Why & How We Grieve Relationships

Grief is the emotional process that follows loss - any loss. We most closely associate grieving with death and dying, but in reality the grieving process applies to any significant loss that happens throughout our lifetime.

Losing a relationship, be it with a friend, family or significant other, is a special kind of grief that affects us in different ways than death tends to do. With death, there is acceptance of no longer having a person on earth with us, the void that will leave, and how it makes us question our own mortality. Grieving a relationship presents a different set of challenges. How do we contend with a loss when the person is still very much accessible to us, and why does it affect us in such similar ways to death and dying?

Simply put, we grieve relationships because of the impact they have on our lives. They’re a deeply significant part of our lives that we are emotionally attached to. When a relationship ends, it triggers feelings of loss, sadness, emptiness and loneliness. It leaves us questioning who we are in relation to others. Fear not, the grieving process is a very natural response to the loss of something meaningful to us. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to heal and move forward.

Grief is especially intense in the aftermath of a breakup (romantic partner or otherwise) because of the deep connection we hold with another person. This includes shared experiences and a sense of shared identity. When a relationship ends, it can feel as though a part of ourselves is missing, and it can be difficult to adjust to a new reality without that person. Unlike death and dying, a piece of us will still need to reckon with the fact that this person exists in the world and will continue to live out their own journey. This is part of what makes the cyclical door of returning to unhealthy relationships so ever present.

So how do we grieve a relationship? It’s important to note that everyone grieves differently and at their own pace. There is no right or wrong way to grieve a relationship, and it is a unique experience for each individual. Some ways to cope with a relationship loss include:

  1. Allow yourself to feel and express your emotions: Crying, anger, and sadness are all normal reactions to losing a relationship. Acknowledge and express your feelings rather than suppressing them.
  2. Reach out to others for support: Talking to friends, family, or a support group can be helpful in processing your emotions.
  3. Take care of yourself: Exercise, eat well, and try to get enough sleep. Taking care of your physical health can have a positive impact on your mental health.
  4. Keep yourself busy: Engage in activities you enjoy or take up a new hobby. This can help take your mind off the loss and provide a sense of accomplishment.
  5. Reflect on what you have learned: Consider the lessons you've learned from the relationship and how you can apply them to future relationships.
  6. Seek professional help if needed: If your grief becomes overwhelming or interferes with your daily life, consider seeking the support of a therapist or counselor.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross coined the five stages of grief which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In my experience, these stages are not linear. One day we will find ourselves in acceptance, the next we will be back to depression. Grief can become duller over time, but most people who have experienced loss will tell you it’s a process that has hidden trap doors and finds new ways to enter your life with different milestones.

Everyone experiences these stages differently, and not everyone will experience all of them. Some people may skip stages or revisit stages several times. Additionally, the timeline for grief can vary, with some people feeling a sense of closure quickly, while others may take much longer to heal.

Remember, healing takes time and it’s important to be patient with yourself. Losing, outgrowing or ending relationships is a natural part of life, but this doesn’t diminish the very real impact it will have on your mental health, sense of self, and future goals. Validate that losing your relationship is a big deal, and it means something. Allow the grieving process to move through you without expectations.

As always, rooting for you.

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC

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Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC