As many of us have learned from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on death and dying,
the five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.
The same holds for break-ups. Much like a death, teens and young adults especially in their first romantic relationships, are incredibly vulnerable. They have been in my office all summer. Let’s redefine the loss for them in terms we can all understand.
Stage 1 – omfg what the hell (denial)
The kids in my office are in shock usually. They put all their energy into one guy. The ONE. I remember. I did it too. (He’s a doctor now, damn!). That relationship, that very first one, makes an imprint on your brain because it’s novel. But you are 50% of it, I tell them. You made that happen, ergo, it can happen again. You think you’re going to DIE. But when you don’t, you’re a survivor, you’re stronger than you think you are. You’re amazing! But in the teen brain everything is firing at once and it feels like this is the one and only time you will EVER have these powerful feelings. You may lose your mind. Then you don’t.
Stage 2 – what a douche – he ghosted me (anger)
Finally the anger comes. I didn’t really like him that much anyway. I even wanted the break-up to tell you the truth. He was making me CRAZY when he talked to other girls. I couldn’t handle it. I wanted more. I was always clingy and insecure. He MADE me that way because he wouldn’t answer me all the time. Then he just disappeared. He was so IMMATURE he just turned away from me just like that! What a child! I will have to focus on my classes now, that my parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for. I better try to concentrate before I blow it.
Stage 3 – I am going to reach out by social media to see what he’s doing (bargaining)
Let me just check like 50 times a day what he’s doing. I can handle it if he’s not with another girl. Ya right. It looks like he feels nothing at all. It looks like he has moved on. How dare he? WTF? He’s hanging out with another girl. Fine. I’m blocking him. Turns out adolescent grief is different from adults, according to a man I was lucky enough to work with many years ago, Ken Doka, he says: beware that substance abuse may mask the true feelings and behaviors of adolescents so more caution than ever is advised.
Stage 4 – I can’t get out of bed (depression)
This is the state where parents are dragging their kids into my office. I’m up all night, can’t sleep, can’t eat, while he’s out doing whatever. My parents don’t understand. I invested everything in this and I’ll never find it again. What’s the point. I can’t get up. I need medication. Can’t you just fix this for me?? What kind of professional are you? You only speak in cliches (this too shall pass, every cloud has a silver lining, it’s always darkest before the dawn), etc. etc. Well, it’s true. Your body will find equilibrium again in most cases. It’s a matter of tolerating disappointment and loss and then you come back to center. It’s a vital part of life’s lessons.
Stage 5 – I deserve better (acceptance)
Finally you take care of yourself, which is not selfish but self-care. It is what every woman needs. It is part of knowing yourself, gaining confidence and esteem in this freakishly competitive world. It is finding out you are not your moods. It is finding out you have strengths. It is love and radical acceptance for the suffering that is all around us. It cracks you open so the light can come in.
As my yoga teacher says, may you meet this moment as a friend…