An unexpected or premature death doesn’t seem like a breakup at first. Yet it is, and a stark one at that. Whether it is a lengthy illness or your lover’s unexpected or premature death, the biochemical shock of this kind of breakup is paralysing.
Unexpected breakups are complicated because of grief that comes from two directions simultaneously. You can grieve any loss: the loss of a house, a job, a leg, a relationship, a childhood, or hopes for the future. There are no rules for grief. Grief is a complex emotion, which is why death and loss in a relationship pack such an emotional one-two punch.
It is commonly accepted that grief has four stages: denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance. What is not well known and critically important is that the stages rarely occur in this order, nor do they typically occur only once each during a grieving period. For example, you may initially accept the loss and then deny it. There is an ebb and flow to the emotions and the underlying brain chemistry.
1. Denial Phase
In a denial phase, you refuse to believe that they are gone. You may fantasize that they are away and that they will come back. When you cannot ‘see’ reality and accept the loss, your neurochemistry holds you in a stress chemical-induced blindspot.
2. Anger Phase
In an anger phase, you become furious with the person for leaving you. You may hate the person and even feel disgusted when thinking about them and the fact that they are gone. This can be an easier stage to deal with, because anger inspires action, and brain chemistry has a different effect. Kickboxing, Ashtanga Yoga (a particularly aggressive type of yoga), and even pounding nails into a 2×4 are great ways of shifting the adrenalin from anger to socially acceptable aggression.
3. Sadness Phase
In the sadness phase, you begin to miss them. Your longing for them can be so strong that your chest hurts. You will feel powerless and unable to soothe the pain. Everyone experiences hurt feelings differently. You may feel pressure on your chest or tightness in your stomach or throat. The neurochemical profile in the sad brain is a strong one. Echoes of years of painful experiences tag along and can completely de-motivate the partner left behind.
4. Acceptance Phase
In the acceptance phase, your former lover slides into the background of your mind. You are finally able to think about other things besides them. When they come to mind, you can remember good times with them. While you may not be ready for new love yet, you can feel the pleasure chemicals that your recovering brain releases for you. Calmness and confidence re-emerge as the shock gets further and further behind you.
As I am sure you can see, the stages of grief are equally true for a breakup as they are for a real death. There is a good reason for this. There has been a death. Yes, it is heartbreaking to lose a loved one, but losing the dream of the future you had hoped for with them is also devastating.
Life itself is peppered with losses, and the ultra-reliable chemistry factory in your brain will always release the chemicals of the grief stages in response. But luckily, the acceptance phase tends to last longer and longer over time. An advantage to those who appreciate the wisdom of years well lived.