Grief After a Breakup: Three Things You Should Know

Types of Grief and Loss / Types of Grief and Loss : Eleanor Haley


Breaking up is really hard to do. Most of us know what it’s like to suffer a broken heart. Many of us know how complicated it is to separate two lives intricately intertwined. Being that we’ve all probably experienced some form of breakup grief, we know stressful, ongoing, and overwhelming this experience of loss can be.

Yet, for many reasons, people grieving a breakup aren’t always comfortable saying, “This is an earth-shattering loss that I need time and space to grieve.”  So here we are today, ready to affirm your losses and share with you some of the factors that might impact a person’s grief after a breakup. Specifically, we want to share three things you should know about breakup grief.

Of note, we realize we’re casting a broad net by addressing breakups in general, as relationships come in all shapes and sizes. We will likely get more specific in the future, for example, an article specific to divorce grief or supporting children impacted by parental separation. If you have thoughts or perspectives you think might be helpful as we get more specific about related topics, please leave them in the comment section below. 


Three Things You Should Know About Breakup Grief

1. Yes, it’s possible to grieve a relationship

A common misconception is that grief is experienced only in response to the death of a loved one. In reality, there are many experiences besides the death of a loved one that can cause life-changing grief, and the loss of an intimate relationship is undoubtedly one of them.

When people grieve someone who is still alive, it is called ambiguous grief. As we stated in our article, 7 Types of Grief You Should Know Right Now

“Ambiguous loss happens when something or someone profoundly changes or disappears. A person feels torn between hope things will return to normal and the looming sense that life as they knew it is fading away like a Polaroid developing in reverse.”

In the case of a breakup, the relationship ends while the people who were a part of it keep living. Except now they are different, at least towards each other. Things that previously underscored their interactions, like love, loyalty, intimacy, attention, caring, obligation, may no longer exist.  

In many instances, these characteristics had been fading from the relationship for a long time. So the breakup marks the end of a long tail of prolonged hurt and confusion, but also the start of grieving things you perhaps anticipated losing with great fear and trepidation. 

Regardless of the circumstances, people within the relationship have to renegotiate boundaries and figure out new ways to relate. And though that new way may be better or much (much) worse, you can still grieve the relationship that came before. It doesn’t even have to have been a good relationship in hindsight – if there was something about it at one point you felt you needed, wanted, liked, or loved – there’s probably something to grieve.

This may be made even more difficult by the fact that you live with the possibility of seeing your ex at any moment. You try so hard to cope with your losses, only to have a run-in at the grocery store or a glance at their Instagram feed throw you completely off balance.

Also, if you share kids with your ex or are going through prolonged divorce proceedings, you have no choice but to see them on a regular basis. And for a while, this may make you feel like your distressing grief emotions are chronic and never-ending.


2. People may make you feel like you don’t have the right to grieve your breakup

When you consider all the songs, sonnets, and stories written about lost love since, well, forever, it’s a wonder this type of loss ever gets minimized. Perhaps it’s the very universality of a broken heart that causes people to say – it happens to everyone, you’ll get through it. But the fact that it happens to everyone doesn’t make it any less devastating.  

As we mentioned, the misconception that grief happens only in response to a death is perhaps the main reason why breakup grief is often mislabeled and misunderstood. 

People also make a lot of judgments about whose experience is worthy of sympathy and compassion. Categorically speaking, there’s often the idea that only divorce can turn a person’s world upside down. And, of course, it can and does! But much of what people grieve relative to a relationship ending has to do with love and attachment and not just legalities.

Additionally, people often think that blame, responsibility, and choice negate grief after a breakup. The person who initiated or is “to blame” for the breakup is often moved out of the domain of empathy.

In these instances, others might say to them (or they might say to themselves), “Why are you upset? This is what you wanted!” But, you can know something wasn’t healthy or right for you and still grieve the loss of it.

Though the person who is deemed the injured party may receive more sympathy, they may also feel pressure to quickly get over their breakup grief. People might say, “Don’t be upset – she was a jerk – you’re better off – think of all the fish in the sea!” Any or all of these things may be true, but the person still needs to grieve all the loss their breakup has caused them.

I think it’s important to close this section by pointing out that it’s not only other people who can make you feel like your grief and loss aren’t worthy. Since childhood, we’ve all internalized messages about love and relationships.

We’ve also developed very specific ideas about how we “should” be in our relationships and our ability to cope with loss. So it’s entirely possible that someone may minimize or stigmatize their own experience.

breakup grief

3. One major loss leads to many little losses

When there is a primary loss as disruptive as the end of a relationship, there is often a domino effect of subsequent losses. In the grief world, we call these losses “secondary loss.” 

Secondary loss can be tangible and concrete, like the loss of a home or finances. They can also be abstract, like a changing worldview, the loss of a dream for the future, or an altered sense of self.  Some common secondary losses include, but are in no way limited to, the following examples.

Many people don’t realize how loss can impact their sense of identity and self-esteem. Changes in the roles a person fills and their interpersonal interactions on a day-to-day basis force them to redefine who they are. 

Going through a breakup can specifically impact your sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Feelings of betrayal, abandonment, guilt, responsibility, or uncertainty about how things ended may change how people see themselves, at least temporarily. 

  • Changes in how you see others

Depending on the breakup circumstances, a person might experience thoughts and feelings related to betrayal, shock, embarrassment, shame, anger, bitterness, or resentment towards one’s partner. And these thoughts and feelings sometimes get generalized to broader groups of people. 

For example, someone who feels like they had the rug pulled out from under them by their partner may all of a sudden feel like they can’t trust anyone. They may say they never want to date again or that all other couples are totally doomed.  

  • The loss of friends and family members

Regardless of the type of loss, an extremely common experience is the redefining of relationships. From a positive perspective, many people say that going through hardship taught them who their friends are and helped them value things that really matter in their relationships.

On the other hand, people often find that those they thought would be there for them aren’t. With a breakup, you have the added hurt of people taking sides or just disappearing because they were closer with your ex. Additionally, you may have “couple friends” who seem unable or uninterested in redefining the relationship now that you’re single.

When you break up with someone, your hopes for a shared future end as well. Though you may still maintain a relationship with them, it’s not exactly what you had envisioned. Whether you envisioned growing old with this person or having kids together, you now have to grieve the loss of what might have been.

You may also grieve the loss of the time you spent together. Though you may ultimately say it was time well spent, you may also think about other dreams you could have accomplished. For example, maybe you wanted to get married, have kids, or find true love. Or maybe you just wish you were having more fun on your own – whatever it is, you may now worry it’s too late.


This is just a fraction of this conversation, but this article has now achieved “way too long” status. As we mentioned, please leave your thoughts and perspectives in the comments because we will continue to discuss topics related to breakups and divorce in the future.

Let’s be grief friends.

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8 Comments on "Grief After a Breakup: Three Things You Should Know"

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  1. Tara  February 9, 2021 at 5:39 am Reply

    Hi Luisa, I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry for the pain you are going through, and that I understand first hand what you are feeling, the complexity of losing someone who lost their way and the judgement that follows from that with family and friends, and the utter heartache in having to let go of someone when you love them more than anyone can understand who has not been in your shoes.
    i myself have experienced the very same thing, as my partner literally lost his way and it’s a devastating situation that i went through, for him and me. i am trying to move through this part of my life as best as i can although it feels very isolating and overwhelming.
    I just wanted reach out for what it’s worth and let you know if it is of any comfort whatsoever, that you are not alone in your pain in this particular way, and I’m sending out thoughts of healing to you. And may peace of mind come in time…

  2. Renee  February 4, 2021 at 1:37 pm Reply

    Thank you. I lost my husband in divorce and later death. I can’t understand the grief I feel daily. I lost much more, also, as in friends, family and identity of who I am as you say in the article. Definitely a double whammy. Also, a very humbling experience.

  3. Alyssa K  January 8, 2021 at 8:16 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this article! I am going through a recent breakup and it has been difficult for others to understand the grief that I am experiencing.

    I am wondering if you could explore in future articles how grief if complicated from a break up if there was a betrayal. Like if your breakout was due to an affair or another type of major betrayal.

  4. Jill Brown  January 8, 2021 at 11:11 am Reply

    There is another layer to breakup grief that many do not think about because it is attached to an already unspeakable grief; a breakup caused by the trauma of the death of a child. I lost my oldest son at the age of 19 seven years ago next week. I have been divorced from his father for 14 years, but was in a relationship with who I thought was a strong, competent and caring man. My continued grief over the loss of my child became our undoing; it wasn’t his child (both of his are still alive) and I wasn’t “getting over it” fast enough to suit him. After many, many attempts to help him understand my grief, I finally realized he was incapable of getting it. He could be sympathetic at times, but he does not have the capacity for empathy which I desperately needed from him. I recently admitted to myself that I would have to walk away from this relationship because he is never going to understand and I can’t process my loss on his timetable. In addition to losing my son, I lost my job, my home, most of my friends, some of my family and my significant other. And due to the pandemic, the majority of my support people due to overwhelming strain placed on their lives. It is devastating.

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    • Eleanor Haley  January 8, 2021 at 12:29 pm Reply

      Jill,

      My heart breaks for all the loss you’ve experienced. I think many people will be able to relate to what you share about how the death of a loved one can impact a relationship. This is definitely a topic that we want to cover more in the future, so thank you so much for sharing your valuable perspective.

      Eleanor

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    • Luisa H  January 9, 2021 at 11:13 am Reply

      There is a part of me that will never let go of the 20 years we had together. I love this man and will love him forever even if he will no longer be part of my life. Somewhere along the way he lost his way and I couldn’t get him back. I have good friends but I dislike when they say things will be better or you will be happier or better off. Just good advice for friends who have friends that are grieving, these are a few things that you shouldn’t say: “Things will get better, – everyone has gone to a breakup you will get over it- your life will be better without him, – he didn’t deserve you,- in the long run it’s the best thing for you.” These are not things we want to hear in our moments of grief. We just want someone who is there to listen without judgment. Just be a good friend and be there for that person. Great article!!!

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    • Helena  January 12, 2021 at 7:19 am Reply

      I am very sorry for what you have been through (and still are).
      I think this kind of pain needs to be witnessed and, most of all, respected by others.
      I can’t say a lot, just please…. don’ t give up…
      I wish you can find healing and walk a new path where there will be peace and meaning.

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