Taylor Swift is right, heartbreak can actually feel like grief – here’s how

beverly hills, california january 07 taylor swift attends the 81st annual golden globe awards at the beverly hilton on january 07, 2024 in beverly hills, california photo by axellebauer griffinfilmmagic
Taylor Swift and the grief of heartbreakAxelle/Bauer-Griffin

Have you ever endured a breakup so bad that it feels like someone died? Yep, same. Have you ever written a secret double album about it? No? Dw, Taylor Swift has that covered.

Overnight, the pop superstar dropped her 11th album, The Tortured Poets Department, which features a weekend-filling 31 (31!) tracks to pore over, repeat, and analyse, many of which are about her 2023 break-up with her long-term boyf Joe Alwyn. Well, more specifically, as per our very thorough investigation, it seems like only three songs are about Joe (a surprising amount of the album is rumoured to be about 1975 frontman Matty Healy, who Taylor briefly dated last year), but they’re home to some of the album’s saddest lyrics.

In them, Tay speaks about her breakup with Joe as if it’s a bereavement. “I left all I knew, you left me at the house by the Heath / I stopped CPR, after all, it’s no use / The spirit was gone, we would never come to,” she sings on “So Long, London” (a reference to Joe’s home city), the chorus of which goes, “Two graves, one gun / I’ll find someone”.

Then, on “loml” – meaning loss, rather than love, of my life – she sings: “What we thought was for all time was momentary / Still alive, killing time at the cemetery / Never quite buried.” Then later in the track: “Our field of dreams engulfed in fire / Your arson’s match, your sombre eyes / And I’ll still see until I die / You’re the loss of my life.” Oof.

Taylor isn’t alone in feeling like she’s grieving a death after her breakup. In fact, heartbreak is more akin to bereavement than most of us may realise. “The same part of the brain responds to both a breakup and a death,” says Denise Turner, psychotherapist and head of social work at the University of Chichester, whose research explores loss. “It’s the amygdala, which is responsible for any kind of threat to our attachments.”

When we lose an important relationship from our lives – whether via a breakup, death, or even just a falling out – the levels of oxytocin (dubbed the ‘love hormone’), dopamine (pleasure), and serotonin (happiness) in our brains go down, which can leave us feeling anxious and depressed. We can even go through the same stages of grief after a breakup as people often experience after a loved one dies.

“You can be very angry and lash out,” explains Turner. “Or you can go into denial. In a death, you can almost pretend that person hasn’t died, and in a breakup, you can think, ‘But it was so great’, when actually it wasn’t. Then we can experience a sort of depression with both; staying under the duvet and not wanting to go out.”

In fact, says Turner, in some ways, a breakup can potentially feel worse than a death. “If they broke up with you, then that’s a rejection,” she tells Cosmopolitan UK. “They want to get on with their life, but they don’t want you in it.” In both situations, the person isn’t there for you anymore – as Turner puts it, “you can’t get to them” – but in a breakup, they’ve chosen to leave. “It’s got a lot to do with attachments, which give us meaning and our identity. If we’ve been in a great relationship and then that attachment is broken, we suffer threats to our identity as well.”

beverly hills, california january 05 77th annual golden globe awards pictured l r taylor swift and joe alwyn at the 77th annual golden globe awards held at the beverly hilton hotel on january 5, 2020 photo by christopher polknbcnbcu photo bank
Christopher Polk/NBC

As well as hurting emotionally, these losses can actually hurt physically, too. In a 2011 study, researchers found that when participants undergoing an MRI scan were shown photos of their exes, it activated the same brain regions as those thought to be specific to physical pain. But, as Ethan Kross, the study’s author, suggests, rejection plays a particularly important part in this, backing up Turner’s suggestion that heartbreak can sometimes hurt more than bereavement. As he said at the time: “A social rejection hijacks the part of our brain that signals pain to say, ‘Hey, this is a really serious situation’, because just like physical pain, the consequences could be there.”

More than that, loss can actually damage our health. In her 2022 book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, journalist Florence Williams detailed the sleeplessness, agitation, anxiety, weight loss, and heart problems she experienced after her divorce, revealing that she was eventually diagnosed with stress-induced diabetes. “Heartbreak registers in the cells in our body,” Williams tells Cosmopolitan UK. “We may feel suddenly anxious, afraid for the future, alone in the world. Our nervous system responds in turn, pumping more stress hormones into our bloodstream, increasing inflammation, preparing for threat. This is why the newly heartbroken may face a higher risk for illness and even early death.”

All of this can be exacerbated by the loneliness we feel after loss, as “our communities and friends may distance themselves from us”. She continues: “This is why it’s important to seek connection with others, to find some peace and calm amidst the turmoil, and to work to create meaning and even a sense of purpose emerging from the grief. All of these things will help our immune system return to baseline.”

Although we’ll never know what physical pain Taylor, who’s since moved on with NFL player Travis Kelce, may have felt after her breakup with Joe, we do know that part of her devastation comes from feeling like she ‘wasted’ her youth with him. “I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free,” she sings on “So Long, London”.

“Taylor Swift has to make meaning from her breakup; she hasn’t wasted her youth, what she’s done is had a very significant relationship and learned some lessons from it,” says Turner. “In this way, healing from a bereavement and a breakup is quite similar. We don’t get over it; we fold it into ourselves and hopefully learn from it, and then we take it forward as part of who we are into the next part of our lives.”

And, if you’re Tay, you write 31 songs about it.

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