How the 7 Stages of Grief Apply to Breakups (Because the Only Way Out Is Through)

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images


Three summers ago, I experienced one of the most heart-wrenching break-ups of my life.

I’d finally gotten a chance to turn a decade-old crush into a dating relationship after one of those magical nights where the stars seem to be burning so brightly, you’re sure that they’re trying to compete with the passion lighting up inside of you.

So when, too soon after, a devastating phone call led to the end of us, I was positively heartbroken.

“Crying forever,” I wrote on Facebook after updating my relationship status to Single.

And that’s how I honestly felt – like the tears of regret would never stop. And they didn’t – not for a long, long time.

And it kind of reminded me of another horrible break-up that I’d experienced in the spring of 2008 when an emotionally abusive relationship ended in an admittance of two-timing (three-timing, I discovered later, actually), and I fell into despair wondering how I could put up with so much pain for so long, only to end up dumped.

I stayed in bed for days.

I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. All I did was cry.

And while the former relationship is one that I still treasure and the latter is one that I oft try to forget, they still have two major commonalities: They ruined me. And in the end, I survived.

And in both instances, part of what helped me get through the wretchedness was remembering – and repeating to myself constantly, quite honestly – that I’d been through break-ups before, that the pain didn’t last forever, that someday I’d wake up and the fiery pit churning in my stomach would be gone.

Because it’s true.

But that’s hard to remember when you’re in the midst of it.

It’s hard to remember that moving past a relationship is a process akin to grieving and that the only way out is through.

So take my hand, Dante.

And let me guide you through the layers of Hell known as The Stages of Grief to help you better understand what you may (and must) experience before seeing the clear light of day again.

The Stages of Grief

1. Shock and Disbelief

What it sounds like: “How can this relationship be over? Everything was fine yesterday!”

This is the point at which you’re not really sure what just happened – like the scene in 500 Days of Summer when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character thinks they’re just going out for pancakes, and Zooey Deschanel’s character drops (what comes off to him as) a bomb in the form of “I think we should stop seeing each other.”

Or, maybe more accurately, it’s like the scene in Poltergeist when the older daughter comes home, sees the house in complete ghost-inflicted disarray (uh, that’s putting it lightly) and screams, “What’s happening!?”

It’s the point at which you’re not really sure if the break-up was a bad dream or reality, and every moment that goes by is a reminder that you’ve lost something irreplaceable.

If you’re still waking up in the morning with the break-up hitting you anew like a ton of bricks, you might still be in this stage.

2. Denial

What it sounds like: “They’ll call me back any day now realizing they made a mistake!”

This is when you have to shut your phone off because every time a friend checks in to make sure you’ve gotten out of bed (and maybe even showered!) this week, your immediate, go-to thought is that it must be your ex calling to make amends.

Because they’re going to want you back, right? Right? RIGHT!?

Probably not.

But in this stage, anything is possible because you’re in a state of denial, convincing yourself that it’s all a big misunderstanding and your love will come around eventually.

Who knows? Maybe they were briefly abducted by aliens and only broke up with you because their brains were being controlled by an extraterrestrial race out to take over Earth, and once they regain human consciousness, they’ll fix it.

I mean, that’s a plausible explanation, isn’t it?

This is the stage at which you can (and probably will) watch He’s Just Not That Into You once a day and still think that Bradley Cooper won’t break Scarlett Johansson’s heart in the end.

3. Anger

What it sounds like: “They were an asshole anyway.”

Let it be known, first and foremost, that for as much shit as we talk on the feeling of anger, it’s actually a perfectly normal and healthy emotion to have. It’s what you do with your anger that can be problematic.

Look, we all have those fantasies of ruining our ex’s life a la Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” (or, you know, Taylor Swift’s entire discography), but it’s not healthy to actually spray paint “I Hope She Was Worth It” on their car or park outside of their window watching their silhouette in the lamp light.

The truth is, the reason why a lot of break-up songs are written from the trenches of this stage is because anger is a feeling that resonates with a lot of us, and it’s one of passion and boldness, unlike the other stages of grief.

A song about denial isn’t going to impassion you the way that an angry break-up song will, but don’t let the media’s sensationalizing of anger normalize some of the scary, dangerous, and downright abusive things that some people might do during this stage.

Because of low levels of serotonin (which is a mood stabilizer) in your brain during this stage, you might be prone to violent, impulsive behavior like stalking, jealous rages, or even physical attacks.

Don’t do that.

4. Bargaining

What it sounds like: “I’ll do anything to have you back!”

In my experience, this is the most embarrassing stage because it’s the most desperate.

The “please, baby, please!” thing doesn’t look good on anyone, and I can’t decide if I hate it worse when I’m the one doing it or when it’s an ex doing it to me.

Either way, it’s bad news and a part of our lives that we all would rather forget.

I once had an ex drive me to a kind-of-creepy refurbished abandoned warehouse just to beg me to give him one more chance and wouldn’t let me leave when I told him that this was crazy. He just ugly-cried at me while I planned out an escape route in my head.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ex also threatened suicide and self-harm if I wouldn’t reconsider his proposal. Uhh, scary.

But that’s the extreme of what this stage looks like.

Usually, it looks a lot more like promising to change all of those things about you that you think are the reason why your ex left you in the first place.

“I won’t force you to go to my family functions anymore. I’ll let you be friends with that ex of yours that I hate. I’ll quit smoking. I’ll change around my entire lifestyle and sense of personhood for you!”

Be honest with yourself: You’ve done it. I know I have.

But the thing here is that it’s a last-ditch attempt to get what you want – what you think you need – and you become overwhelmed with feeling like you’d rather lose a bad habit, personality trait, or boundary than lose what you’ve already lost – your ex.

5. Guilt

What it sounds like: “If only I had done such-and-such, they would have stayed. This is all my fault.”

Sometimes blaming ourselves can feel better than accepting that the person we love – who we hold in impossibly high regards – could possibly be the wrong-doer.

If we can convince ourselves that the break-up is our fault, that we have no one to blame but ourselves, then we can believe that we can fix it – either that we can make amends in this relationship or do better in the future.

But the thing to remember about the average break-up is this: It’s not you, it’s them.

I know, I know. That sounds cliché and awful and frustrating, but it’s true.

Break-ups usually have little to do with you as a person and more to do with the relationship. It’s not that you’re “not good enough” for them; it’s that the relationship is no longer fulfilling them. And there’s not much that you can change about yourself to fix that.

So don’t feel guilty. Don’t feel like it was your fault.

Instead, take some time to reflect on the positives and negatives of the relationship.

How did you help and hinder the growth of the relationship? How did they help and hinder it? What went wrong in the relationship to make it stop working? What kind of awareness can you have going forward about your needs and boundaries?

Turning botched relationships into learning experiences can not only alleviate the guilt you may feel, but can also help you in the future – a lot more than being down on yourself can.

6. Depression

What it sounds like: “No one will ever love me again.”

Chocolate peanut butter pretzel ice cream, check. Your worn copy of Love, Actually, check. Sweatpants, tissues, and your phone on silent, check.

This. Stage. Sucks.

No matter how many times your friends (or, you know, your mom) remind you that you’re beautiful-amazing-brilliant-generous and no-totally-not-a-nag, if you don’t believe that you’re worthy of love and happiness, nothing is going to change it.

When your body’s levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin plummet during the later stages of break-up grief, you very literally suffer from despair and resignation.

In fact, up to 40% of people experience moderate depression after a break-up, and 12% experience severe symptoms.

To dull the pain, men are most likely to use alcohol, drugs, and other reckless behavior.

And women? Women are more likely sob, withdraw socially, and constantly retell their story. Sounds about right.

So after a break-up, it’s okay to feel unlovable for a little while – as long as you stay aware that this feeling should pass.

7. Acceptance

What it sounds like: Sweet, sweet freedom.

The moment that you can go to karaoke night and belt out “I Will Survive” without a hint of irony is when you know you’ve reached this, your final destination.

And although research by Helen Fisher suggests that it can take 18-24 months for the negative feelings associated with love rejection to heal, you will finally reach this – the best stage.

At this point, you might start to find other people attractive again – in that “I’d like to get to know you” kind of way. You might start looking at yourself as attractive and worthy of love and happiness again. Maybe you can even run into your ex without experiencing high-level anxiety!

Congratulations. Your body has reached homeostasis. Your brain chemicals have returned to normal.

Did you ever have any doubt?

Because it will happen eventually.

The magical day will come when you wake up and realize that you don’t feel awful anymore, when you start to hope it’s someone else when your phone rings, when you can hold it together for long enough not to spill out your sob story to strangers.

That day is coming. I promise it is.

You just have to go through a whole bunch of icky phases before you can get there.

Think of it as your heart renewing itself. It has to get knocked down before it can be built back up. Life needs to fall apart before it can come back together.

But it will come back together.

So, listen. Forget all of that “there are plenty of fish in the sea” and “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” nonsense that people are throwing at you right now.

Show them this article, tell them that you’re allowed to be emotional, and go feel those feelings, baby.

The quicker you start the cycle, the sooner it’ll be over.

And hey. Chin up.


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Melissa A. Fabello, Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a domestic violence prevention and sexuality educator, eating disorder and body image activist, and media literacy vlogger based out of Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, Jurassic Park, and the occasional Taylor Swift song and can be found on YouTube and Tumblr. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.