Grieve As Long As You Need
“There is nothing more painful
than grieving someone who’s still living.”
~ Rupi Kaur
We were alone in the pool, cooling off from another 95 degree Austin summer day, as the late July evening enveloped us. The darkness, along with the warmth of the water and the courtyard’s echo effect created a quiet, womb-like intimacy — making it feel like we were the only two people in the world.
“I want the world to know you’re mine,” he said softly.
My heart softened at the certainty of his words. I was happier than I’d felt in years. I smiled, pulled myself deeper into his arms, and showed my appreciation with a long, passionate kiss.
Christian was the first man I’d dated seriously in years, and I felt the same as he: I couldn’t wait to go public with our relationship. But like the first trimester of a pregnancy, I also wanted to protect it. It was that precious. And I was certain we had time — there was no rush.
He’d only recently confessed his feelings to me, after months of knowing each other professionally. I was his client. His student, actually.
We met on the dance floor, in what was meant to be a temporary partnership. But after a couple months training with him, I realized how skilled a teacher he was. And how good his lighthearted style was for me. No matter how crappy a day I’d had, ten minutes into my country ballroom lessons and I was in tears, laughing at myself — all while learning the intricate choreography I’d need to compete in a few months’ time.
There’s a level of trust and intimacy that is necessary in all partnerships. Much like choosing a therapist, a nanny or even a hair stylist — chemistry matters. Even more so in partner dancing. So when Christian first suggested that we make our temporary arrangement more permanent, I never for a second imagined that he was thinking beyond the dance floor. Months later, when he finally confessed his feelings for me, I was surprised. But I also couldn’t deny that I felt the same, and slowly began to wake up in the kind of relationship most people only dream of having. Every day with him, I felt nothing but loved, desired, and respected. For the first time in years, my life made sense.
Then suddenly, with no real explanation, he left.
Since then, my pain has run deeper and wider than what many people think it should be. Or want it to be. It’s been a year, and I’m still grieving his loss.
When you’ve been single as long as I have been, losing the person you thought was “the one” feels like a death. In some ways, it is. Especially if you’re forced to see him regularly, alive and well, yet he’s now a stranger.
The man I knew and trusted was suddenly gone, overnight. The only thing that made the pain even worse, was the lack of understanding or empathy I got from many people. Well-meaning friends and acquaintances wanted me to feel better and move on right away. Which is not only impossible to do, but unhealthy.
As a single woman, I’ve found that heartbreak is often less respected than other types of loss. And therefore, harder to mourn.
Experts everywhere will tell you that grieving any kind of loss is a necessary process that can take weeks or months — often longer — to go through. However almost immediately, knowing nearly nothing about Christian or our relationship, friends felt compelled to give me unsolicited pieces of advice:
“You can do better.”
“Sounds like you dodged a bullet.”
“Just move on and forget about him…”
While I appreciated their intentions, their words left me feeling worse — not better. The worst was when one of my oldest friends refused to “enable” my grief — comparing it to a drug or alcohol addiction.
“I can’t just be there to support your misery,” she texted me only a few months into my loss. “I see you hurting yourself. Just as I would not support someone who continues to abuse drugs or cut themselves or starve themselves, but I would always promise to be there when that person is ready to get healthy.”
Her lack of empathy or understanding was astounding. My pain wasn’t a choice, nor was it some bad habit I could go cold turkey to kick.
I knew that most of my friends’ hearts were in the right place — they just wanted me to be ok. But unfortunately, grief doesn’t work that way. You have to go through the pain to get to the other side. And that takes the one thing no one seems to want to give you:
In an attempt to rush the process, I tried everything to rid him from my heart and head. Dating other men, therapy, lots of yoga, cutting cords, meditation, massages, facials, candles and crystals — even flower essences. Whatever the hell those are.
None of it worked. Instead, for the first time in my life, I had trouble getting out of bed. Driving home from work, I thought about what would happen if I drifted into the oncoming traffic on my street. I cried easily and often, mourning the loss no one wanted me to feel.
No one was more upset about this than I was. I’m usually the poster child for positive thinking and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I make margaritas out of my lemons, and road trips from temporary job loss. But this time was different, I felt terrified of what laid ahead for me. The certainty I had that “it’s all in perfect order” left when he did.
I’m not 25, or even 35. I actually think it’s getting harder, not easier, for me to bounce back from these kinds of losses. It’s not like there’s a huge pool of single, smart, kind and chivalrous men my age hanging out at next week’s happy hour.
I was not only grieving a man and relationship I loved, but at this stage of my life, I was also mourning the things I fear I might never have: lasting love, dancing at my own wedding, someone to weather life’s storms with, a family of my own…
His loss, on top of others, hit me and my confidence hard — and as time went by, being judged by people close to me for not being able to rebound faster only made it worse.
Emily Long, LPC is explains why others often try to push us to get over it. “The truth is, what they actually want is for us to stop making THEM uncomfortable about our pain.”
But it’s not about them.
As Long says in 4 Things You Need Know About Moving On From Grief, “other people’s discomfort with your grief is their business, not yours. You are not responsible for making them feel more comfortable.”
Like it or not, heartbreak can send you through the same five stages of grief as someone who has lost a loved one to death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance. I often cycled through all five, several times a day — it was exhausting.
In her beautiful book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg talks at length about the importance of letting others grieve on their own terms — not yours. She calls it The Platinum Rule of Friendship.
“Growing up, I was taught to follow the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated,” she writes. “But when someone is suffering, instead… we need to follow the Platinum Rule: treat others as THEY want to be treated.”
I wanted time to mourn, and the same respect as someone who had lost a loved one to death. Someone I loved was gone, overnight. How was that different?
I wanted people to trust that what I felt was real. Just because someone’s relationship wasn’t as long, official or significant as others think it should be to warrant their pain, none of us can feel what is in another’s heart. I believe that love is not measured in time, but in depth. And only those attached to it are able to judge it. No one else. I know couples who have been married 15, 20 or even 50 years who say they feel far less than others who knew each other for a month.
And I needed people to love me where I was — even though I wasn’t able to be my fun, optimistic self. We all want the people we love to be happy, and sometimes it’s hard to know the right thing to say. But pushing someone to feel better on your timeline is never going to help. In fact, it only adds to our loss. Because now we have one less person we feel safe being vulnerable with.
In a talk several years ago, Earl Grollman, a rabbi and certified Death Educator and Counselor, acknowledged that while it’s easy to meet someone and say hello, the hardest thing in the world is learning to say goodbye to people that we love.
“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness,” Grollman said. “It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity. The price you pay for love. The only cure for grief — is to grieve.”
Nobody WANTS to feel sad or depressed. I certainly didn’t. The year I spent mourning Christian left me feeling like a liability — a burden to my closest friends. I apologized to them often. I much prefer to be the strong, wise friend helping others.
At the same time, I believe that the depth of my pain is a testament to the incredible love I am also able to feel and give. One is not possible without the other. I think it’s necessary to mourn all the losses in our lives — as long as it takes. To honor the people, places, and just as importantly — the pets we’ve lost.
If they meant something to us, why would we be able to move on that easily? Don’t those we have loved and lost — whether to death or another path — deserve it?
Slowly, I have been finding the strength to let him go, and trust the process again. I am deeply grateful to the people in my life that understand this and haven’t judged me for feeling all the pain I have. I will never forget the friends who have weathered my rainy days and dark nights, encouraged me take all the time I need, and who have continued to be there now that the sun has begun to shine again.
Because I have come to learn that, in time, it always will.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on November 24, 2017.