Is a Breakup Ever Harder Than a Death? Reflections on the Complexity of Grieving

“You need to grieve,” is easy to say, hard to do. Some equate it with “feeling sorry for yourself” or insufficient religious faith. Others tell you the endeavor is not “manly.” A few give it a time limit and cut off the process too soon.

What else might block this dark passage to recovery?

The short answer? It sometimes takes longer to recover from the end of relationships with the living than those who are dead. Their continuing life holds out the possibility of a long shot, perfected resumption: a second chance at the prize.

As terrible as it is to survive the demise of one you love, the psychological remedy is relatively direct. Death means losing not only the departed, but the disappearance of whatever future you desired. Was there an apology you never got, but awaited forever? Would he have said, “I love you,” the words you never heard? “I’m proud of you” perhaps? Were there plans in the offing for a continuation of your bond with a being like no other?

All hopes are shattered by Death, a bigger than Life opponent with an undefeated record. Grieving becomes the only way to reconcile yourself to what you missed.

But what about a person who yet lives, but not within the relationship you desire?

Let’s say you reside with your parents or an unloving spouse, are financially dependent, and the object of unrelenting emotional neglect or abuse. Your dependency evokes grudging gratitude, but also fear of losing financial support.

Were you to open the full extent of your heartbreak and anger, it might be more difficult to contend with the ones who continue to heap misery on you. The wall built to endure mistreatment could crumble. A darker depression and rage against them or yourself will not now improve your life. Postponement of this therapeutic exploration (beyond awareness that you need to get out) is often the wisest course until your living circumstances are favorable.

A faith community that believes in instant “forgiveness” (or reflexive honor to parents and spouse) is also challenging. If you lack congregational support for the therapeutic process, you are likely to experience the very kind of invalidation, guilt, and misunderstanding you want to escape. Beware, too, an internal and external pressure to “be good,” win the approval of your coreligionists and friends, and don a smiling mask disguising private unhappiness.

Parental death, at whatever age, supplies notice of one’s permanent eviction from childhood. We receive automatic sympathy upon its publication. Widows and widowers are honored in the same fashion.

Not so for the ones who cannot have the other they prefer. No plot of land called a cemetery — respected and visited — is dedicated to their loss; nor the black attire or armband officially signaling their grief.

The graveyard of ended love affairs exists only in the mind of the bereft. Visiting hours are listed in the imagination as “anytime,” the garments of mourning observed from the inside alone.

Many face this grief in the world of divorce and shared child-rearing responsibilities. Continuing friction between the adults can endanger the well-being of the child. Treatment must honor the heartbroken parent, and enable a tightrope walk over a cesspool of emotional turbulence that might swallow you as well as your offspring.

Another roadblock to ending a living grief resides in a simple word called hope. Who can say when it is time to give up hope? How do you know when hope is misplaced? Who among us is certain when a fantasized future is the equivalent of a sunk cost: in effect, throwing good money after bad because you have already invested so much in another human being?

Exit from love’s casino is always a gamble. Memory and desire insist, “‘Tis not too late. …” When friends suggest you move on, however, they are not always wrong.

I recall a young lady in her early teens. Her father’s death years before did not unmake the “relationship’s” continuation. The worshipful veneration at the shrine she erected permitted an idealization that made the stepfather pale in comparison.

The latter was a fine man who wanted to give the teen all possible affection and guidance, but could not leap the barrier with which my patient surrounded herself. Only when she recognized the cost of her preoccupation with the biological father, did she embrace the decent man holding on to his own version of hope.

Loss of love, whatever the cause or consideration it receives, is not well-captured by the clichéd word heartbreak. Rather, the heart cracks, seeps, bleeds; it shudders, submerges, or bursts. The tissue tears and weeps. For most of us, the blessed thing will force itself to repair, reform, and — yes — take heart and try again. The heart, remember, is a muscle.

Patients always need to clean their wounds and suffer the sting such cleansing brings, even if touching them requires delicacy on the counselor’s part. The demands of work, child-rearing, housekeeping, and the daily indignities of life must also be respected for the therapeutic obstacles they can be. These complications function like the huge linemen in American-style football, blocking your progress toward the place you need to go.

Like therapy, American football is played 60-minutes at a time.

The best players find a way to get around and over those giant opponents; not as fast as one would like, of course, and not without bruising. Those who “break through” to victory are talented and relentless.

Courage takes more than a physical form, you know.

I saw it displayed in my office, in the therapeutic integrity of people just a few feet away.

They have long since left that place, but my awe and pride in them have not departed.


The first image is called, Knock Apparition Cloud by Froshea. The next one is entitled, Sad Woman. Jiri Hodan is the creator. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom photograph is Georgia O’Keeffe, Abiquiu, N.M., 1984 by Bruce Weber.

26 thoughts on “Is a Breakup Ever Harder Than a Death? Reflections on the Complexity of Grieving

  1. Longer comment to follow later, as away for the weekend, but , just this….♥️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You write very beautifully, almost poetically about this subject, which is anything but beautiful or poetic. “Leaving” by death, as a rule, is not a choice one person makes in an effort to be rid of another. When somebody dies, there are usually multiple sufferers, multiple people going through the same or very similar feelings who can share the pain and help each other through the grief. It’s a straight up, no choice kind of a departure, not a conscious decision by one person to part from another person.

    A breakup, however, if it’s not mutual, involves one person who cares too much and one who cares too little. It’s between two people and doesn’t have much effect on anybody else. The pain caused by it rests on just one person, no sharing with others because no others are experiencing it. And there is so much more than just the pain of the loss, which can be excruciating in itself. There is a whole bag of emotions and feelings right alongside the grief. There is rejection, a sense of being worthless, of being thrown away. There is shame, the shame of loving somebody who doesn’t care. It leaves you filled with anger and self-hatred for being so naive and downright stupid to place that much trust, faith and belief in somebody capable of hurting you so deeply. There is jealousy of all those who remain in that person’s life and can interact with him every day, any time they want. And worst of all, the love is still there, still strong and no way to turn it off, which continues to drive all these other difficult feelings.

    While you are allowed to grieve openly for one who died, you cannot do the same in a breakup situation. You have to pretend everything is fine in public, so your tears are rarely shared with anyone, and you are left very alone in your grief. There is nobody to talk to about it who has any real concept of the emotional, mental and even physical agony that takes over the life of the discarded one. So, to answer the question you pose in your title, yes, grief over a breakup where one person had extreme feelings the other very little if any, is in multiple ways worse than grief over death.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Brewdun. This is a very useful addition to what I’ve written and is much appreciated. I agree with so much of it, I’ll only say a few words where I’m not quite on board. Where there are multiple sufferers, as much as they bond over the loss, it is hard for one to help the other because all are in so much pain. Often a person not so impacted (like a therapist) is able to do more, ironically enough, because he experiences less than the sufferer does.

    Rejection is dreadful, as you say. People do get over losses, whether through death or exclusion from the continuing life of another. It does not have to be an eternal shadow on one’s life. With good and loving friends, one can talk about it, though they may advise what a therapist would also suggest, that, at some point, one has to reattach to life and “possibility.” There is much suffering in life and the experience of rejection is part of the package, I’m afraid. Still, beauty and generosity and kindness and love, too, are out there, even if in our worst moments it is hard to see any of that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Agree, grieving, no matter why, is complex. It’s been ten days since my husband of 55 years died, and though I’ve received much support, in the end I’m sitting in my home alone. But I’m “taking heart” as you say and looking forward to whatever life holds for me. During the 7-month course of his cancer, my husband often reminded me, “You’ll do fine” and I will. But I’ll grieve first in whatever form that may take. Your post today was especially appropriate for me today. Thanks.


  5. You are welcome, Lois. You are never far from my thoughts. Not at all to minimize your suffering and loss, but I think Marv was right: you will endure.


  6. As always, Dr. Stein, you understand so well from your years of practice the “living grief” of the divorced life. Such grief is, as you say, much more than “heartbreak.” My life was shattered.

    I have long given up hope that my ex would at least apologize for the suffering he meted out to me and our sons by abandoning us, 26 years ago, in a foreign country. Total fault for our marital failure lay outside my door. Now in his third marriage, he recently sent a message through his brother that he’s grieving for his sons. (For some years now they have stopped communicating with him.) Delayed grief?


    • Not knowing your ex, I’d be a bit hesitant to trust grief which it took him 26 years to realize. Most often in my experience, Rosaliene, allowing oneself such painful insight as that would represent, doesn’t often come to those in middle-age and beyond. You know better than I whether he could be an exception.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Gerry,
    Really well said and thought provoking!!!


  8. Another fantastic article. I’ve always believed that a break up feels worse than death, simply because the person is still living and there’s a chance of stumbling across them again (just one of the reasons). Another example: Knowing that they’re going to choose someone else over you. I struggled with that too, knowing that an ex of mine now has another person in her life, living with her in a house that we lived in together, with my dogs (technically hers, but still felt like mine). Death feels cleaner.

    “Let’s say you reside with your parents or an unloving spouse, are financially dependent, and the object of unrelenting emotional neglect or abuse. Your dependency evokes grudging gratitude, but also fear of losing financial support.

    Were you to open the full extent of your heartbreak and anger, it might be more difficult to contend with the ones who continue to heap misery on you. The wall built to endure mistreatment could crumble. A darker depression and rage against them or yourself will not now improve your life. Postponement of this therapeutic exploration (beyond awareness that you need to get out) is often the wisest course until your living circumstances are favorable.”

    You perfectly described my current situation. Some days it feels as though I’ll never “escape”. But who knows what life may yet bring.


  9. This is an award winning article, Dr. Stein! This article also has given me pause to contemplate how lucky I am to have a good husband. You are correct, the end of a relationship through a break-up or divorce must be excruciating. I haven’t experienced this as it has always been my husband and me but I have seen the suffering of others.


  10. I love this article, Dr. S. It is what I needed at this time, as I had recently broken up with a professional relationship gone awry. Even non-intimate relationship breakups hirt, apparently. Or even transference-related breakups. That is all I cab and will say. I am grieving over many things, but some were my own doing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. hiddenlayersbeneath

    It has been a year since a nonromantic breakup, and I am still torn. I cannot stop the intrusive thoughts and ruminations. I have tried to work with a couple of therapists on this, but nothing helps. It was a breakup that came with multiple losses that forces me into exile on multiple levels. Mourning a death seems easier.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Ultimately breakups require some amount to entering back into an alternative life from the one the bereft one wanted. At the very least, this gets some new thoughts and preoccupations to be at the forefront of the day.

      Liked by 2 people

      • hiddenlayersbeneath

        I just realized, after some introspection, that I’m dealing with more than one breakup (more than one relationship), both of which have changed what I had planned. A double-whammy, or complex situation. It makes sense why finding an alternative life is challenging for me, but I’m hoping to find a happy solution to both breakups coupled with the many reminders from the past. From an “insider,” “It hurts to want.” I have to agree and find some sense of integration in all this. Connecting with feelings of grief is hard when thoughts get in the way. “I’m strong; I can get through this,” I affirm to myself. But an insider, and a conflicting argument within, tells me, “Your strengths are just going to end with more heartache, more pain.” “But I’m not afraid of rejection; I’m an opportunist,” I reply. “You’re afraid of us, the parts of you whom you avoid, and we’re smart enough to know it now. You’re not as much of an opportunist as you think you are; you’re avoiding us, your feelings, us as your feelings, and the pain of what happened many times over.” “But I want to move on. I don’t want to be stuck here. I’ve been stuck here for too long.” “You’re stuck because we’re stuck in grief. You’re stuck because you want a fast track to healing that just isn’t in the cards for all of us. You’re stuck because you and others won’t even acknowledge that we’re here.” …If I were to “integrate” all of this, I’d say that I have been avoiding my own feelings, thoughts, and memories. I’d say that I want to be whole and be strong like others who can easily move forward and on with life, and I want to enjoy life. But there are parts of my fractured psyche that bring tempestuous emotions to the forefront, and I truly don’t want to remember the pain, or recall what I should have done but didn’t. Whenever I try to move forward, I have many memories and thoughts to process. I try to remind all parts of myself that there are many great things that can be enjoyed in life while grieving, but then there probably is a part of me that is torn and broken and completely avoidant. I’m not in denial, but it’s hard to reconcile. All I’ve known for this kind of thing is “internal family systems therapy,” a dialogue with my parts. I’m not sure it works when I lose focus on the good things in life.

        Liked by 1 person

      • hiddenlayersbeneath

        After thinking about what I responded and what you said, I do need “new thoughts and preoccupations.” It’s just challenging when the new directions I’m headed in are so similar to the work I was doing in one of the past relationships that had ended. I’m not so much afraid of relationships as I am with a new direction in work. My health has also affected my choices in relationships. I remain friends with people I’ve known for over 10 years, and I will miss them when I move out of state, but even if I were to stay within the state temporarily, I really don’t have the health to keep up with the activities they liked to do in the past. I don’t like bar-hopping, for instance. And my one friend of 10 years enjoys doing a lot of physical activities outdoors, but I truly cannot do that anymore. Whenever I explain that I’m limited on what I can do, they either don’t believe CFS or try to push me whenever I’m out with them and I assert that I can only stay an hour. After a three-hour try with hanging out with friends the last time, I was wiped out for nearly a week. I cannot maintain the same kind of friendships I had with the medical conditions I now have. And then all of that affects my emotions, including this new thyroid thing that is going on with me. And then all of these things combined, plus one of the breakups, affect my career choices. I’ve had some positive outlooks on relocating, changing majors, continuing with volunteering in science in some way, finishing out my volunteering with psych-related stuff (before I exit that chapter completely by December), and starting anew with building a new outlook on interdisciplinary research – that is, if I have the energy and health (mental and physical) to do all that. What I want is not always feasible, and I find myself back in this place of adjusting again and again. I simply cannot give up by taking an early disability retirement (i.e., living off of disability for the rest of my life without having achieved or accomplished all that I know that I’m capable of). The true grief lies in wanting my health back, and the harmful toll that past abuses have caused on me – a cumulative reaction from polyvictimizations and lifetime complex traumas. With every step I take forward, I wonder what door will slam in my face next in terms of another health problem, another memory, another thought-dialogue inside my head. Too much thinking. Not enough stability and balance. For a while my residence was stable; I lived in my last apartment for 8 years, maintained some friendships for over 20 years while other newer friendships I’ve maintained for about 10 now, and maintained my current residence for about 3.5 years. My future, for at least a year or two, will not be stable. My health, for the past 5 years, has not been stable. My therapists at the VA keep changing because they rotate often; I get used to the short-term, but their methods are inconsistent, as are the personalities I work with. I really like the person I’m in treatment with now, but she’s in training and has to take a few weeks off here and there to get more training, and then try that training out on me, I suppose. They don’t really have long-term and seasoned therapists at the VA, a complaint that many veterans have had, but at least the therapists are accountable, which is why I feel safer at the VA than I would outside. But what I truly need is consistency. What I needed from the last relationship I broke up with was clear expectations and less counter-transference; and that was a “professional” relationship!! What could have been a great relationship and pathway for me turned into a stalemate the moment that the other person’s issues got enmeshed with mine, and I now know, from therapy and role playing, that many of those things were out of my control and truly the responsibility of the other person. I felt some closure and healing in that, but I saw red flags and chose to stay for two more years after that. I stayed because of promises that were never going to be fulfilled. I wound up feeling used for free labor without anything in return; no lessons, no references, no constructive critiques I could learn from and grow. I wasted three years of my life that could have been spent on finishing up a Master’s degree by now, given all the “busy” work I’ve been doing that had amounted to nothing but my own independent studies, unguided no less. A career loss followed by health loss followed by exacerbated mental health losses followed by ecological losses all amount to the environmental sequelae that follows certain relationships. I’ve handled breakups before, but this one was intertwined with threats of sabotage to my reputation, career, and future. I knew I should have walked away the moment I sensed that there was a toxic shift. My health would not have suffered as much had I left the relationships at least two years sooner. I can only blame myself for trying to be strong enough to stay to see what happens. That’s something I will not ever want to repeat again. Building an alternative life in the midst of mobility issues means a constant adjustment to unstable territory for a while.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. hiddenlayersbeneath

    Thank you, Dr. S. I will try to keep plugging forward. I do like fresh starts and new adventures, but it is hard to take the first step sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. hiddenlayersbeneath

    Dr. S. I am okay. I sound like I am not okay, but I am just processing. I should probably process offline and try to keep my comments on topic. Breakups can be messy for anyone who has more at stake than merely moving on… such as those witb children and custody battles, or those escaping from a narcissistic relationship. When I tried to leave kindly three years ago, the response of my mentor was, “You will not find anyone who has given you more than I have. …If you feel like I am holding you back, then leave.” I only stated three years ago that I needed additional experience and three recommender, not just one, and he somehow took offense to that. I stayed because I felt I needed to stay after he said that. I thought my reaction to that was confusing because it sounded like a boyfriend telling me that I would not find anyone better. My therapists all told me to leave, that I was dealing with a narcissist. I did not want to believe my therapists. In the end, I told the mentor that I would not be giving him anymore narcissistic supply. He replied to me and acknowledged his own early childhood trauma and his own narcissism in a way, though he proceeded to blame me for his need for his own therapy and medications again, and his canceling classes and struggles with his family. All because I needed to leave and mention how things went wrong and could have been corrected on both of our parts. I was also accused of being like his mother. The relationship I had was enmeshed. I broke up, and I left. I quit. But even though I made the decision to leave, I still struggle. I wished I left three years ago. It felt like I was in a relationship with a child who stole all my ideas and needed constant mirroring and praise for his works. This is just a fraction of what I have experienced. I tried to keep it all secret or assume blame because he was the expert. He wanted me to email him profusely about my past traumas, and then he found issue with it years after I spilled my heart out. All for clinical training prep? I said screw that! This is not the response I thought I would get. And none if it was a test. In the end, he admitted that he was working out his own mother issues with me. I felt sad for him the last year I was there. Guilty even. And torn into a routine I never had with any other professor or mentor. I threw up a few times. I cried many nights. I stood numb in my apartment doing busy work for others. I could not take it anymore. I fear that this is what grad school is. Other professionals who do not know him or the situation have assured me that it is not. He picked me and chose me out of a large group of students. I was his first undergrad, he would say repeatedly. Ugh. I did not get it. Closure never comes. I am searching for reasons why. It is scary to move on when I fear that is what grad school is like. I feel like the bad guy, and I apologized for three years for not appreciating this guy enough. Gag me with a spoon and put me out of my misery. Please. And still, I feel awful that the man hurts that way. I became his Other. And his projected mother. I knew then that psychology was NOT FOR ME. I love science, but what therapists deal with, or have to overcome, is like a superpower, lest they lack control of their counter-transference. Kudos to those who do well. But I know now how easily it would be for me or others like the mentor to become an abusive therapist. The breakup was necessary. It is hard to move on.


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