Broken Heart: Handling Each Stage of Grief

When your heart is hurting over a breakup, the grief you experience is very real. A broken heart can leave you feeling frozen, paralyzed, and unable to fathom going about daily life as you used to, yet time doesn’t stand still, no matter how devastated you are by ending your relationship. How in the world can you move on when you feel like your heart is in a million pieces?

This is such a universal question that experts across many fields of study, from medical doctors to famous musicians, have spent years pondering what it takes for a human being to process grief. One of the foremost experts on the grieving process was Elisabeth Kübler Ross who, with the help of her colleague David Kessler, is responsible for what we now know as the six stages of grief. These stages can happen in or out of order, one at a time, or all at once, because it looks different for everyone, but psychological experts agree that in one way or another, almost everyone’s journey through brokenheartedness takes them through these emotional landmarks.

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

When your heart is broken, it can feel like nothing makes sense. When life feels like that, our brains try to create order out of the chaos, which gets us stuck in cycles of asking why our hearts got broken in the first place and when our pain will finally go away, which can become emotionally unhealthy. If you’re looking for something that makes sense, try examining your grief through the lense of these six stages. It may not always be a perfect comparison, but it could help you with your brain’s hunger to find order in this time of turmoil.

Six Stages of Grief After a Breakup

1. Denial, often listed as the first stage of grief, is essentially the opposite of acceptance. It doesn’t necessarily happen on a conscious level, and it’s the mind’s attempt to shield you from the discomfort and anxiety caused by the traumatic experience by refusing to recognize the experience. It doesn’t mean that you literally refuse to acknowledge the truth of your loss. You can intellectually acknowledge that you and your partner have broken up and the relationship is over while being actively stuck in the denial stage. Denial can look like the delayed onset of feelings, the inability to cry about the breakup, or sort of numbly continuing to go about your daily activities when it would be completely appropriate for you to take a break. 

Signs that you’re in denial after a breakup would be things like continuing to speak to and hang out with the person you’ve broken up with without any sort of time apart to process, and for some, “staying friends” at all may be a symptom of denial. Another sign is jumping back into dating new people too quickly, which can mean that you’re trying to cover up your pain rather than truly moving on. If you find yourself telling people you’re “fine” whenever they ask how you’re handling the loss, that could also mean you’re in denial about the pain your grief is causing you.

To move through this stage, it helps to have open, honest conversations with a trusted friend or counselor, especially in the early days of the breakup. Journaling can also help you to process the hard feelings you’re experiencing, making it less likely that you’ll avoid or deny the pain of your loss.

2. Anger. This stage makes a lot of sense! Losing somebody you care about is not a pleasant experience, even if you think the breakup was the right decision. This stage could look like obsessing over the details of what caused the breakup and nitpicking about everything you feel the other person (or yourself) did wrong. It can look like blaming the person whom your ex starts dating for your pain. It can look like becoming irritable about other things or toward other people in your life, like your parents, siblings, friends, or teachers, etc.

Moving through this stage is important because if you form an unhealthy relationship with your anger, it can become destructive. Look for healthy ways to express your anger–visual or performative arts, sports and moving your body, writing about and verbalizing your feelings.

3. Bargaining is a difficult stage because it’s when your mind becomes fixated on the “what ifs.” What if things had been different? What if you had never broken up? What if he’s different now? What if we got back together? Be careful if you’re in this stage, because this is when a lot of people might get back together, even if you broke up for good reasons, especially if you haven’t fully processed your denial stage.

This is when your trusted friends and counselors can be a huge support to you. Talk to them about your feelings, and ask them to remind you why the breakup happened in the first place. Write down the truth on a notecard and keep it in your pocket if you need constant reminders. Keep your boundaries with ex in place, because this is the time when being friends with and talking to them may tempt you to entertain the “what ifs.”

4. Depression is another pretty self-explanatory stage, defined mostly by overwhelming feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and hopelessness. This stage can leave you feeling exhausted and lethargic. You might lose your appetite, or you might want to eat all the food you can get your hands on just to feel better. You might lose all hope in feeling happy ever again, or blame yourself for the breakup, saying to yourself, “I’m such a loser, no wonder I can’t stay in a relationship.”

Again, this is where your support system and your boundaries are really important. Let the people in your life, whom you love and trust, know how you’re feeling. Ask them to remind you that these feelings of despondence are temporary, that you are worthy of love and happiness, and that better days are ahead. It’s okay to feel sad, so don’t be too hard on yourself, but don’t let yourself get stuck in the belief that you’ll always be sad or that you deserve to be sad forever.

5. Acceptance used to be considered the final stage of grief, and that makes sense! It’s when you are finally able to recognize that even if life is painful right now, things are going to be okay. You may even be able to feel things like, “I’m proud of myself for making it through this,” or “I’m not doing great right now, but I know the future holds good things for me.” This might also be when you or other people start saying that you’re “over it,” but be careful about making that claim or bragging about it, because the stages of grief don’t always happen one at a time or in the “right” order. You might feel like you’re in the acceptance stage one day and then need to process some more sadness, finding yourself back in depression later. Be patient! Once you start having moments of feeling acceptance about the breakup, there is light and the end of the tunnel.

6. Finding meaning is the latest and final stage of grief, added recently by David Kessler. This is when you’re able to move beyond acceptance and see that there are now good things happening in your life that never would have been possible if your loss hadn’t occurred. An example here is that after Kessler lost his 21-year-old son, he embarked on a journey to dive even further in grief research, and ended up being able to help people by discovering and publishing his thoughts on this final stage. Certainly, he will never be “glad” that his son passed away, but he has found meaning in life after that loss.

Maybe you never would have joined the debate team if you had stayed with your ex. Maybe you meet someone new, and that never could have happened if you stayed in the previous relationship. Perhaps you become even closer to some of your friends and learn how to support them in future situations. You don’t have to reach a point where you say, “I’m glad I was in pain,” but you may someday be able to feel grateful for something that never would have happened if you and your ex were still together.

Knowing That This Pain Is Temporary

There is no denying that grief is one of the greatest pains we can feel in life. Breaking up with someone can cause such deep feelings of loss because we have opened our hearts to that person, only for the feelings of safety, intimacy, and love to be ripped away. The most important thing to remember as you process each stage of grief is to be kind to yourself. You are not weak for feeling brokenhearted, just human. In fact, even Christ grieved, so He understands what you're going through on a deep spiritual level. Lay your pain at His feet, and know that you are not alone. Reach out to one of our Hope Coaches now if you’re feeling stuck in your grief, and we will talk to you about your broken heart without judgment.

For more, this checklist gives you 8 ways to use self-care to mend your broken heart after a breakup.

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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