A Breakup Is Like a Microdose of Grief

Published on 7/16/2021

I lost my father almost three years ago, and it remains something that I struggle to talk about. I have very few articles about him, simply because it is too painful to discuss. I put almost everything into words, yet I am at a loss when wording my grief. My grief is a beast of its own making, it is huge and all-encompassing and the only way I can make it through days is to package it away. I have come to realise that you cannot understand grief until you experience it yourself, and so I struggle to explain it to people who haven’t.

Then just over a month ago, five weeks at most, my relationship of four years ended. It was overwhelming and yet strangely familiar. This was my first proper relationship and so my first breakup. But in the weeks that followed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew this pain, only on a grander scale. I finally realised why the sensation was so familiar: I was grieving. It was to a far smaller extent than mourning my father’s passing, and yet the sharp emotions reminded me precisely of it. My breakup felt like a microdose of grief.

Certain moments hurt the most

Losing my father was my first experience with grief and I don’t think anything could have prepared me for it. I expected grief to be like a tidal wave that knocked me down completely and held me down. But instead, it was like a rocky sea, hitting me suddenly and then leaving me for a bit. It was certain moments that made me feel like I was drowning, and then hours of feeling fine, almost too fine. Seeing older people hurt, as I realised he would never get to that age. Seeing fathers with their daughters hurt, as I knew that was once us. Seeing films that he would have liked hurt, as there were so many things he would never get to see. Grieving wasn’t constant, it was sudden and fleeting, but over and over again.

When my breakup happened, I expected that huge tidal wave, and the first days certainly were. But then just like my grief, it became this consistent series of pains. There would be an hour where I feel okay, where I laugh, where I smile, followed by hours of curling up on my bed and crying. There were certain moments that hurt the most, and it became difficult to find films and series devoid of any romance or breakups.

It felt like I was grieving again, in a far smaller dose, but still so familiar that it scared me. And in the weeks after my breakup, I couldn’t help but think of my father time and time again. It’s almost been three years, and yet I’ve thought about him so much in the past month.

Scared to be happy again

When these brief but strong moments of grieving give way to peace, it’s a terrifying feeling. It feels more comfortable to be sad or angry than happy, any emotion beats happiness. Because if I can be happy right now, what does that say about me? What does that say about what they meant to me?

I hated that I could be okay after my father passed away, even though it felt like I had no choice but to be okay. It felt like a betrayal to him and everything he means to me. It felt like everyone assumed that I didn’t care about him because I was here laughing, watching a TV show, acting like things could be normal again. How could anything be normal in a world that didn’t have him in it? Happiness feels like a betrayal to him and everything he did for me. Moving on in any way feels like I’m moving away from him.

The same goes for a breakup, as any moment of relief felt like a betrayal to my relationship and everything we shared. If I can be okay without him, what does that say about the four years we shared? Any attempts to move on feels like ripping up the memories and everything that came with them. Happiness feels more challenging than sadness. Loving someone new one day feels like a threat to the love we shared.

Mourning the future

This was something I had never considered until my father passed away, but when you lose someone, a huge part of that loss is the future without them. Memories are painful but also heartwarming, as they’re a place where that person lives on. But the scariest part is the empty future looming in front of you, one which will never be filled with them. It’s days, weeks, months and years that you need to live without them, a terrifying thought.

When I lost my father, I kept thinking about all these moments that he would miss. He wasn’t there for my first apartment, my first proper job or when I started my own blog. He won’t be there if I ever get married or have children. And all the tiny moments in-between will bear a lack of him and his input.

Breaking up with my partner also rendered this future devoid of them. We had so many plans for the coming months, concerts, events and possible trips, all of which won’t be with him. The other night I went to the cinema to watch Black Widow. He was the one who had introduced me to Marvel films and convinced me to watch them, and now I adore them. Sitting alone in the cinema, I couldn’t stop gazing at the empty seat where he would’ve sat. I couldn’t stop seeing storylines as things I would have discussed with him, questions I would have asked. This night could’ve been so different. And whilst it was still a great film, and I enjoyed being on my own, every future memory still gets tainted by him. And all these moments yet to come were moments I thought would be ours.

My partner knew my father; he was around when he passed away, and so with that comes the realisation that the next person I’m with won’t know my father. That I may end up with someone who has never met my father. That they don’t know his voice, his laugh, his mannerisms. They can’t join in on stories about him, merely listen as I speak. That is a thought that terrifies me to my core, as I need someone to share the memory of my father with, and now that won’t be him.

In both a breakup and in grieving, you mourn what is to come as much as you mourn what has happened. You are looking at an empty canvas and working out how to fill it without this vital colour that you depended on.

They never really leave

Whilst a large part of grieving is fearing their loss, fearing that you’ll move on and be okay, it’s also realising that they’re not really gone. I see my father in so many things that I do. Every time I see a barbecue, I think of him, and I remember him standing proudly behind his, refusing to let anyone else help. I think of him in my love for reading, and I’m grateful that he always took me to bookstores and read me to sleep. I think of him in beautiful sunsets, in boats on the water and countless cups of tea. He isn’t gone because he is in so much that I do; his actions are creating results even now.

A breakup yields a similar effect, or rather a relationship does. When you’re with someone for a long time, your lives become so intertwined, and they feed into so many aspects of who you are. It’s painful now but also a beautiful reminder of everything you shared. I see my ex in the songs on my Spotify, everything he encouraged me to listen to, and how he showed me what goes into creating songs. I see him in the series I watch, as he pushed me out of my comfort zone and convinced me to watch things that became my favourites. I see him in a morning cup of coffee, like the ones I always brought to him. He is on my bookshelf in the novels he bought me, and in the dishes we once cooked together. He has shaped me in so many ways, and whilst I’m terrified of being erased from his life, I can only hope that I did the same for him.

Grieving is losing someone, but it is also realising that you can never really lose someone. They are forever imprinted in your memories, in your mannerisms and ways of thinking. People leave clues all over your identity, and you become a patchwork of everything they gave to you.

Who am I without them?

In an ideal world, your identity would not be constructed around others. You would feel completely whole on your own. But many of us don’t live in an ideal world, and as someone who has struggled heavily with my mental health for years, most of my identity is wrapped around the people in my life.

We often don’t realise the extent of this until they’re gone. When we’re left with these gaps to be filled. My father shaped my identity in so many ways, most notably through encouraging a love for reading that led me to become a writer, something he never got to see. My partner witnessed my diagnosis and subsequent therapy; they supported me in finally learning to control my mental illness. That makes it far too easy to equate my growth with them. I struggled heavily with my eating disorder before them, and so they feel like the first person that made me accept my body. The first person that made me feel beautiful. They feel like the only person who could really know me and still love me, and that thought terrifies me.

In the weeks that followed my breakup, I was reminded heavily of how I felt in the months grieving my father, and sometimes still do. It’s a feeling of being untethered, losing the anchor that kept you close to the ground. They were an anchor to me, and now I need to find my own way of staying connected. It’s tempting to rely on someone else to do that for me, but I think that I have to do it myself this time.

In many ways, it feels like a betrayal to compare the passing of my father to the end of a relationship, but this is an honest exploration of how the emotion feels. Through this breakup, I’m reopening the wound of my grief, not just about my relationship, but for my father and everything else that has happened. Maybe sadness isn’t just limited to the current event, but rather opening the box of every other pain and trying to address them at once. Maybe every breakup that follows will contain a thread of this one, weaved softly into the mix. Maybe any loss that I have will feature traces of my father and everything I miss about him.

If you're looking for more on loss, here are the 9 things nobody teaches you about grief. Or if you're experiencing the other kind of loss, you might be ready for your post-breakup haircut.



Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

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