s no right way to grieve, but there are healthy ways to cope. Grief that’s expressed has a potential for healing, strengthening, and enriching life.
We associate grief with the death of a loved one, but any loss can cause grief, including relationship breakups, death of pets, miscarriage, abortion, health, body parts, financial security, dreams, friendships, and physical safety. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief.
It’s never easy when a marriage or other significant relationship ends. Whatever the reason for the split, the breakup of a long-term, committed relationship can turn your world upside down and trigger painful, unsettling feelings. Even amidst the sadness and stress, you have an opportunity to learn and grow into a stronger, wiser person and everyone grieves differently. The grieving process takes time, healing happens gradually, and there’s no normal timetable. Some people start feeling better in weeks, months, others take years. Patience is imperative.
The Stages of Grief
If you’re experiencing any of these emotions, it may help to know your reaction is natural, however, you don’t have to experience each stage to heal, and you probably won’t experience them in a neat, sequential order. Don’t worry about what you should be feeling. There’s not a typical response to loss, as there’s no typical loss.
• Denial: This can’t be happening to me.
• Anger: Why is this happening? Who is to blame?
• Bargaining: Make this not happen, and in return, I will ____.
• Depression: I’m too sad to do anything.
• Acceptance: I’m at peace with what happened.
You can think of the grieving process as a roller coaster, full of vicissitudes and unpredictability. Like many roller coasters, the ride is rougher in the beginning, the lows deeper and longer. The difficult periods become less intense and shorter, but it takes time to work through a loss.
Healing after a divorce or breakup
Why do breakups hurt so much, even when the relationship is no longer good? It’s painful because it represents the loss, not just of the relationship, but also of shared dreams and commitments. Romantic relationships begin on a high of excitement and hope for the future. When they fail, you experience profound disappointment, stress, and grief.
A breakup or divorce launches you into uncharted territory. A divorce is a highly stressful, life-changing event. When you’re going through the emotional wringer and dealing with major life changes, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. Everything is disrupted: your routine, responsibilities, home, relationships with extended family and friends, and even your identity. A breakup brings uncertainty about the future. What will life be like without your partner? Will you find someone else? Will you end up alone? These unknowns often seem worse than an unhappy relationship. Recovering is difficult. However, you’ll move on, but it takes time, so be patient.
Coping Tip 1: Get support
The most important factor in healing from loss is having support. Even if you aren’t comfortable talking about feelings, they’re important to express while grieving. Don’t grieve alone. Isolating yourself can raise stress levels, reduce concentration, and get in the way of work, relationships, and health. Connecting to others will help you heal.
• Friends and family members – Now’s the time to lean on people who care about you, even if you’re usually strong and self-sufficient; Draw loved ones close, rather than avoiding them, and accept their assistance.
• Comfort from faith – If comfortable, embracing the mourning rituals and spiritual activities such as praying, meditating, or church, can offer solace.
• Support group – Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around. Sharing your sorrow with others who’ve experienced similar losses can help. They know what it’s like and can assure you that there’s hope for healing and new relationships.
• Professional help – If your grief feels like too much to bear, a professional with experience in grief counseling can help you work through intense emotions.
Coping Tip 2: Take care of yourself
The strain and upset of a major breakup leaves you psychologically and physically vulnerable. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time.
• Face your feelings. Trying to avoid sadness and loss only prolongs the grief. Unresolved grief can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
• Express your feelings in a tangible, creative way. Write about your loss in a journal. If you’ve lost a loved one, write a letter saying the things you never said; make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life; get involved in a cause or organization important to him or her.
• Give yourself a break. Give yourself permission to feel and function at a less than optimal level. You may not be able to be as productive on the job or care for others in exactly the way you’re accustomed to; take time to heal, re-group and re-energize.
• Look after physical health. Mind and body are connected. Combat stress and fatigue by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising.
• Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel. Your grief is your own, and no one can tell you when to move on or get over it; feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to yell at the heavens, to cry or not. It’s also okay to laugh, find moments of joy, and let go when you’re ready.
• Get outside help if you need it. If reaching out to others doesn’t come naturally, consider seeing a counselor or joining a support group. The most important thing is that you have at least one place where you feel comfortable opening up.
• Cultivate new friendships. If you feel like you have lost your social network along with the loss, make an effort to meet new people. Join a networking group or special interest club, take a class, get involved in community activities, or volunteer.
• Don’t fight your feelings. It’s normal to have lots of ups and downs, and feel many conflicting emotions, including anger, resentment, sadness, relief, fear, and confusion. It’s important to identify and acknowledge these feelings..
• Remind yourself that you still have a future. When you commit to another person, you create many hopes and dreams. It’s hard to let these dreams go. As you grieve the loss of the future you once envisioned, be encouraged by the fact that new hopes and dreams will eventually replace your old ones.
• Expect grief triggers. Anniversaries, holidays, and milestones can reawaken memories and feelings. Be prepared for an emotional wallop, and know it’s completely normal. If you’re sharing a holiday or milestone with others, talk to them before about their expectations and agree on strategies to honor the beloved person.
• Make time each day to nurture yourself. Help yourself heal by scheduling daily time for activities you find calming and soothing. Go for a walk in nature, listen to music, enjoy a hot bath, get a massage, read a favorite book, take a yoga class, or savor a warm cup of tea.
• Pay attention to what you need in any given moment and speak up to express your needs. Honor what you believe to be right and best for you even though it may be different from what your ex or others want. Say “no” without guilt or angst as a way of honoring what is right for you.
• Stick to a routine. Getting back to a regular routine can provide a comforting sense of structure and normalcy.
• Take a time out. Try not to make any major decisions in the first few months after a separation or divorce, like starting a new job or moving to a new city. If you can, wait until you’re feeling less emotional so that you can make better decisions.
• Avoid using alcohol, drugs, or food to cope. When you’re in the middle of a breakup, you’ll be tempted to do anything to relieve feelings of pain and loneliness, but alcohol, drugs, or food as an escape is unhealthy and destructive. It’s essential to find healthier ways of coping.
• Explore new interests. A divorce or breakup is a beginning as well as an end. Take the opportunity to explore new interests and activities. Pursuing fun, new activities gives you a chance to enjoy life in the here-and-now, rather than dwelling on the past.
• Make healthy choices: Eat well, sleep well, and exercise. Healthy habits can easily fall by the wayside. You might find yourself not eating at all or over-eating your favorite junk foods. Try to make long-term healthy lifestyle choices.
Am I depressed or having a normal reaction to the divorce or breakup?
Grief can be paralyzing after a breakup or death of a loved one, but after a while, the sadness begins to lift. Day by day, and little by little, you start moving on. However, if you don’t feel any forward momentum, you may be suffering from depression. When grief triggers depression, the sadness can be unrelenting and overwhelming. Some people describe it as living in a black hole or feeling numb, lifeless, and empty. If you think you may have developed a more serious problem, such as complicated grief or depression, consult with a counselor or medical provider.
Dr. Carol Drury graduated from George Washington University with a doctoral degree in Clinical Counseling, and is a Nationally Certified Clinical Counselor. Before opening her private practice in 2005, Dr. Drury worked for the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services for 27 years, first as a Rehabilitation Counselor and then as a Supervisor in the Tri County area. She was in the first class of trained Divorce and Family Mediators in St. Mary’s County. Dr. Drury has been Adjunct Faculty at George Washington University and Bowie State University and currently serves in that capacity at the College of Southern Maryland. Her interests have always been in the area of improving the quality of all relationships, but specifically in intimate relationships and uses the Imago Theory of Relationships in her counseling.