Breakups and Our Unresolved Losses

It’s important to recognize and honor all our losses and heal through grief.

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed. Copyright @2008-2017

When I was younger, I would break up with someone and be okay for the first day. Then suddenly, I would completely fall apart. I would mistake this falling apart for wanting to still be with this person. I would mistake this feeling for having made a mistake in the breakup.

I would feel overwhelmed and crushed by the onslaught of feelings; I would try to put the relationship back together to avoid the avalanche of turmoil. There were so many times in my life when I would plead with my ex to put the relationship back together. The exact same relationship that I knew didn’t work and didn’t want any part of a few days earlier. 

It didn’t matter if this person was a complete jerk and I needed to get rid of him, I would feel myself falling apart and wanting to go back. Even when I knew it wasn’t good for me, I needed everything to go back to the way it was before I felt this crushing sense of loss and emotional pain.

It wasn’t love for this person that I was feeling. It wasn’t evidence that the breakup was a mistake. It was UNRESOLVED grief of other losses (many many) coming to the fore which is what happens when you have a mountain of unresolved losses. I had losses from the time I was a small child in foster care to when I broke up my marriage to the first few relationships after that marriage ended. And I had not successfully completed my grief work on any of them. I would run from it, suppress it, repress it or express it in other ways (from irrationality, to disproportionate or inappropriate anger or fear). I would become depressed at times, anxious at other times and downright manic sometimes. My emotions were all over the map and I would find it difficult to get a handle on my moods.

A loss triggers all unresolved loss which is why it is important to stop and grieve your losses when they happen. In Getting Past Your Breakup (GPYB), I write that a breakup is an opportunity to change your life. The most important change to make is how you handle loss. It’s time that you do handle it so it can stop handling you.

Unresolved loss becomes our greatest emotional handicap. Unresolved loss is grief work that has not been completed years after a loss occurs.

One big myth is that time heals all wounds. It does not. Repeat after me: TIME DOES NOT HEAL ALL WOUNDS. Time does NOT heal the wound of loss.

The only thing that does is grief work. Unresolved grief results in heightened sensitivity to loss and an inability to work through new losses. Each unresolved loss will impair function for years to come.

Dr. Therese Rando said that grief work that has not been completed is “complicated mourning.” Complicated mourning can lead to depressionanxiety and other issues. It can keep you IN bad relationships because you don’t want to face the pain of getting out because it’s SO much more than just losing this person you were with. It’s all your losses coming home. It’s an enormous amount of psychological agony.

Unresolved loss can result in the inability to establish new relationships, be fully present in our current relationship, end relationships or move on when the time is right. When we have unresolved losses, our life scope becomes narrower. We think we can’t trust others to not hurt us. We are nervous about loving again. This comes from not being able to trust ourselves to handle a possible loss. 

Unresolved loss can affect people in many ways from excessive use of drugs to depression and chronic illness to just being fearful about everyone and everything.

I was getting ready to go to graduate school to become a counselor after a few years of individual therapy. I did not start my journey to graduate school until I was feeling well enough to handle the emotions and narratives of my clients. I felt very strong, emotionally, as I set off to enroll in school. 

Early on in grad school, my adoptive mother passed, and in her passing I found an inability to move on. I was crying over her passing every day, a few times a day. I was having trouble functioning at work and at home and even in school. We had had a tumultuous relationship and I was angry at her for things I was unable to confront her about after she was diagnosed as terminal. 

It was baffling to me. I had years of therapy and was in a nice relationship with a wonderful man. We had a lovely home and my kids, my dog and my cat were content. After several years of turmoil after my divorce, I was thriving personally and professionally and fulfilling my dream of becoming a therapist. She had been terminally ill for a while and I thought, honestly, that I had experienced my grief as well as anyone could. 

I was mistaken. In falling apart, I sought out a grief therapist and studied to become a grief counselor. For the first time, I came to learn about unresolved loss and grief. Though I’d done a lot of work in therapy, I had not really grieved many losses. When my mother passed, the grief I did feel triggered all my other losses and they were insisting that I tend to them. Working with my new therapist, I did exactly that. When I finally started my grief work, my moods leveled out and I began to respond appropriately to situations, events and people. 

As I moved through my graduate program, I did my work in therapy. I also recognized that grief and mourning is not really taught to practitioners and most of my fellow therapists had no training in it whatsoever. I cringed as I watched internship videos where my colleagues would take clients out of their grief. It was obvious that they were uncomfortable with their client’s grief or didn’t know how to deal with it. At that point, working with grieving clients became my mission in life.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross called unresolved grief a “destructive horror.” The reason that it’s so destructive is that it lessens our ability to be present in our relationships. We are guarded and unsure. We lament the fact we “can’t trust anyone again” when it’s not another’s job to get us to trust them. The bottom line is that we can trust ourselves to do the right thing. If someone hurts us, we walk. If someone loves us, we love them back. 

Whether it is a loss after a death or another loss such as losing a job or moving, the most effective block to grief work is our cultural training. Colin Murray Parkes said that as a society we need to accept another person’s need to mourn and treat is as a psychological necessity instead of a weakness. We don’t do that. Many of us, uncomfortable with our own unresolved losses, encourage others to move on quickly. 

If you have held back your grieving because you think someone will think you weak or think you SHOULD be over it, don’t let that hold you back this time. Many people tell us not to “waste tears” on someone who has left us. Our tears are NOT for them, our tears are for US. We need the cleansing power of tears to wash away our pain. We resolve our grief by allowing all the emotions of grief. GPYB emphasizes self-care while grieving because we can only work through loss if we are taking care of ourselves at the same time.

Grief is a taboo subject even though, as Dr. Rando says, loss is a universal experience repeatedly encountered in every person’s life.” We are not taught to deal with our own grief, let alone someone else’s grief. We do whatever is necessary to avoid the feelings of loss, including running back to a relationship that wasn’t working or running back to a person who wasn’t any good for us in the first place. We will choose the devil we know (a bad relationship) over the devil we don’t know (the pain of facing unresolved grief). 

Psychosocial losses (losses other than death) are seldom recognized by anyone and are not recognized as losses that require processing of feelings, but they are. If you’ve had a loss of a person through a breakup, you have had secondary losses (psychosocial) as well. If you’ve moved and it has upset your life or lost a job, you have had a loss that you NEED to grieve. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t. Too many people shut down their grief because they don’t understand how important it is to work through the emotions and move on.

When I wrote Getting Past Your Breakup, it was important for me to include the Relationship Inventory, the Life Inventory, the Parent Inventories and the Letting Go exercises. These exercises are similar to the ones my therapist and I used to work through my broken relationships. The Parent inventories helped me understand the impact my parents had on all my relationships that did not work out. Through them I was able to grieve my losses and come out on the other side. 

Once you grieve your losses, you become a happier and healthier person. Neither losses nor the deep pain of grief unhinge you to the point where you want to go back to a situation that was not good for you. It’s imperative that you learn to recognize and grieve all your losses. 

Once you grieve your losses, you don’t worry about needing to trust others not to hurt you. You become aware that it is impossible to predict that. What you can predict is that you will be able to handle it no matter what. And that is what is ultimately important.

Welcome loss as an opportunity to heal that in you which needs to be healed. All the unresolved loss, all the unrequited love, all of the abandonment…use this as a time to heal all of it so that you may open, one day, to full and lasting love.


Copyright 2007-2017 Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
All Rights Reserved No Duplication is Allowed Without Explicit Permission of the Author

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