When a relationship ends, it can feel like the end of the world. And for good reason: The grief we experience after a break-up has a lot in common with the grief that follows the death of a loved one.
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So how can you navigate through this difficult time when right now you may feel like you can’t go on?
Fortunately, there are things you can do to help turn those post-break-up blues into a time of growth, clinical psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD, says. He answers questions about how that can work.
Q: How is grief at the end of a relationship similar to grief after a loved one’s death?
A: Both experiences may create feelings of shock. You may feel a sense of disbelief immediately afterward.
You are likely to feel a range of emotions — fear, anger, confusion and loneliness. Plans and goals you thought were set in stone may become uncertain, which can create anxiety.
Both kinds of loss may raise questions regarding identity and self-worth. You may question who you are or doubt your ability to move forward alone. You may wonder if you’ll ever find love again.
Q: How are these two types of grief different?
A: After a break-up, you may still see your former partner. This raises the possibility of reconciliation, which can create hope but may also cause more anguish.
The dynamics of the break-up can also complicate the grief that follows.
Was there a betrayal? Was the decision to end the relationship mutual, or is one person feeling rejected? Even if you’re the one who ended it, it may surprise you to find that you’re grieving, too.
The end of a romantic relationship can also complicate other relationships. There may be a disruption in your social circle, or you may lose friendships with your ex-partner’s family, for instance.
Q: Why is it important to recognize and address your grief when a relationship ends?
A: Grieving is a natural process after any kind of loss. It helps our brains adjust to our new reality.
Avoiding grief can keep you stuck in feelings of sadness, loneliness, guilt, shame and anger — which can take a big toll on your self-esteem.
Those who don’t take appropriate steps to move through their grief, may turn to unhealthy coping strategies such as drug or alcohol use to manage difficult feelings.
You may start to withdraw from others and stop engaging in life, which can lead to clinical depression.
Not addressing grief also robs you of an opportunity to grow. The end of a relationship is a good time to reflect, clarify your values and decide what kind of life you want moving forward.
And if you don’t properly grieve, that also means that you don’t ever resolve your feelings about the relationship and its end. This can make it very difficult to be emotionally available to a new partner.
Q: How can you deal with the end of a relationship in a healthy way?
A: As you grieve, keep the following strategies in mind.
- Reach out to supportive friends and family, and openly share your feelings.
- Prioritize self-care. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and physical activity, and eating well.
- Create a daily routine to add the structure you need during this time of uncertainty.
- Be mindful about your substance use.
- Leave your ex alone — both in real life and online. Technology makes it easy to send an “I miss you” text or to spy on your former partner via social media, but resist the urge. This only makes it harder to heal.
- Don’t rush into another relationship. Take this time to work on yourself and get in touch with parts of yourself that you may have hidden during your relationship.
It’s also important to know when to seek professional help, Dr. Borland says.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety — especially if you’re having thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else — find a mental health professional who can help.