How To Cope With Grief After A Breakup Or Divorce

Grief is a normal part of the human experience. If you have lived, you have grieved, the same as every generation before you. But grieving isn’t something that only happens around death — it can also surround hurtful situations like breakups and divorces. Working through the five stages of grief can help you get closure over these difficult separations.

What Are the Stages of Grief?

Since Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s book On Death and Dying was published in 1969, her five-stage model of grief has become the foundation of many guides to confronting and moving on from severe events. Although there are a few various models among academic psychiatrists, the most common version of grief models include five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although Kübler-Ross’s model and its successive versions have focused on grief surrounding the death of a loved one, it also applies to grieving relationships, grieving lives that could have been together, grieving the future that you hoped for but won’t end up happening.


The first stage, denial, is tough to get past when you’re in an on-again, off-again relationship. One or both of you have said, “This is it, I’m leaving for real this time.” Except it wasn’t “for real,” not the first two, three, or four times! Denial isn’t just about being unsure of what’s going to happen; it’s your brain’s response to trauma, like when a severely injured person doesn’t feel the pain or understand how hurt they are until after the adrenaline fades.

Denial is your brain’s defense mechanism to shock. Ignoring the reality of whatever awful thing is happening gives you time to process your emotional response to it. This is why the aftermath of a “we should break up” talk or being served divorce papers often isn’t immediately crying and screaming, but a seemingly calm, almost numb, response. After all, what is there to cry about if it isn’t real? They’ll come back tomorrow. They just need some time to cool off. They just…don’t really mean it.


Once denial starts fading, the emotions that your shock pushed down bubble to the surface. You didn’t deserve this bad thing to happen to you! In the case of a breakup, anger is usually directed at your ex, but it’s also common to angrily blame other causes. You’re breaking up because the in-laws are awful, because your job was too demanding to have time for a relationship, because of any number of reasons you can yell at and say, “This is all your fault!”

Sometimes that anger is even directed at yourself – for not trying harder, for not communicating better, for not being enough for your partner. Although self-reflection on what went wrong may be helpful for other relationships in the future, the legitimacy of your anger isn’t the important part of grieving. It’s more that your emotional response needs an outlet, regardless of whether that emotion is really directed at the responsible party.


In the context of grieving death, bargaining usually happens on a spiritual level, asking for some cosmic karma to make things better. Although you could certainly also appeal to Higher Powers to fix a relationship, what’s more likely is that you’ll try to bargain with your ex-partner — or with yourself. You’ll promise to do better, to do more, nevermind the fact that none of those promises worked in the past. Trying to bargain helps give you the sense of control that your brain needs not to feel completely overwhelmed. 

Bargaining also comes in the form of examining your past actions. If only I hadn’t stayed late at work, if only I hadn’t missed that anniversary, if only I had done things differently, I could have avoided this. The truth is, some things in life can’t be avoided, no matter how hard you try. But analyzing the past to find a cause-and-effect can help make the massive grief of losing a partner feel more manageable.


After anger and bargaining, depression feels quiet. It weighs you down, making you wonder if relationships are worth having at all. What is the point of sharing yourself with someone only to be so hurt later? Even mutual, amicable separations can lead to depression. This stage of grief is different from clinical depression, a mental health issue that can affect someone regardless of the events in their life. But just because depression in grief isn’t permanent, that doesn’t make it less real or less difficult to manage. 

It might be hard to imagine a future without your partner. You had so many plans and dreams together — now what’s left? What’s going to happen? The uncertainty feels like it can swallow you whole. But it’s not the end. You still have a life, you still have a future, even though it’s different from what you planned.


Reaching acceptance doesn’t mean that you’ve crossed a finish line and your grief is suddenly over. It doesn’t mean that you’re happy or even just content with your situation. But it is the sign that you are moving on to your new life, and you have grieved the life that you had with your ex.

The most important part of acceptance is hope. You have hope for the future, because you know that you are going to be okay. Life will be different, but okay.

Although this five-step model is helpful in recognizing your own grief, you may not experience everything exactly as laid out here. It’s not uncommon to ricochet back and forth between anger and bargaining, or the period of depression may feel like goes on far too long. Ultimately, your heartbreak and your grief will be unique to you. If you’re struggling to reach the stage of acceptance, you may want to consider seeing a grief counselor or seeking therapy. Professional help may provide the outside perspective you need to move on.


Unfortunately, heartbreak is a part of life — do you have any wisdom on how to heal from a breakup? We’d love to hear it in the comments!

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