Recovering from a breakup can be a confusing time in life as your head and your heart struggle to get on the same page. You may have started grieving the loss of the relationship long before it ended, while family members and friends are just beginning to deal with their own feelings of loss. Your heart may be telling you to try again, while your head is filled with fears about suffering another loss. When we lose a partner to death, we are often given the social permission to dismiss their flaws and focus on their virtues. Losing a partner to a breakup can feel like the opposite, where we dismiss their virtues and focus on their flaws. Doing so often makes the recovery process difficult and longer than it has to be. Here are some helpful suggestions for navigating the process of healing from a breakup.
1. Assume total responsibility for the break up. At first glance, this will seem counterintuitive. Here’s the logic: by taking 100% of the responsibility (not the blame) for the breakup, you assume 100% of the capability to heal from it. If your partner is even 1% responsible, that’s 1% of the recovery process that it beyond your control.
2. Acknowledge the grief. By calling those emotions what they are, you increase your ability to understand them. By understanding what you are grieving (loss of the ideal relationship, loss of companionship, etc), you are able to determine what may motivate you to enter a new relationship too quickly. Remember, grief is a process.
3. Normalize the experience. The reality is every relationship will end until you find the one that doesn’t. Each relationship will teach you something significant in preparation for the one that will last. As you approach each relationship as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and how to teach you to another person, you will realize that breaking up is as normal as students failing a class, even with a gifted teacher, if they don’t make the effort to learn the material.
4. Maintain an attitude of gratitude. Nothing helps in the process of healing quite like gratitude. Can you be grateful for the experience? Can you be grateful for what you’ve learned? Can you be grateful that you are no longer tied to someone who wasn’t good for you?
5. Treat yourself. Buy yourself one thing that represents all that you’ve gained from the experience. For example, get yourself that pair of shoes you’ve been wanting to remind you of all the strength it took to walk away or get yourself those Superman cuff links to remind you of the strength you’ve gained to reclaim your life.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same. Nor would you want to!” – Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler from “On Grief and Grieving”
We live in a society that is uncomfortable with death and grieving; we just want people to “get over it” and be done. It makes us feel better if they are back to “normal” and are “okay”, then we can return to our lives without guilt. However, grief is complicated, messy, and full of emotions that we don’t want to acknowledge, let alone feel. So, what happens when we lose, or someone that we are close to, loses a person in their life? A spouse, child, parent, or friend. How can we help them, or ourselves, with this messy grief business? Honestly, the answer is so simple yet so complicated at the same time; grief is as unique and individual for each person as their fingerprint. There is no “right” way to do it. As a widow myself, there are a few things that I found, and continue to find, as being helpful and healing in my grief journey.
Grieving is a lonely, isolating business. Sure, there is the initial influx of mourners that surround the family in the days and weeks immediately following the loss, but what about after that? Can you be that person that shows up, texts, or calls just to chat, go for a walk, or grab a cup of coffee and give the grief stricken a sense of normalcy while chaos reigns elsewhere in their life? It’s often said, “Let me know what I can do to help.” Often however, in the midst of grief people aren’t even aware of what they need, nor do they want to impose on family or friends and ask for help, but they crave human interaction and connection. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but just knowing that someone is there and cares can make all the difference during those really difficult moments.
Listening to the Tale
Just as each person has their own grief journey they each have their own tale of grief, how they came to the painful spot where they dwell. While those on the periphery may have witnessed and been part of that journey, it may be surprising how the mourner interprets their experience. For some, telling the tale is cathartic and allows them to release what they’ve held within themselves: guilt, shame, anger, fear, relief. While for others it gives them space to voice the confusion of trying to process a surreal experience.
My experience with losing my husband landed me squarely in the “trying to process the surreal experience” camp. Trying to wrap my head around him being here one minute and gone the next was really difficult for me to wrap my head around. My friends and family were all present in witnessing, but I needed to express what it was like for me. I felt almost desperate, at times, to have someone understand and validate me. I didn’t need anyone to “fix” it for me, they couldn’t, but to have them say, “Yep, that sucked!”, meant the world to me.
The “Right” Way Doesn’t Exist
As a society we have constructed this movie image of what grief should look like, the bereaved go into a deep mourning for a while, but then they pull themselves together, “move on” with their lives, and the grief is finished. In reality, grief presents itself in a multitude of variations. For some there is the anticipatory grief that accompanies a long illness. For others there is the acute, shocking grief from a sudden death. Yet still for others there is the guilt-ridden survivors’ grief that can accompany trauma and suicide. With such differences in experiences how can we really expect for people to process grief in the same way? Within the same timeline? And with the same reactions? We can’t; it’s a preposterous assertion.
Need help or know someone that needs help processing the grief related to losing a loved one? Wasatch Family Therapy has a team of therapists that can help you wade through the sea of emotions that accompany the grief journey, we would be honored to stand witness to your tale and help you find the “new” you that evolves from the death experience.
Most of us struggle in knowing how to give comfort to an adult who is experiencing a loss or death of a loved one, let alone a child. We often struggle with understanding death as adults and attempt to protect children from having to experience this same mess of emotions as we are. Many adults are uncomfortable discussing death and dying and use phrases that may be misunderstood by children. At times however, our well-intentioned messages do the complete opposite of giving comfort! Here are the top five to avoid!
1- “He/She is in a better place now”
This can be such a confusing statement to a child (or anyone struggling). What could be better than being here alive with me?? This type of a message can unintentionally cause the child to internalize a belief that “I must have done something bad” or “I must be bad” if being dead is better than being alive and spending time together. A better thing to say is, “Your Mom can’t feel any more pain or suffering now because she has died and her body isn’t able to feel these things now”.
2- “We lost your Grandpa”
A young child is going to be very confused by this. They may wonder “Did Grandpa run away?” or “What?! Grandpa is lost? Let’s go find him!”. The child may worry about their loved ones health and feel anxious if they are safe or being taken care of by someone nice. They may worry about them being alone and scared, which is exactly how a child would feel if they were lost too! A better thing to say is “Grandpa died last night” and answer what questions your child may have about his death.
3- “He/She has gone to sleep and won’t ever wake up”
Young children may become very scared to go to sleep after hearing this, after all, if this happened to Aunt Thelma, then it could happen to them also if they go to sleep! Many children struggle with sleeping in their own beds following the death of a loved one, as nighttime and being alone in their bed is a perfect combination for their worries and imagination to take hold and create very scary possibilities. It is normal for a child to experience some regression during this time, they may begin bedwetting, climbing into the parent’s bed, struggling with falling and staying asleep, as well as refusal to be alone.
4- “He/She has passed away”
This is a typical phrase we use culturally to describe the death of someone. However, most children do not know the definition of “passed away” is actual death. A better way to describe death to a child is to say, “Uncle Joe died today. This means that his heart is no longer beating, his mind isn’t thinking, his lungs no longer work and he has stopped breathing. His body can’t feel any pain or cold or discomfort”. Some adults feel uncomfortable about being this upfront or frank about death, but this is actually a really important lesson every single human needs to learn. Every single person will both live and die at some point. It is okay to talk about this openly and honestly.
5- “You should feel happy now that they are in heaven”
Who has ever felt happy when someone has died?? You may feel peace or tenderness or even relief, but most humans do not experience feelings of happiness and joy as part of their grieving process. When we say statements like this to kids (or adults) we unintentionally are shaming them for feeling otherwise. Happy may be the very last emotion they are feeling at this point in time. There are no “shoulds” in grief, especially in childhood grief. A better way to say this is, “Its okay to feel sad and mad and any other feeling you may feel right now”.