The Crucial Difference Between A Death and A Breakup

a.k.a. “Why we need to take breakups more seriously.”


I’m never supposed to compare losses. As an Intuitive Grief Guide, I’m supposed to honor the uniqueness and individuality of each loss that comes my way. Every loss is felt at 100% no matter what it is. Everybody who has lost has a different and special relationship to whatever they lost.

Truth, all of it.

But I can’t help but notice, as I work through my breakup, that there’s a really stark, important difference between losing someone to death and losing someone through a breakup.

There’s the obvious, which is someone’s physical existence. People who die are dead and gone while people you break up with are still living.

But in that “obvious” difference lies the hidden, heartbreaking difference between a death and a breakup.

We have no choice when it comes to death. It is a sucky, shitty, inevitable part of our humanity. We don’t get to choose when our loved ones die, how they die, or whether or not we get to say goodbye. Death is — for the most part — entirely out of our control or realm of choice. Our loved ones get taken away from us. We are forced to live without them.

But a breakup… a breakup is a choice. Whatever the circumstances — abuse, fundamental differences, morals, family, simply not getting along like you thought you would — a breakup is an active decision to no longer “do life” with someone. And the hardest part of a breakup is not that the relationship is over; it’s that you have to watch them keep on living without you.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not trying to diminish the impact of death.

But breakups… they just have a whole other element to them.

With death, you mourn the future. All of the dreams and plans and wishes and hopes and expectations you created together. Death made it so those things don’t get to happen now. They will never get to happen.

But in a breakup, you mourn the future and then have to watch your ex live a new future without you. All of the dreams and plans and wishes and hopes and expectations you created together… PLUS whatever their new reality looks like. Because your ex is still alive. And so are you.

New partners, new adventures, new jobs, new homes, new beliefs…that’s the “blessing” of a breakup. Your ex isn’t dead. In fact, they’re VERY MUCH ALIVE. So much alive that they have given you a whole new pain to grieve — a future that doesn’t include you. Rejection. Elimination. Exclusion. Can you say “OUCH?!”

With death, you get to hold onto your fantasies of what the future looks like. It’s like time stands still when someone dies. Because the future never gets to happen the way you dreamed when they were living, you get the gift of keeping those memories alive in your heart and in your mind.

But with a breakup, you watch your fantasies get dismantled as both you and your ex continue to live and exist in the world. Not only does your future with them no longer exist. An entirely new reality has taken its place.

It’s a cruel, cruel combination of “My life doesn’t look how I expected it to,” and “In fact, it’s something else entirely!”

The big difference between a death and a breakup is that in a breakup, you and the person you lost have consciously chosen to be apart. And that means watching them grow, change, flounder, thrive, and plain old exist without you.

That in itself is a pain worth grieving.

Society doesn’t give the same attention to breaking up as it does to death.

With death there are headlines, vigils, ceremonies, social media campaigns, outreach. There’s an emotional focus on who they were, what we’ll miss, what made them great. Love and support and casseroles appear and make themselves known.

With breakups there are logistics, scandals, questions, a focus on what’s next. There’s a “brain” focus on who’s taking the kids, how did the affairs start, who’s suing who, who they’re dating now. Less attention is given to the fact that — just like death — this loss has changed the emotional trajectory of their lives.

There may be a week or two of Ben and Jerry’s revenge-movie-bonding or a camping excursion with close relatives or a glance of sympathy from coworkers as dates for divorce court are set.

But with breakups, little societal sympathy is given to mourning what was, what is, and what has changed about the future. “Moving on” is seen as healthy and ruminating over our ex’s new life is seen as “obsessive” or “sick.”

We need to honor our breakups. Our first-crush ex-boyfriends. Our soulmates ripped apart by family or fates or job transfers. Our after-two-years-thirteen-years-thirty-eight-years divorces.

We need to honor our breakups, not just in the moments they happen, but as they continue to impact our lives.

Discovering my introverted ex is now an outspoken Facebook political activist? 
Cool, but wow I wish I could’ve been a part of that growth. She’s so passionate and visible now. I’m proud of her.
Seeing my cheater-cheater high school boyfriend join the service and get hitched to the woman he cheated on me with?
No thanks. I made the right choice. But remember that one time when he AOL instant messaged and said he was willing to try again? I wonder if he’s still that sweet to her.
Watching my college sweetheart wander in the darkness of a family death?
Holy hell. I wish I could’ve been there for her in the same way I always was. I did what I could, but we agreed that’s not my place any more. She has to find her way on her own.

Society says, “Death is worse than a breakup.” “At least they’re still alive.”

I say, “Death is different than a breakup. They both hurt like hell in totally different ways. Them still being alive just gives us new things to grieve.”

We need to take breakups more seriously because they affect our lives and our relationships going forward. All losses do. But breakups especially set the tone for how we treat our future partners, our families, and our friends. And how people respond to our breakup determines how seen, safe, and supported we feel in the world.

So the next time someone wants to talk about how they just saw on Facebook that their ex is flying to Seattle with their knockoff lookalike clone, LISTEN. They’re sharing their grief with you.

Don’t scoff. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t comment on how they need to “stop creepin’ and focus on their own lives.” They are mourning a future that never got to be. They are wrestling with this new future that for whatever reason, they don’t get to be a part of any more. They are recognizing in their own way that they are losing one more piece of their ex to an alternate reality.

Let’s soften our post-breakup focus on moving on, cutting ties, being “done.”

Let’s shift our focus to acknowledging new realities, listening to pain, and simply being there.

Shelby Forsythia is the host of the podcast Coming Back: Conversations on life after loss. She gives people the tools, space, and support to negotiate life after loss. Subscribe to her weekly insights on grief and grieving here.