This past March marked the fifth year since my father passed away. As someone who lost a fiancé 24 years ago this year, I can personally attest to the fact that you never really "get over" losing someone. You simply learn how to deal with it.
Back in February, as I thought about whether or not I was going to do anything special to memorialize my dad's death, ironically, the five stages of grief came to mind—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Because my dad was an on-again-off-again substance abuser and abuse survivor all of his life—also, since we tended to have some of the most raw and candid conversations I've ever had with any human being—once I received the news that he was gone, I don't think that I struggled with the stages of grieving nearly as much as other people probably do whenever they lose a loved one. For me, his life was so tortured and tumultuous that I think, on some level, I was always in one of those stages when it came to him—as was he.
As I reflected on all of this, I then thought about a different kind of loss along with something that I oftentimes tell people whenever a relationship of theirs comes to an end—a part of the reason why break-ups can be so hard to get through, let alone get over, is because, in a lot of ways, they are just like a death. Problem is, most of us don't treat it like that. Instead, we opt to act like a failing relationship is on life support with a "do resuscitate" sign on it.
Every time we see signs that it's sooooo much better, wiser and healthier to just let it go, we darn near kill our own selves in order to bring it back to life. Over and over…and over again. Until it comes dangerously close to killing us (or breaking our spirit).
Meanwhile, the overlooked reality is every time we try to make something work that isn't working, what we really should be doing instead is getting honest with ourselves about 1) the current state of the relationship; 2) the toxic patterns that are within it and 3) why we're trying to keep it going if it really needs to be left alone. Totally alone.
Gee, as I'm typing this and you're reading it, it should make so much common sense to us both. So, why aren't nearly enough of us doing what we know needs to be done? Again, my firm belief is it's because we don't go through the five stages of grief for the death (loss) of a relationship just like we do (or at least should) with the death of a person.
And how does all of this tie into the title of this particular article? Well, I don't know about you, but there are some men in my past who, in hindsight, I now see that when it was really starting to look like it was time to call things quits, while I thought I was fighting to make the relationship work, what was really happening is I was going through the stages of grief. I just didn't recognize it for what it was at the time.
Here's what I mean by that. Think back to your last break-up. Not the one that you got over after a weekend of watching rom-coms and pseudo-cyberstalking dude on his IG. I mean the one that had you so debilitated that it was truly a miracle you got to work every day. The one that caused you to gain or lose 15 pounds. The one that had you terrified to love again.
Yeah, that one.
How many times did you try and make it work after it ended? Once? Twice? 10 times?! (Don't be embarrassed, it happens.) OK, now think again about the five stages of grief that I already mentioned—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While you were thinking that you were trying to make the relationship that obviously wasn't working work, was it really because he was so awesome and the relationship was so great? Or was it more that you were grieving and didn't see it for what it was?
Shoot, I'll speak for myself and say that when it came to my biggest heartbreak ever, that is exactly what was going on. He was emotionally abusive, but we had been so close, for so long, that I went into DENIAL about that. He broke my heart without the respect of telling me face to face (yep, dude wrote me an email to tell me); that made me ANGRY. Because he had been such a big part of my life, my emotions tried to "edit out" all of the bad times and amplify the good. As a result, that made me want to try and BARGAIN with God (and sacrifice myself) in order to find ways to get him back. That led me into a state of DEPRESSION (a great definition of depression is "anger turned inward").
Here's the real hooker, though—because I didn't get that I wasn't loving so much as I was grieving, I didn't ACCEPT things for what they were. Instead, for several months, I just kept sending myself through the cycle of denial, anger, bargaining and depression all over again without getting to the fifth (and final) step.
And here's the thing about doing that—when you don't get to the point of accepting the reality of where you are in your relationship, your mind (and heart) can start to play tricks on you. A lack of acceptance can put you into such a deep state of denial that you'll start to only reflect on the good of the guy and your relationship.
You'll stay stuck in the narratives that bring you comfort and cause you to think that he's the best thing there is for you. You'll begin to believe that you can't let go because you're so in love when really, you're scared to let go because you're in so much pain.
The good news is when you get to the point and position of really seeing this harsh-yet-necessary truth for what it is, you start to see that you don't really love the guy as much as you thought you did. No, what you are actually doing is grieving the love you had for the man you thought he was and the relationship you thought you would end up having long-term. And when you can accept that? That's when grieving turns into healing and you really get to the place of true acceptance so that you can move on, forward and towards real, healthy and lasting love.
How can I speak so confidently on this? It's because when I started to embrace that I didn't need to try and make things work for the umpteenth time nor did I need to look at him through rose-colored glasses in order to romanticize the pain away but, instead, I needed to go through the entire grieving process so that I could finally get to the acceptance portion of the process…whew!
I accepted that he didn't treat me right. I accepted that his good points were great and that his bad ones were emotionally-debilitating, so his rejection was actually a form of protection. I accepted there was no way that a man who could take me so much (and often) for granted even deserved the privilege and honor to even have my love.
And I accepted that, just as the Bible says, sometimes love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8)—so much so that I wasn't ever really in love with the guy who actually existed; it was more like, I was in love with who I thought he'd become if he had let me love him all the way.
Does that make sense? What I'm trying to say is a lot of times, because we don't grieve the death of a relationship, we hang on thinking that we still love "him" when, if we went through ALL five stages, we'd come out on the other side and see that we loved who we thought he was or who we hoped he'd become. Not who he actually is…anymore.
Sis, once you get there, once you really and truly get there, healing has truly begun. Your broken heart starts to become whole again. Loving again doesn't seem quite as scary or unimaginable as it initially did. Neither does completely letting him—and the relationship—go.
So, if you're currently going through a heartbreak right now, know that I'm hugging you through the computer screen. What you're going through sucks; there's absolutely no way around that. But if you're ready to stop hurting and start healing, do yourself, your time and your future (and better) relationship a favor and ask yourself the following three questions (in this order too):
Are you still loving or just grieving? Have you allowed yourself to complete all five stages? If so, is it really that you love him or simply who you thought he was?
Once you know the answers, hopefully re-reading this narrative will show you what to do next. Love and grief are both intense, but they aren't identical emotions or experiences. When it comes to processing the end of a relationship with someone, knowing this as well as accepting it, changes everything.
Featured image by Getty Images.
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