Emotional pain won’t just go away if you ignore it; you've got to deal with it.
Maybe you’ve seen people who try to hide their pain. They put on a pretend smile when inside they are dying emotionally. Like a duck gliding along the surface of a pond, they seem calm and unruffled, while underneath they’re paddling like mad just to stay afloat.
If you are going through a bad breakup and want to get over it, it’s important to know what grief is, why it’s important to process it and how to go through it.
What is Grief?
While most people associate grief with physical death, John W. James and Russell Friedman, authors of The Grief Recovery Handbook, give us a much broader definition: “Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind.” Grieving is not just OK; it’s necessary. “The problem,” they continue, “is that we have all been socialized to believe that these feelings are abnormal and unnatural.”
The truth is, people who have experienced a traumatic event or loss, like a relationship breakup, may react in similar ways to someone dealing with a death. And that is completely normal. While everyone processes grief differently, there are some often recognized patterns or stages of grief.
Stages of Grief
Shock: You may feel immobilized, numb or frozen when you initially hear your relationship is ending.
Denial: As a way of coping, you may tell yourself, “This is not happening,” because you are not yet able to accept the reality of the events around you.
Anger: You may think, It’s not fair! or Why is this happening? as you experience anger, guilt or both emotions. If you were blindsided by the breakup and the loss was unexpected, your feelings may be intense.
Bargaining: You want to make a deal with God and try to get the other person back into your life. You may plead, “I’ll pray more; I promise,” or ask “If I (fill in the blank), will You let us stay together?” as you bargain for another chance.
Depression: In this stage, you may feel a range of sadness, from misery to excruciating pain. Some people even have problems getting out of bed because they lack purpose and find no reason to move into a new day.
Acceptance: Finally, you come to a place where you accept the loss. It happened. You may not like it or agree with it, but you learn to live with things as they are now, and you find other ways to fill your life. Getting to acceptance can take a long time — months or even years.
Working through the stages is not a linear process. Like a curvy mountain road with switchbacks, the journey of dealing with emotional pain is not a straight line. There is no set schedule or timetable; God works differently in each of our lives. Yet despite the twists, turns and emotional weaving through the steps, dealing with the pain (not avoiding it) helps you eventually get through it.
Why Deal With Breakup Grief?
Once you are aware of the stages, you can choose what you will do next. Will you deal with your breakup grief or stay stuck in your isolation and pain? Emotional pain won’t just go away if you ignore it. In fact, it is widely known that holding back emotions or not dealing with them can lead to increased stress and even physical illness.
For example, “Stress can lead to exhaustion, weakness, headaches, indigestion, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, and inability to sleep,” says Gary R. Collins, author of Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide. The effects of loss come in a variety of ways, like “shock, numbness, denial, intense crying … a prolonged period of sorrow, restlessness, apathy, memories of the past, loneliness, and sleep disturbances.”
Whether you respond initially to a breakup with shock, numbness or denial, eventually the full impact of the loss will surface. But you can eventually come to terms with it and find peace if you take action to deal with your pain.
A loss of significance — a big loss — can get stuck in your heart if it is not processed. When your self-esteem falters and you feel like it’s always midnight, the pain can pile up like emotional garbage. Grief left unattended, like refusing to deal with the hurt or holding your feelings inside, clogs the drain, blocking your emotions as well as your movement forward into healing and wholeness.
Stuck pain can also lead to unwanted behavior. You’re constantly sad or bitter, and it keeps you at arm’s length from other people, so you feel alone. You don’t feel like yourself, so you end up saying or doing things you don’t really mean — like blaming others or lashing out in unwarranted anger — and hurting others.
It’s been said that if you don’t grieve well, you grieve all the time. While you may put on a good front for friends and co-workers, inside the lingering sadness remains. On the other hand, when you express your grief and deal with it, you can become emotionally stronger and healthier. That’s why it’s so important to grieve losses — to unblock your frozen heart so you can feel better, find joy and live a life of emotional freedom, serenity and love. It’s time to “drain the pain” and express your grief so you can move forward.
How to Express Your Grief
Everyone heals in their own way and their own timing because love and loss is unique for each person. Here are some ideas on how to process your pain and release your sadness through grieving.
Acknowledge your loss. Getting through this season of grief and sadness begins by acknowledging that a loss has happened. Whether you left, he left, or it was a mutual agreement, something that was there is now gone.
Ask for help. Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to help you do what you cannot do on your own. With His power, emotions expressed will begin the flow, unclogging your blocked heart. In time you will get unstuck and move from the darkness of loss and pain into the sunlight of restoration and wholeness. After all, “The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down” (Psalm 145:14, NIV).
Also, ask for help from a close friend or family member who will listen as you share your breakup story. When someone listens to your heart, hears your pain and witnesses your sorrow, it can be life-changing.
I’ll never forget how my good friend Andy helped release a deeper level of sadness in me from a devastating breakup. One night after Bible study, we were talking about the guy who’d hurt me. Soon I was a bucket of tears, but my caring friend enveloped me in a comforting hug and held me while I cried. He prayed over me and comforted me. In the arms of a man I knew and trusted I felt sad but safe, and then experienced remarkable relief. His act of genuine brotherly love was a turning point for me that night as the last remnants of grief fell away.
Let yourself be sad. “Sorrow is entirely underrated,” writes Tim Baker in his book Broken. “Sometimes,” he continues, “we feel that crying is showing weakness and that real Christians, if they’re truly saved, would never feel sorrow or cry.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Tears are a cleansing emotional release from a wellspring deep inside of us that need to get out. Tears are part of unblocking our inner stuckness and pain. “It is as if we have to cry so the pain has somewhere to go, and that somewhere is out of us,” says Baker.
Remember that even Jesus wept when He arrived on the scene where His dear friend Lazarus had been buried (John 11:35). He cried even though He knew Lazarus would rise again in mere moments! If Jesus grieved a loss which would soon be reversed, certainly we can give ourselves permission to grieve our losses as well.
Whether you cry alone or in the company of a trusted friend, the Lord knows and cares about your heartaches: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 56:8, NLT).
What do you need to release today? Will you release the pain, release control, release your need to be right, release the other person from what he or she did to you — or didn’t?
Recognize what you’ve lost and what remains. It can be helpful to make a list of your losses. Beyond losing a significant love relationship, you may have also lost companionship and friendship, affection, hopes and dreams for the future, trust, control, self-respect or self-esteem. While working through loss can be devastatingly difficult, it’s comforting to know that God redeems loss and pain and heals the heart to love again. The word redeem means “to trade in, exchange or transfer.” God excels at converting heartache to healing, and redeeming things that have been tossed away into something worthy and wonderful.
Think about what remains and make a list of those things, too. Whatever your list includes, know that God’s love goes on. He cares, He comforts, and He is near to those who hurt. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
Dig into God’s Word. The Psalms offer a great example of being honest with God about pain, but also acknowledging that He is still faithful. Psalmists often cried out to God with disappointment, sadness, longings and doubt. Yet they would soon remember God’s goodness in bringing them through their trials. The psalmist wasn’t afraid to express how he really felt, yet found, in the “but God” moments, a transition from tears to trust, from sorrow to celebration, or from heartbreak to hope.
In Psalm 13:2, for instance, David laments, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” Then later says, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13:5–6, emphasis mine).
Psalm71 reveals the anguish of someone in dire need: “Be not far from me, O God; come quickly, O my God, to help me” (Psalm71:12). The writer then finds hope and praises God: “But as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more” (v. 14, emphasis mine).
Pray. The most important thing you can do to heal your broken heart is to pray. It doesn’t have to include elaborate words; it can be simple and heartfelt — as if you were talking to a friend, because indeed you are. Prayer changes things — and it changes us. Whether you pray alone, with friends or with a prayer partner, talking and listening to God in a holy dialogue is essential to healing.
No matter what your circumstances, prayer is powerful. In Psalm 4:1, David said, “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.” We know that God hears our prayers and answers with what is best — in His way and in His time.
Later, when David was afraid because he was being chased by King Saul who wanted to kill him, he prayed intensely and often. When God answered his prayers, he was a happy man! “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4). Not only was he joyful, he overcame and went on to extol many of God’s good qualities in the rest of the verse.
Grieving losses is difficult, sometimes gut-wrenchingly hard, but you can get through it. As night falls and darkness settles in your heart-healing journey, you may feel afraid to walk on. But take heart. Grieving, like night time, will not last forever. Remember, you’re just passing through on your way to better days. Much better days.
Prayer by prayer and moment by moment, healing comes. With the light of Christ to illuminate the way, things begin to change, or you change, or both. You start to reorient your life around other events, places or people, and in time you return to a happier version of yourself with less sadness and more joy.
Keep on. For as you process and release the heartaches of today, you come closer to the goodness, freedom and hope of tomorrow.