Choosing to share your life with someone – from the everyday humdrum to the most defining moments – is for many people a fundamental aspect of being human. At the same time, the human experience inevitably involves loss, and the loss of a partner can be one of the most difficult heartaches to overcome.
Dimakatso Motiang, a clinical psychologist at Netcare Akeso Arcadia in Pretoria, notes that grieving a relationship with a spouse or partner after a breakup or a death is a process that needs time, a willingness to embrace the emotional pain that comes with the loss, and a preparedness to share it with trusted others.
“Such a deep personal loss will bring on feelings of loneliness, grief, depression and anxiety, among others, and can result in physical symptoms including fatigue, headaches and even high blood pressure, for example. This level of grief affects the way you see life and you can easily slip into a negative cycle of hopelessness and helplessness.
“Those who have been on the receiving end of a break-up will often feel a sense of rejection and inadequacy and might believe that they are undeserving of love. They may make changes in their life to try and live up to their perceived expectation of the partner who left them, chasing that elusive ‘perfect’ self in the hopes of regaining what they have lost.
“In many cases, and especially when a partner has passed away, the person who is left behind can experience a range of emotions such as anger, abandonment, guilt and regret, and may get caught up in wondering what more they could have done to prevent their partner’s death or to enrich their life when they were still here. The emotional fallout after a suicide is particularly agonising and complex, and should not be navigated in isolation. It feels, for most people, like more pain than they can emotionally and physically endure.
The stages of loss
Motiang notes that there are different stages of loss which can occur in no particular order, but that allowing yourself time to work through these stages as they present themselves is important to the grieving process.
“Very often it begins with denial about the reality of the situation where you may try to suppress the natural tide of emotions or to convince yourself that the relationship is not over and that your partner will come back to you. Denial can be a form of protection from the pain that will surely follow. When reality starts to sink in, you may become angry about the situation, seeing yourself as a victim and wondering why this has happened to you, which is another stage.
“Then there is bargaining, where we try to make sense of events by retelling ourselves the story with those two fateful words – ‘what if’. What if I had done this, what if we had tried that? Sometimes we offer to make extreme changes to ourselves or the relationship as a way of bargaining to try to win back the lost loved one. The next stage of depression will bring with it feelings of sorrow, despair and hopelessness as you come to the realisation that you cannot change what has happened.
“Finally, if you are able to enter the stage of acceptance, you can begin to move forward. The process of going through these stages can be frustrating. You may move back and forth between them and wonder when it will be over, but quite simply – it takes as long as it takes, and it can take years in some cases,” she says.
Human connection is key
According to Motiang, those trying to come to terms with the loss of their relationship will find the process more manageable if they reach out for support in counselling and their community, rather than trying to face the experience alone.
“Whatever the reason for the loss of your relationship, when you first lose a partner you are in a whirl of intense and conflicting emotions, and it is important to get help in untangling that. Counselling or therapy allows you to express yourself in a safe space and can help you to take a constructive approach to process what has happened. Conversely, bottling up your emotions can lead to isolation and can make it harder to maintain and grow other relationships in your life.
“Social interaction is key to getting through this difficult phase and you may need to push yourself to spend time with family, friends, co-workers and other members of your community, even if all you really want to do is stay at home under the duvet. Sustained human connection is what will help you to get into the rhythm of moving forward and letting go of your fears of how to continue living your life.”
Filling your own cup
“When your partner is gone from your life, even if they are still living but you are no longer together, it inevitably leaves a hole and it is natural to try and fill this space. Some individuals may rush to start a new relationship as quickly as possible, as the thought of being alone is overwhelming to them – these people have hardly spent any time being single. However, it is important to learn to fill your cup yourself and not to depend on others to do so.
“Give yourself a break to experience life for yourself. Make an effort to do things alone – this could be doing the grocery shopping, enjoying your favourite meal, taking yourself on a solo date to trying something new. When you are happy and content in yourself, you are able to give love and start a new relationship with a full cup rather than coming from a place of desperation or co-dependency, which would not make for a healthy foundation.”
Forgive to move forward
Motiang explains that people often are not aware of the blame they place on themselves, and this can be a real barrier to moving forward in life.
“Sometimes you may not be aware of the blame you lay at your own feet, or you may have regrets that you did not do enough, and that you have missed the window for a second chance.
“Now is the time to reflect and acknowledge that perhaps at the time you did not have the capacity to give the relationship your all. Treat yourself with kindness – the situation has passed but you can learn from what occurred.
“Putting in the work to grow and move forward from this experience of loss is not easy and can take a very long time. It is important for family and friends to be supportive of this process rather than trying to rush you through it, as adding pressure into the mix will not help matters. We are all individuals and what may work for one person is not necessarily the answer for another.
“Knowing how to ask your loved ones for the support you need can go a long way to helping you navigate your way through this difficult time. If you simply want someone to sit and listen rather than give you advice, try asking for that. There will be good days and bad. You cannot control everything, but you can give yourself a second chance,” Motiang concludes.
About Netcare Akeso
Netcare Akeso operates a network of private inpatient mental health facilities and is part of the Netcare Group. Netcare Akeso provides individual, integrated and family oriented treatment in specialised inpatient treatment facilities, as well as certain outpatient services, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and substance use conditions. Please visit www.akeso.co.za or contact [email protected] for further information.
In the event of a psychological crisis, call 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day for emergency support. Psychiatrist consultations can be made through Netcare appointmed™, online at www.netcareappointmed.co.za or by calling 0861 555 565.
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Issued by: MNA on behalf of Netcare Akeso Arcadia
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