Ugh. Valentine's Day. It’s supposed to be a joyful day full of sweetness and romance, but for those of us recovering from a recent break-up it can feel more like a terrible horrible no good very bad day full of anguish and despair. You thought you’d be out cuddling up with your sweetheart trading wistful sighs and thoughtful gifts, but instead you’re at home reading articles on the library website. Yikes.
Not to worry though! The librarians of Canton Public Library are here for you, even if your ex won’t be. We’re no stranger to heartbreak and we can hold your hand through the many stages of grief while they are probably out with that blond girl who always made you doubt, who’s so much older than you and is everything you’re insecure about.
The Five Stages of Grief were first introduced in 1969 by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. The stages were originally used to describe the many emotions a human might experience when they learn that they are dying, usually from an illness or other condition associated with old age. Later, in a book co-written with David Kessler called On Grief and Grieving, she expanded the concept to describe grief in all contexts, including the end of a relationship. Kübler-Ross researched for her original book partly by interviewing terminally ill patients at hospitals. The emotions she observed and discussed with these patients became the basis for the five stages, the first of which is denial.
A common reaction to getting dumped is to immediately think to yourself “by Talos, this can’t be happening,” which is not super productive in the long run. Still, it’s a perfectly valid emotional response. “Denial functions as a buffer after unexpected shocking news, allows the patient to collect himself and, with time, mobilize other, less radical defenses,” says Kübler-Ross, “Denial is usually a temporary defense and will soon be replaced.” It’s important to move through this stage before you accidentally pull a Wanda Maximoff and hold a small town hostage after inventing a whole sitcom family for yourself. When you get dumped, instead of saying “This can’t be happening,” try saying to yourself, “Okay, this is happening, what’s next?” which can help you move forward in your process. Alternatively, you could try asking your soon-to-be-ex why they want to break up with you and then get mad about all the dumb reasons they give, which can be fun.
Yes, the next stage of grief is anger. This can manifest as rage over a great betrayal or acute annoyance over a petty little disagreement. No matter the scope and fuss of your anger, remember that your feelings are real and valid, but it matters how you express them. As Kübler-Ross noted of the patients she spoke to, “This stage of anger is very difficult to cope with from the point of view of family and staff. The reason for this is the fact that this anger is displaced in all directions and projected onto the environment at times almost at random.” Try not to take your frustrations out on people who love you and are trying to help. That means don’t yell at your mom and don’t throw stuff at your little brother. Don’t do those things to your ex either. CPL never condones violence, but especially don’t do them to your mom. Work through your anger in healthy ways like physical activity, playing loud music, or venting to your friends and/or mental health professionals.
As Kübler-Ross notes:
"We are all familiar with this reaction when we observe our children first demanding, then asking for a favor. They may not accept our 'No'… and then tell us, 'If I am very good all week and wash the dishes every evening, then will you let me go?' There is a slight chance naturally that we will accept the bargain and the child will get what was previously denied."
In matters of the heart, just as with death and toddlers, this is a foolish pursuit. Now, this is an important, crucial stage and if you take nothing else out of this article, please, remember this:
DO NOT CALL YOUR EX.
It will only lead to more pain. Plagued by what-ifs and whatabouts, you may want to make all manner of ill-advised concessions in order to win them back. Don’t do it. Be true to yourself and have dignity because if they really wanted to be with you then they would be with you. Don’t call your ex, don’t text them, don’t use your bootlegging fortune to buy a mansion on the other side of the bay and throw a series of lavish parties in order to catch their attention, and don’t Snapchat them. Just don’t do it. If you need to strike a bargain, try looking for deals on pints of ice cream which will help with the next stage.
The big bad sads. The ol’ gloomy doomies. We here at CPL take mental health very seriously and if you’re really struggling, please seek the help of mental health professionals. Even if you just need somebody to talk to, they’re there to listen and offer emotional support. Being alive and being a human can be hard stuff, and in times of great emotional distress like a break-up or a global pandemic, even the toughest among us can use some extra support. There’s no shame in asking for help, especially if it might lead you to the final stage, acceptance.
Listen, it’s over. I’m sorry. You are never, ever, ever, gonna get that scarf back. Kübler-Ross tells us that “Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happy stage. It is almost void of feelings. It is as if the pain had gone, the struggle is over, and there comes a time for 'the final rest before the long journey' as one patient phrased it.” Of course, you are not dying, and your ex isn’t dying, but a memorable chapter of your life has ended and that certainly can feel like a tremendous loss. Still, acceptance of a breakup is a lot less bleak than coming to grips with your impending mortality. The end of a relationship can mean the potential for the beginning of a new one, new experiences, new flirtations, new love. Or, it can mean a good opportunity to spend some time on yourself and your own personal interests and goals. You can pursue a hobby, make art, or finally get your driver’s license just like you always talked about.
It’s also important to remember that grief, like most human emotional processes, isn’t linear. One of the criticisms of Kübler-Ross’ work is that actual grieving processes rarely fit into neat boxes like the five stages. But Kübler-Ross was just describing what she observed, and what she observed was as complicated and messy as any human experience. The different stages that people go through when they are faced with tragic news will last for different periods of time and will replace each other or exist at times side by side.
You’ll feel bad, then feel better, then feel bad again. You’ll feel nothing and then everything all at once. That’s just how it goes sometimes. Remember that there is no “right way” to grieve, and your process is going to look like however your process looks, and your healing is going to look like your healing. It’s YOUR life to do what you will, and THEY will never be able to take that from you.
Works Cited and Further Reading
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. Macmillan.
Kübler-Ross, E. & Kessler, D. (2005). On grief and grieving. Scribner.
Cusick, R. (Producer). (2021, July 23). The queen of dying [Audio podcast episode]. In Radiolab. WNYC studios.