Grieving and Healing – What you are feeling now, what you’re going to feel and why you need to feel it: The Seven Stages of Grieving an Ex
There are no two ways about it: you will feel dreadful emotional pain during the process of getting over your ex. It will feel like there’s no other pain in the world that matters. In fact, it may hurt so much you swear you can feel it physically. You may feel like there is a bottomless pit of hurt, anger, desperation, and questions and you’re just falling helplessly into this black pit of heartbreak. It’s hard to imagine when you’re tumbling through the black hole that these feelings will ever go away.
To help you better understand the process you’re going through, I’ve dedicated a whole chapter explaining what’s going to happen and what you will feel during each stage. You’ll likely recognize which Stage you’re currently at and I’ll help you prepare for what’s next.
Stage One: Desperation
Desperation and fixation is the beginning stage of a break-up. I recall my ‘Stage One’ vividly, as I endured it many times throughout relationships. Combined, these relationships took up well over a decade of my life – that’s a long time to suffer the helpless feeling of desperation.
During this phase, you may be desperate to know why the break-up occurred, why you deserve to be feeling the way you do or you may be yearning to know why you simply aren’t wanted anymore. There are numerous ‘why’s’ that you will be asking, and the answers will seem so far away from your grasp right now.
During your ‘Stage One’ process, you (just like I did), may begin to fixate on things of the past; old conversations, events and broken promises that may hide clues to the demise of your relationship. If you can access those clues, you tell yourself you can maybe find a way to rectify the wrongdoing that killed your relationship and ignite that fire that was once there.
This stage of the grieving and healing process is one of the hardest to go through. But trust me, once you begin making your way through these seven steps, you are getting stronger and stronger at each pass – no matter how weak you feel or how close to giving up you think you are.
The sheer weight of desperation during this phase fogs your mind. Your vision of your ex becomes very rose tinted. They are the only person that can break you free from your anguished prison, yet they are the one who locked you in there (although during my very last ‘Stage One’, I realized this isn’t true. It was ME who had locked myself in there and it was only ME who could free myself from my anguished prison).
Fundamentally, this stage can turn you into a big, answer-seeking mess. During my break-up with my first serious relationship, I suffered in silence. I didn’t tell anyone, I didn’t talk to anyone and I kept it all inside. A big part of this was that very few people knew we were together; it was a physically abusive relationship (yes, I sure know how to pick them) and friends and family were unhappy about me continuously returning to him, even after numerous trips to hospital and many days in hiding until black eyes and bruises had gone.
As a result of the relationship being mostly secret, I had no one to talk to. If you currently have no one to talk to, you may be like I was; asking rhetorical questions in your head, spending hours upon hours going over old messages, living inside your head, sobbing alone. I can tell you from experience (and you may know this already), that this is absolutely unhealthy. Even if you are choosing not to talk to anybody because you don’t want to, keeping things bottled inside will only cause you to implode with the energy sucking emotion that drives your desperation.
Instead of keeping things tightly contained, I would highly recommend the following:
- Write your thoughts and feelings down. Even if you don’t want to keep them or think it’s ‘silly’ to do so. You can always get it down on paper, read it back to yourself and then rip the paper up (or burn it in my case. I had penned a letter to my ex that I found stuffed in a drawer. I think I was roughly at Stage Six when I found it after hiding it away during Stage One. Although it reminded me of how I had felt, and brought a little pain back, it also reaffirmed to me how far I had come and how much further I can go. I even smiled after I had read it; partly due to the cringe worthy content, mostly because I was proud of me).
- Speak aloud. Again, you may feel stupid, but you’ll feel less weighed once you have decompressed and let your desperation out. Whatever is going through your head – say it! I had my trusty Jack Russell who would listen to me as I explained my feelings, questioned why I was going through this pain and expressing my loss at what to do next. Although you may think it’s odd to talk to your dog (don’t worry – I wasn’t expecting a response from him), getting my thoughts and feelings out of my system did help me declutter my mind and feel slightly better. If you’re lacking a dog, simply talk aloud. You WILL feel better.
The Stage One of my second break-up was much different. This time, I didn’t keep it all in. I would cry to friends and family, ask them questions about their thoughts on what I did so wrong, what I needed to do next and ask them to debate my failings with me. I was lucky enough to have one friend who had also recently split from his boyfriend and was also taking it hard. He would come round to my house and we would spill our guts for hours. Sometimes when he left I would feel worse, but knowing what I know now, it was something I needed to do in order to overcome my (as I now know it) Stage One and break through this gut churning break-up.
Stage One – and remember this – like all of the Seven Stages, can only last so long.
The desperation and fixation on things period certainly takes its toll, however. This means your fragile mind will need to find a way to fix this, and will eventually move on to the next Stage of the grieving and healing process – denial.
Stage Two – Denial
It’s not true. You were both in love. He’s/she’s made a huge mistake and just doesn’t realize it yet! This relationship is NOT over – it’s just a tremulous period that will have to come to an end because you belong to each other. You truly know this. Sound like you? Then welcome to Stage Two – Denial.
Although I know you won’t necessarily be actually ‘welcoming’ any of these Stages, once your grieving process is over, I can tell you that you’ll look back and be proud of how far you’ve came and just how much strength you truly have. You really will surprise yourself in the best possible way – especially later on in the book, where I share with you the same methods, steps to happiness and habits of self-care that I adopted to ensure I became a much better version of myself (and found the love of my life, but more on that later).
For now any of the above may seem miles away, if attainable at all. In fact, it’s highly likely you don’t want to move on right now, you just want to be with your ex. I was the same – we all are. It’s happened to me, it’s happening to you and it’ll happen to people as long as the world is turning.
Switching from desperation to denial gives your overactive mind a break. It ensures you stop asking questions, pleading with yourself for answers and fixating on your loss. It allows your mind to rest.
Your mind is now counteracting the desperation of Stage One and filling it with hope in Stage Two, in the form of denial. This is a case of your mind ‘playing tricks’, however.
The purpose of denial is to prevent you from feeling anymore emotional pain and is your mind’s way of helping you avoid more distress.
So whilst your mind is trying to be helpful and give you some feelings of hope and reassurance, you need to know that this is simply a phase of the Seven Stages and isn’t a true reflection of where your relationship with your ex is.
Think of it as a mirage; you’re in an unbearably hot desert, surrounded by miles upon miles of scorching hot sand. All of a sudden you see a sparkling oasis in the distance, with the water shining bright sunlight reflections into your eyes. The elation you feel when you see hope of water and comfort in the distance would be enough to spur you on further in your plight.
It’s the same with Stage Two of your grieving process. Denial is your mind’s very own ‘mirage’ that is there to give you a renewed sense of hope and offers a place to channel all of your emotions. So, whilst your mind thinks it’s being helpful, it’s in fact just a detour from facing reality.
I have, many times, used denial to maintain my horrendous past relationships. I would argue that we were meant to be, that the years we have spent together mean too much to throw away. Obviously none of that was true, although I didn’t know that then. Getting stuck at Stage Two was often my downfall. I’d use my denial-driven sales pitch and tell my ex exactly why we shouldn’t split up. Inevitably, we’d stay together. Lo and behold, I’d find myself repeating the same situation time after time (which is also known as Stage Four – Relapse. My arch nemesis for many, many years. More on that in a bit).
Whilst your situation may be different, as all of our break-up circumstances are, the element of denial still rears its ugly head regardless of the separation conditions.
Denial leads to Stage Three – bargaining. This is driven by denial so it is the natural next step in the process.
Stage Three – Bargaining
You’re currently at the edge of a chasm and are doing anything you can to avoid going down there. You’re doing everything in your power to cling on to the known and avoid stepping into the unknown, which is (often unfortunately) the makings of human nature.
This next step of avoidance ensures us heartbroken folk aren’t leaving this without a fight. From the classic promises of how much you’ll be better this time round to even offering conditions that you aren’t comfortable with, it’s all in aid of keeping this ‘special someone’ with you.
If you put me in front of a potential customer and told me to sell a product, I’d be a bumbling halfwit; giving nonsensical reasons for them to buy the product and generally having no real clue what I was doing. Selling is just something I’d be uncomfortable doing and don’t have the knack of.
However, if you imagine me all those years ago, giving my exes my bargaining sales pitch, I was a maestro at selling. I’d spew the reasons they ought to be with me and offer them the benefits of returning to the relationship like a pro saleswoman. I’d sell myself until I was back in the comfort of that relationship (although, as I know now, it was always just a temporary comfort – I was too scared to go it alone and feel the dreadful things I’d need to in order to become truly happy).
Heartbreak and the agony of separation can really ensure all logic is thrown out of the window. This might be a good time to mention that it’s best not to make any big choices whilst you are going through this time in your life. I got myself into a heavy amount of debt during my last break-up. Whilst this may seem small time in comparison to those who really do extreme things when making their way through heartbreak, it’s still more stress added onto an already extremely stressful (to say the least) situation. Where possible, try and have a few moments thought and clarity (ways of how to do this are later on in the book) before embarking on anything major.
Back to bargaining – the Stage Three phase of your break-up. Whilst you’re here, remember to note that you are making progress, regardless of how you feel.
Getting back to the psychology of the bargaining phase, much like the Stage Two period of denial, your mind is acting as a distraction from facing the reality of loss and the anxiety of separation. Bargaining has you adopting the mindset of winning him/her back, at any cost. You’ll even be willing to take the blame for everything that contributed to the demise of the relationship.
By bargaining, you’re trying to take control of something that has rendered you powerless. You’re taking responsibility for the end of your relationship and begin giving yourself the illusion that by doing so, you can fix it. And by any means necessary! The sheer grit and determination you gain during this phase of breaking up can astounding. By allowing yourself to perceive that the relationship is salvageable, you are putting off feeling the sheer devastation of loss.
Bargaining, as I am especially all too aware, leads to Stage Four – relapsing. You may or may not relapse, as you may have no choice in the matter if your ex is sticking tightly to their guns and not getting back with you. This, although you likely don’t see or feel it now, is a positive for you in your heartbreak journey to happiness.
Stage Four – Relapse
If you are like I was, it may be a case of relapsing (plural) than a singular relapse. I did it time and time again, somehow each time convincing myself that this time it will work out.
If relapse isn’t an option for you, you’re one of the lucky ones. I’m aware you’ll be reading this and pondering how so, when all you want is to be back in the arms of your ex. But trust me, by this stage not being made available to you, your ex is doing you a serious time-saving favor.
I felt, and in all probability you feel, that the only way to quash the pain is to be with your ex. This gives you a temporary (stressing the word temporary) feeling of elation, then the comfortable feeling of safety. However, you are only prolonging the emotional distress even more by giving into makeshift comfort.
I would feel so euphoric when I was finally back in the arms of my ex, regardless of what he had done to me. Just to feel safe and loved and like things could just be better and nicer from now on gave me a short-term feeling of happiness. I literally had withdrawals when we were apart, so when he agreed each time to give it another go (given that I abide by his newly enforced terms and conditions), I felt somewhat ‘me’ again. My panic attacks would subside and I could sleep better, believing that I was loved and cared for.
This was the worst thing I could do. And if this sounds like you, I have some harsh truths for you (that you will look back on in a couple of months time and #1 agree with me and #2 be glad you heard them).
You can’t carry the relationship alone, nor can you be responsible for the burden of everything that goes wrong in the relationship. For someone else to allow you to do this more than indicates that they don’t truly care for your well-being.
Reconciling more than once is the norm for us broken hearted ones. I recall a friend of mine asking me, “how many times do you need to make the same mistake before you learn” when I returned to my cheating ex. Such a simple question that she probably thought nothing more of after asking me it. However, it got to me and I did think about the answers to that question. So, if you are in the same routine of relapsing like I was, have a think about that question and ponder your answers to it. Just for a few moments.
How many times do you need to make the same mistake before you learn?
If you are on the other end of the relapsing spectrum, and are being coaxed back to your relationship by your ex (even though you know it’s only going to crash and burn), the above question still applies.
Before I hit Stage Five – the resentment phase – I relapsed more times than I care to remember. During my decade (and then some) of two bad relationships, I hit double figures with my relapses. Perhaps I just needed to know the relationship was a dud for sure (rolling my eyes as I write this). I am the type who will work at something to ensure the best outcome, however I was damaging my health and happiness in the long run with my constant relapses.
More than this, I was feeding my attachment issues by not looking into the true reasons I couldn’t be apart from my then-lovers. It was only when I did this, that I realized that if I didn’t change, then neither would my situation.
It was during a relapse that we argued about something irrelevant, then he up and left me laying on the floor (a sobbing heap, if you recall). It was those days after that I knew that I had to stop repeating this same demeaning behavior. I had to take control of myself and my life. Those awful days I laid in bed, didn’t eat and broke out in cold sweats constantly. But – I was adamant that I was going to get through this, somehow, someway. And it all began with taking control.
Your reading of this book suggests you are at that point too, which can often be a very difficult place to get to. Change isn’t something us humans are particularly accommodating to, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.
Once we pass through the Stage Four process of relapsing, we will enter the new phase of emotions. Resentment is an ugly word that is used to describe even uglier feelings, and that is what you will feel next.
Stage Five – Resentment
Whilst the feelings are ugly, it’s a good thing to feel resentment during this time. It means you’re in the midst of taking back control and taking that grey cloud over your head and turning it into thunder. Again, that might sound bad – but your anger and resentment are going to empower you.
Up until now, you could only connect with feelings of despair, desperation and loss. You have been thrust into the unknown, which naturally evokes feelings of fear and anxiety. Up until this point you have felt immobilized with your emotions, knowing only dread and anxiety. Despair and desperation were winning the war of emotions, trumping all others with ease.
As you progress through the seven stages, as I mentioned earlier, it’s important to remember that they will all pass in time. You may think I’m spinning you a cliché and that next I’ll be telling you how a ‘smooth sea never made a skilled sailor’ (very true – I do like that expression) among other pick-me-up phrases. I’m sure you’ve been given enough sympathetic looks accompanying those types of phrases lately, but some of them are very true and insightful.
Returning to resentment, this can take shape in a few ways. It all depends on your own personality, temperament, how screwed over you feel or pretty much just your own set of separation circumstances. You may feel anger at the situation, your ex, yourself, your family. Misdirected or not, this resentment is the fuel you will use to power yourself through this tormented time. Its ironic that a misdirection of feelings can somehow be the guide pointing you in the right direction, allowing you to feel more awakened to the situation.
Like the majority of us broken hearted, you’re probably aiming a lot of that anger and resentment at yourself. Defeatist and counteractive could be what you are thinking, however I disagree – you are no longer the lifeless pit of emotions you were a few stages back. You are now hurtling through the grieving process and have came so far. By this point in your progress through the Stages, you have hosted enough hurt, anger and discomfort inside of you that you are able to use that to shift your way of thinking. Perspectives change and proactivity is something within reach at this point now.
Of course, you’re only human; even during my Stage Five, I had bad days. I still had days where it all got a bit much, and I would excuse myself from social situations to go home and lay down alone and in silence. However, these days were getting fewer and fewer, and more to the point, I was actively putting myself in social situations now. I recall a meal out with friends one afternoon and I just sat quiet, barely ate, offered nothing but my physical presence. I was having a bad day. But even just getting ready, heading out and socializing was something I couldn’t even think of a few Stages ago.
And more encouragingly, I began laughing and smiling again. I was finding jokes funny, I was enjoying television and began reading again. Resentment and anger were still very much there, but their presence became less and less. Amongst the anger and frustration, I was becoming human again.
Time was passing and I would go fifteen minutes without a thought for my ex. Then half an hour, then an hour, then a whole three hours without a thought for my ex! Days passed and I began proactively seeking alternative things to keep myself occupied. Whether it was binge watching whole seasons of sitcoms, going to meet friends and drink lots of wine and find my sense of humor again or begin making homemade bracelets – I was keeping busy and find new parts of me at the same time.
Understandably, throughout this I would have moments of wishing I was partaking in these activities with my ex, or that I was able to travel back in time to when we were together and happy. Sometimes it would hit me like a ton of bricks. However, fueled by my newfound passionate feelings of resentment, I was ready to make more changes.
By this point, it’s ready to move on to Stage Six – the beginnings of acceptance.
Stage Six – The Beginnings of Acceptance
By this point, you are still grieving. You’re very much here because you have to be and not because you want to be. And that’s okay. Because by this point, you have been through enough and generated enough emotions to conclude the following:
It’s no good for you to keep trying any longer.
And it’s such a wonderful feeling to know that you have developed enough thought for yourself and enough awareness of your situation that you can now think this way.
Boundaries are being stuck to because it’s for your own self-care. The want for contact will be nowhere near as bad as it was a few Stages ago; it will be fleeting by this point. Still, controlling the impulse for contact must be avoided.
I recall my ex emailing me whilst I begun my foray into Stage Six. It was for something silly, like some paperwork that he so desperately needed, months after we had last spoken. I knew he didn’t need this paperwork, in fact it was something that was easily printed off of the internet and he knew I knew this.
He wanted contact. After ending it with me, treating me with such disdain during our break-up and leaving me in pieces, he now decided he wanted contact. Just as I was gaining control of my life again.
I didn’t reply. I didn’t reply to the next two emails asking if I had gotten the first, then asking how I was doing. I didn’t accept the attempt at messages on social media. Only when he emailed again, this time when I was in a new relationship, did I reply to firmly but politely. I told him yes, I did get the emails, but I wish to have no correspondence.
The point of me telling you this, is that I had now mustered enough willpower not to message or be sucked into replying. That’s not to say I didn’t at times draft up a response to say how much he’d hurt me; the main takeaway is the fact that I didn’t reply. And I couldn’t have been prouder of me. I was accepting that it was no good for me to keep trying any longer.
You will have many defining moments during this Stage. You will have moments where you surprise yourself and abstain from doing the damaging things you were doing only just a few Stages ago. That could be stopping yourself sending texts or posting Facebook statuses that you hope will evoke jealousy in your ex. It could be talking yourself out of staying in and hiding away, it could be reminding yourself of the things that went wrong in your relationship.
With your mind now in acceptance mode, you will feel your cocoon slowly loosening around your new self, readying yourself to break free of this heartbreak prison.
Stage Seven is awaiting you, and it’s the most wonderful sense of achievement.
Stage Seven – Renewed Hope
When your relationship died, so did hope.
Hope was replaced with panic, dread and desperation. The jarring feeling of initial acceptance allows your reserves of hope to rise up to the surface again. Even when you believe your last glimmer of hope has gone, be comforted by the fact that hope is always within you and know that it’s part of why us humans are so resilient. Don’t doubt your own resilience.
Renewed hope means you can now see a future for yourself without your ex in it. You can envision yourself in a week, month, two months time and know you’re going to be okay. In fact, more than okay – you know you’ll be happy, free and excited at the prospects you are going to create for yourself.
My defining Stage Seven moment occurred a few days after I seen my ex whilst out shopping. He was with someone else, and I was with a friend of mine. My heart lurched into my throat and I tried my best to avoid him. I was semi successful, but I knew he saw me and continued to look when he thought I couldn’t see. Stages earlier, this would have broken me. I would have felt physically sick.
But now, I really just wanted to avoid him and get on with some retail therapy. And once he was out of my sight, I breathed a sigh of relief and continued with my day. I worried that this would have a two steps back effect on me. I had a date the next evening and was worried it would cause some sort of delayed adverse reaction during our date.
It didn’t. My date and I got on very well. We drank, we laughed, we mocked each others unfamiliar accents and actually got deep in emotional conversation. Not something that usually occurs on a first date, but we had similar backgrounds, with our difficult childhoods and just-as-tough relationships.
After a fleeting try at romance, we became friends. He went on to meet a lovely girl shortly after and (as far as I’m aware) is very happy.
But it was after this date, and the lack of anything meaningful developing from it, that I knew I was full of renewed hope and a real lust for life without my ex was emerging.
It was amazing. And when this feeling arrives at your feet, I hope you remember your time reading this article and recall how elated I told you you’d feel.