Grief is a spiral. But am I going up or coming down? ~ C.S. Lewis “A Grief Observed”
One of the 5 R’s is Recycle because dating often triggers recycling, but you don’t need to be DATING to be recycling in grief. There are many other things that can trigger recycling such as an anniversary date, the ex’s birthday, moving into your own place, going on a trip you were supposed to go on together, overhearing something about his or her new life, etc.
Many things can trigger recycling. Recycling often happens after we’ve been thinking we’re starting to get over it. It can feel very upsetting to be back “there” once again. And, sometimes, absolutely nothing triggers recycling. Sometimes it’s not just that we’re recycling, but we swear we’re feeling worse than we’ve ever felt.
I’ve studied grief for over 25 years. I’ve written all my theses on grief including my undergraduate honors thesis (Mourning in Literature), my graduate thesis (Grief in Adoptees, A Clinician’s Handbook), and even my law thesis (Victim Impact Statements and the Eighth Amendment or Why the Legal System is Not the Appropriate Venue for Grieving Loved Ones).
I have read the literature for many years and while many have differing definitions (i.e. one says “stages” and one says “phases”), and there are several ways of framing the process, one thing that researchers do agree on is that grief can vary wildly from person to person depending on the person, the loss, the type of loss, the person’s history with grieving (or not) and environmental and social factors.
Over the years I’ve researched the various ways in which experts label and assign the “work” of grief. Even though one may say “feel your feelings” and another will say “let yourself grieve,” the roadmap is often the same. To work through a loss, you must: a) acknowledge that there was a loss b) feel emotional pain about that loss c) work on restructuring you and your environment to adapt to that loss d) accept the loss and e) integrate the experience.
Breakup grief itself was astonishingly missing from breakup literature, which is why I included a chapter on grief in Getting Past Your Breakup (GPYB). Publisher’s Weekly (THE voice of publishing) called GPYB an “acclaimed debut” and the book received many accolades, landing on many “Best Breakup Books of All Time” lists. The reason GPYB has been so acclaimed is its attention to the grief process.
It did not take me long to sell GPYB to a major publisher. The editor who acquired it, told me she did so because, in her words, “This is a special book that handles grief really respectfully.” It is also the reason why the book has placed on SO MANY “best breakup book” lists. GPYB was the first book to acknowledge that breakup grief is very real AND what you need to do about it!
There Are Many Issues Intertwined In Breakup Grief
For many going through a breakup, it’s not just about loss. It’s about rejection, abandonment, insecurity, fear. When you’re going through the early phases of grief in a breakup, you tend to be in a state of heightened sensitivity and can become very emotional. You often feel confused and disorganized, like the world is moving beneath your feet. Who am I? Where am I going? When does the pain end?
And if you feel your feelings and allow them to come it will feel as if you have had the wind totally knocked out of your sails… and while you are doing this, start the “restructuring” process… build a life without the person you lost. As it says in Getting Past Your Breakup, you must work the bad stuff out and work the good things in. You cannot possibly do the work of grief if you do that and nothing else. It will consume you. That is why so many stifle their grief process. It becomes so oppressive that you can’t continue. The ONLY way to do it is to balance it, as it says in the books and workbook, with positive, life-affirming thoughts, words, and deeds. In order to do the difficult work of grief, you have to be good to you, figure out some interests, go back to old interests, take up new hobbies, meet some people, make plans, and build a life that you will cherish.
And there comes a time when you’ve cried your heart out and walked the floors and wrung your hands and talked about the relationship until you can’t talk anymore. You’ve written in your journal and stared out the window and felt all the feelings you think you will ever feel. You’ve done the Relationship Inventory, the Life Inventory and the Standards and Compatibility Inventory in Getting Back Out There (VERY important!). You’ve defined new boundaries, set new limits, started your own life. You think you’ve got it figured out.
You’re taking back your life and feeling better. You can’t believe it but you really are moving on! TA-DAH!
You come to a place where you think there are no more tears and no more huge feelings.
Then, one day without warning: WHAM!
Right back in the soup.
Grief: Hello. Is It Me You’re Looking For?
You: Not Really
Grief: Well, I’m Here Anyway
Apparently your psyche is saying “I have more to share here…” and you hate it… you feel as if you are being dragged backwards or going under for the third time… you DO NOT want to go back there. You push against the thought of being back THERE again… in darkness, in despair… NO, I’ve worked TOO HARD to be here again!
I know, I know, I know. But grief doesn’t listen so well. Apparently there are some more feelings to be felt or some more grief to be processed. It doesn’t have to make sense, just know that it is and if you don’t fight it, you will keep healing.
But if you spend the day honoring your feelings, validating what you are feeling, journaling or talking to friends, you will come out AGAIN on the other side and go back to your restructuring.
When you feel the bad old feelings again, it doesn’t mean you have failed or you are a failure. You are NOT a failure… you are not going backwards… it is normal and natural to plunge back into the feelings sometimes without warning. Sometimes there are triggers like anniversary dates or birthdays or something that reminds you of the past, and then again sometimes it just happens for no clear reason.
The important thing is to accept recycling as part of the process. It gets harder when you start to rail against it, judge yourself as “failing” or think that you are back at the beginning or that you are doing something wrong.
It is also important to NOT ACT ON IT. It is also important that you don’t try to avoid the feelings! Many people, during recycling, reach out to the ex or go on a date or do something else to just not feel the feelings.
You thought you were done with this. Yes, it’s distressing to feel like you’re back into what you thought you were done with.
YES, it’s very frustrating to think that you’re crying at the drop of a hat when you thought you had moved past all that sensitivity and emotionality.
YES, it is tough. But if you just accept it, feel weepy or angry or irritated or whatever you’re feeling for a day or so, it will improve. It will get better. You will be back on course in due time. But many of us almost SHAME ourselves that we are here again, as if we have somehow failed or been woefully inadequate at this grieving thing. Couldn’t succeed at a relationship and now we can’t succeed at a breakup! That is negative self-talk and puts us in the wrong frame of mind to get through it. If we are recycling we need to be GENTLE and LOVING and FORGIVING of ourselves and know it’s part of the PROCESS and nothing we did wrong.
The important thing is to have a good cry or be irritable for a few days or just feel low energy or depressed. Eat some comfort food. Play a few sad songs. Lean into it. Pout. Make mean faces in the mirror. Stomp around the house (if you don’t have people living under you) or pound the pillows. But know that the stay will be limited and you will be, once again, on the road to happier times in due time. If you fight it or try to stifle it, it will just rear its head again. So just let it happen and know that its stay won’t be too long or too terrible.
Then after a while (could be days, could be hours) announce to no one in particular that you are done with recycling, you haven’t done any harm to yourself (haven’t broken NC or acted out in other ways) and you are back on your merry way to recovering from a broken heart. Give yourself credit for having given grief its due and now you’re on to bigger things.
Because you are. And recycling is PART of healing. It’s PART of the process.