I was 17 when I had my first major heartbreak. For months, I moved through the world as a shell of myself, cut raw on the inside. During that time, I did the two things I knew to move me forward. I read and wrote voraciously. It was sometime during those months that I came across this poem:
After A While
©1971 Veronica A. Shoffstall
After a while you learn
the subtle difference between
holding a hand and chaining a soul
and you learn
that love doesn’t mean leaning
and company doesn’t always mean security.
And you begin to learn
that kisses aren’t contracts
and presents aren’t promises
and you begin to accept your defeats
with your head up and your eyes ahead
with the grace of woman,
not the grief of a child
and you learn
to build all your roads on today
because tomorrow’s ground is
too uncertain for plans
and futures have a way of falling down
After a while you learn
that even sunshine burns
if you get too much
so you plant your own garden
and decorate your own soul
instead of waiting for someone
to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure
you really are strong
you really do have worth
and you learn
and you learn
with every goodbye, you learn…
I rewrote it in my journal and read it, like a mantra, whenever I needed encouragement or a reminder that things would be okay, that I would be okay.
My next epic heartbreak (although there were smaller heartaches before then) came when I was 23, a year out of college, when my college sweetheart and I broke up not because we were out of love but because we were states away from each other and neither of us could physically get where the other was. That break-up came after we had spent what was one of the most incredible weeks together during our spring breaks (we were teachers and coaches in different states and happened to have the same spring break). It felt like what we logistically needed to do, but we wept in each other’s arms as we did it. Later, I would find a note he left me in my bedroom, asking me to not close the book on our story just yet, that there were stories left for us to write. It would take us two more years to finally pull away from each other, but that break-up, when we were 23, left me ripped open.
Hours later, my roommate found me sobbing in the living room. And I couldn’t stop. I just couldn’t stop. She hugged me; she listened; she consoled. And, finally, she did the only thing she could think of, something that still makes me smile because it could not have been any less me. She took me to get my first manicure.
While the idea of getting manicures didn’t stick (I think my last manicure was 10 years ago for my wedding), the idea of self-care did, and I am so grateful that my roommate taught me that sometimes when you hurt, what you most need to do is something that feels good and is kind to you. Because here is the thing. At the end of the day, we are all we have. The only thing we’re taking with us when we go is, well, us. We might as well be our own best friend.
I am talking break-ups today because one of my former students was recently in touch looking for advice to get her through an epic, I’m just out of college and thought this was going to go differently, break-up. And because I’ve been there, done that, I so empathized. I felt both her pain and my own from 15 years ago. And so, I decided to ask my Facebook friends for their break-up advice and decide to rack my brain for all of mine and compile it here for anyone whose heart is broken.
1. A. Be Sad. Look, there is no way around it. Break-ups hurt, even if you initiate it, even if you know it is the best thing, even if there is no way around it. Even with all that, they still hurt. So, be sad. Cry until there aren’t any more tears or you get the hiccups or you descend into the ugly sob that hurts your throat. Let it out. Because here is what I can promise you. If you don’t grieve, if you don’t let it out, it is going to sneak up on you later and that’s never good.. It’s like releasing a pressure-valve. If you keep it in, that pressure has to go somewhere and, pent up inside, it will do far more damage. Hurting isn’t going to destroy you. So let yourself have at it, tears, screams, snot and all.
B. Get It Out! As I said below, writing my way through my first heartache really helped me put things in perspective and learn some valuable lessons. If writing is your thing, write your heart out. If reading is your thing, read your heart out (or find a little mantra like I did at 17 with After A While). Tami Hackbarth suggested these books: It’s Called a Break-up Because It’s Broken and The Women’s Comfort Book.
And there are other ways to get it out of your system, too, as Alexis Yael Anderson shares on Facebook: I’m a “wallow” type of recoverer. I’d make a playlist of really emo songs and belt them out. Watch sappy movies. Write in my journal. Do sad art. Get it out of my system!
2. Go to Your Person. Look, we all have people in our lives that we can go to and be just as real as we need to be in the moment (and if you are thinking, wait, I don’t have that person, then it is time to examine why and make the changes that allow you to have that person in your life). Go to that person for your grief, yes. But also go to that person when you’ve come up with your plan. You know what I mean by plan. Sometimes it is the “how we will get back together”e plan. Sometimes it is the “how I will show her or him what s/he are missing out on” plan. Sometimes it is the “how I will get over him or her” plan. Whatever plan it is, you aren’t in your best place and so running it by someone else- your person- will give you insight into whether or not you are in your right mind.
As my friend Margaret Lumpkin Love so honestly said, “Make sure you have someone in your life to call you on stuff before you indulge in doing anything too stupid as a result of grief.” Yep.
3. Be Kind to Yourself. Starting with your self, be especially kind to yourself during this process. You aren’t stupid or ugly or unworthy or unloveable or any of that other crap you’ve been feeding yourself in the days since the break-up. The relationship simply ran its course and you have learned and experienced everything from it that you could. So treat yourself well. Get a manicure even or a massage or any other very nice thing. Indulge in the most incredible self-care and treat yourself exceedingly well.
As Tami says, “I’m a huge fan of making break ups about self-care and growth (after a few weeks/couple months of just being SAD). #1 rule – don’t hang out with anyone that doesn’t treat you as well as your girlfriends do.”
But don’t stop there.
4. Be Kind to Others. Starting with your ex. The inclination will be to blast him or her and today’s social media work makes that so easy to happen. You could post about him or her on your wall, send out tweets, go the distance with your discontent. But you don’t want to in the moment, I promise (although, if you are a professional writer, you might need to write about the break-up and what you learned from it YEARS later. Maybe. Even then, you can still try to be nice). Creating spray shot now will only make your life harder in the moment AND later. And also be kind to those who love you will be reaching out to you in the coming days and months. Don’t blame the break-up on them (“You never liked her anyway, Mom!”). Just accept the love you are being shown. Keep it classy. You won’t regret it. And as Alexis advised on Facebook, “When you freak out, try to minimize damage, if you can’t, go back and apologize after.”
5. Minimize Exposure. Just because your ex asked if you could stay friends, you don’t have to do so. Just because you thinking staying friends will keep you in the loop, you shouldn’t. Sometimes the very best thing you can do in a break up is drift apart from the person. Start relying on yourself more and on other relationships to give you what you need.
As Tami says, “call your girlfriends instead of calling him. unfriend on fb, take his number out of your phone. if you are still dying from pain after 6 months of no contact, maybe talk then.”
So, yes, unfriend the person on Facebook. Quit following him or her on Twitter. Delete the phone number on your phone (yes, you have it memorized, Tami and I both know this, but there is something symbolic in that delete- which also makes it epically hard to do). Put away photos. Put all the presents and left-behind clothing in a box then have someone else deliver it to him or her. Change your work schedule or work habits if you work with the person. Walk a different way on campus if you go to school together. Create space for yourself. You want the bruise to be touched from the outside as little as possible right now.
6. Ask for Grace. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need right now. As my dear friend Isha Ahsan Lee said, “it took me a million years to learn this, but it’s ok to say to anyone with expectations of you (family, bosses, etc) that you’re grieving a loss. Just like that. Just put it out there. They give you some room to be fragile which is ok, human, and appropriate. Grief is part of life. If you don’t seem like yourself they know why and it prevents a thousand other questions and judgment.” I SO agree with this. In fact, what I have learned is most people really want to know how they can help, we all want to be good to others, really, and so it is such a gift when someone says, “I’m not myself and I hope you can understand.” Its like, “yes, I can understand. I’ve been there and I can do that for you.”
7. Move on. I know, I know, this feels impossible. But you have to do it. And the very best way to get started is to pour yourself into something that lights your fire. About what are you passionate? Do a whole lot of that right now. Because if you love walking shelter dogs, it is really hard to be absorbed in your own crap when you have to pick up their’s while out on a lovely walk. So, do things that occupy your whole mind as they will help you realize, “wow, I just went 20 seconds, 20 minutes, 2 hours, whatever, without thinking about him/ her.”
Isha shared, “After a proportional sadness/crying period, just fake it to make it. Re-establishing your routines, seeing friends, living life, even it feels empty and wrong at first really works to heal all kinds of heartbreak.” Alexis totally agreed and offered this viewpoint, “eventually, you have to move on. Don’t let anyone else dictate how long that should take, but don’t cut yourself off from the world, either. Wallowing is not the same as depressive burying. If you can’t still find some joy, however small, in life or see any beauty, then it might be time to get professional help.” Which brings me to step 8…
8. Try Counseling. Counseling can be the best personal investment you ever make in yourself, I promise. And a heartbreak can be the perfect time to sit down with a trained professional who is on your side and have him or her help you sort through what happened, why it happened, what you need, and how to move forward.
9. Have Faith. There is a reason why the break-up happened. It could be as simple as you needed some time apart to grow as individuals and one day you will circle back around (thinking about it now, I know that this is what my college sweetheart and I were both thinking when we broke up at 23. Ultimately, that’s not what happened). It may be that you weren’t supposed to be together for life, but just for a moment in your life instead so that you could learn from each other and then go on stronger and smarter. As Cassie Ann Virgin so eloquently wrote on my Facebook wall, “It helps to know that when you DO meet the person you’ll be with for life, you understand why the other relationships didn’t work.”
10. Appreciate bits of wisdom. Here are 3 things to file away in your mental Rolodex under Relationships
From Kat Anderson: People come into your life for a reason, and they don’t always have to stay in your life.
From a high school teacher that I had: Relationships are to learn and to have fun. When either stops, the relationship should.
From a college friend’s dad: Don’t look for someone you can live with. Look for someone you cannot live without… (apologies to my linguist friends who are cringing at the sentences ending with prepositions).
And a bonus piece of wisdom from one of my longest friends, Laura Whitener Caputo, “If there is ANY chance you make get back together do not go to your parents with all the detail of your heartbreak. They will never forgive him!”
Now, it’s your turn, what advice do you have for someone going through heartbreak? What has worked for you?