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.

17 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….♥️

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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?

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    • 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.

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

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  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.

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  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.

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