Heartbreak | Grief & Loss | Advice from a Therapist

You’re in a fight to the death my friend
Black metal t-shirts your shield
You’re in a fight to the death my friend
Let’s name all the monsters you’ve killed
Jason Isbell, “Chaos and Clothes

In Soulbroken: A guidebook through ambiguous grief, author Stephanie Sarazin details the moment she unwittingly uncovered a rabbit hole of undeniable evidence: Her husband of eighteen years, the father of her three children, had been “unfaithful for many years with many (many!) women.” Sarazin likens the experience to a terrifying carnival ride on her sixth birthday. Then, she had also “fallen to the ground, weeping, immobile” nearby her own vomit. 

A decade ago, I received an email from someone who went to great lengths to find me and share a full DM history, detailing their indiscretions with my then-partner. My own discovery wasn’t as egregious as Sarazin’s. Still, I can relate to the feeling that the life I’d known had instantly crumbled, and I too felt nauseous. 

The first lesson heartbreak offers us is that our lives, our bodies’ sense of  “normal,” and our sense of security can be upturned at any moment. We’re forced to recognize the limits to what we can control—the “activating event” that sets heartbreak in motion is out of our hands. Luckily, there’s also a path forward.

Understanding Heartbreak

Heartbreak is a form of ambiguous loss

So what is heartbreak? Oxford English Dictionary defines it as an “overwhelming, unbearable, or intense sorrow or emotional distress, esp. as a result of bereavement or the end of a romantic relationship.” 

We often associate heartbreak with uncoupling, though divorce and break-ups are only one form of ambiguous loss. Other forms, including estrangement, the loss of a relationship to addiction, or the cognitive decline of an elderly loved one, can be equally painful. Ambiguous loss occurs when we lose someone who remains living. It’s a particularly devastating form of loss, because our identity was interwoven with someone who’s now seemingly rejected our attachment.

The man she chose to take your place
Turns his collar up to better frame his face
How you’d love to hate her, but you just can’t hate somebody you don’t know

Stock photo of Black woman with long braids, photographed from shoulders up. She is wearing a gray sweatshirt and looking away from the camera, tears running down her face.

Intense, negative emotions — even hate — are perfectly ok and probably to be expected following a heartbreak. You may encounter vitriol you didn’t know existed within you. For example, I wished my ex were hit by a bus. My mind had convinced me there was simply no way for us to both exist alive in this world. (Fortunately, even our most intense thoughts and emotions can’t cause anyone harm.)

My cardinal rule as a therapist and human is that there is no “right” way to feel in any given moment.

Heartbreak mirrors the grief experienced by death in many ways, and it also has some important differences. Most folks are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. They may be less familiar with the sixth stage, Finding Meaning, added by David Kessler. These stages are not necessarily experienced in order. We can cycle rapidly between them, and can experience a complex combination of any of them simultaneously. In the aftermath of a breakup, it’s important to allow ourselves space to grieve and to accept the dizzying array of emotions that follow.  You can’t simply pack them away in a shoebox with your lover’s belongings.

Lovers leave chaos and clothes
More debris that you can sort through in one go
You say love is hell, but it’s the ghost of love that’s made you such a mess

A light skinned woman with medium brown hair stands in the rain, wearing a red coat. Her face is turned upwards and her eyes are closed.

So what do we do with these feelings?

As Isbell sings, ambiguous loss is the ghost of love. It’s an incredibly painful and sometimes debilitating experience of reimagining what comes next, particularly if we previously had no internal questions about our future. 

Heartbreak can also be a particularly alienating form of loss: the people you turn to for support may not understand the depth of your pain. In the guise of support, they may even throw your partner under the bus—“F— them, you deserve better!” It’s a well-meaning sentiment that dismisses your experience. You may even feel shame for feeling so terribly because everyone else “knew you were better off” all along. An unintended consequence of villainizing your former partner is that you stay in relationship with them, potentially making moving forward more difficult. 

Additionally, like grieving that follows death, grief from ambiguous loss has no timeline. Your mind may tell you that you “should” be over it by now. Instead, allow yourself grace, try to practice self-compassion, and kindly remind yourself that this is hard and there’s no right way to feel.

Related Blog: Why Feeling Your Feelings Matters (And How To Do It)

Internal versus External Hope 

Did she leave a trail of crumbs
So you could find her when you’re what you could become?
Or did she know you well enough to realize that garden just won’t grow?

In Soulbroken, Sarazin provides us a roadmap for navigating ambiguous loss and she shines light on a neglected stage of the ambiguous grief process—hope. How we engage with hope determines our wellness following ambiguous loss. 

If we follow the path of “external hope,” we tend to focus on the past and the object of our loss. We ruminate about what we may have done differently, or how we can someday win our partner back. External hope can lead to behaviors that prolong our suffering (e.g.  incessantly checking Instagram, anyone?). Internal hope, by contrast, is focused on the self and creating a better “new normal.” It’s natural to cycle through these distinct types of hope following heartbreak, but focusing on ourselves seems to be the better path forward. It empowers us to heal.

But lovers leave chaos and clothes
In quiet corners where you rarely ever go
One day you find proof that she was real, despite your struggle to forget

Finding Comfort After Heartbreak

I’ve embedded lyrics from Isbell’s Chaos and Clothes throughout this article. It’s an intentional nod to a song that found me precisely at the point in time I needed to hear it. It took on its own subjective meaning and gravity in my consciousness.

As you process your loss, you may find comfort in journaling, sad music, films, or books that resonate with your experience. Lean into what feels comforting right now. Even when we’re at our lowest and loneliest, it can be reassuring to discover the common humanity in heartbreak. Most folks have experienced it, even if it’s not openly discussed. Art is the forum where heartbreak thrives.

Now’s also a great time to consider therapy, particularly if you haven’t received proper support from your friends or family. Therapy can help you process, make sense of your pain, and find a path forward. Working with clients experiencing heartbreak is a favorite, though challenging, piece of my work. It can be particularly validating to have a witness to your pain. True, we can’t see exactly what the future entails. However, your therapist can see a version of you that’s difficult to see through your lens of pain—the one that is almost ready to blossom and shine. 

Additional Resources

Heartbreak by The School of Life

Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Rewiring your Heart by Amy Chan

TEDTalk  The Brain in Love by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher

About the Author

Megan Sullivan-Tuba, AMFT is a California therapist who specializes in supporting couples and individuals with relationships and connection. Her clinical expertise includes healing after trauma or loss, treatment for anxiety and depression, and improving self-esteem.

Megan loves to incorporate books, music, and other forms of art into therapy as a way to explore our human experiences, struggles, and sense of connection.

Online Grief Therapy in California

Looking for support around heartbreak, grief, or loss? Stella Nova therapists can help. We specialize in working with individual and couples in online therapy throughout California. We’re an LGBTQ+ and poly-affirming practice that works with clients of all ages.

To get started, schedule your free, 20-minute phone consultation with our Intake Coordinator today. We’ll chat about what you’re looking for, and match you with the best therapist for your needs and preferences.