It was supposed to be our two year anniversary.
It was supposed to be the day we got engaged.
Instead, we broke up. What’re a couple of sad, nice people to do?
Throw a relationship funeral of course.
Our culture is devoid of rituals. We rarely mark milestones officially, and as we increasingly move away from organized religion, we don’t have any cultural guidance around how to deal with the many trials and tribulations of growing up.
Marriage is one of those rituals, that, with its engagement parties, bachelor/ettes, bridal showers and gift registries—not to mention the wedding itself—seems to be a trail of small rituals that help the couple to process and understand the change that is taking place; and that’s one of the reasons I do want to have a wedding when the time and person is right.
But when a relationship ends, there are no sanctioned rituals for managing that change. Exiting a serious relationship can be a major source of grief, and many of us flounder in this period. A therapist once told me that in some ways, breakups are harder to process than deaths.
This is partly because of the rituals involved: when someone dies, you have a series of actions to take, including attending a funeral where everyone talks about what they loved about the person who is gone. People bring you casseroles because it’s that much harder to take care of yourself when you are living in grief. The ritual itself offers closure, and it’s shared with a community that is meant to help support you through the change.
Of course, it’s not your ex who dies after a breakup, and I don’t suggest you treat them that way. What has died is the thing you created together, your relationship. A friend told me recently that she believes a breakup is a part of the relationship, and it’s something you have to experience together. Often what we do instead is cut each other off, and try to feel better by talking with our friends about what a jerk the ex was and how we’re so much better off without them.
Oftentimes it’s not like that at all.
Relationships are complicated, and there are usually legitimate reasons you cared about the commitment that’s now over. It’s important to give ourselves permission to acknowledge that we are sad about what happened and it’s going to be hard for a while and it’s okay. Relationship bereavement leave from work should be a thing: it is incredibly hard to focus when you are managing any kind of grief.
So instead of suffering silently on this symbolically heavy calendar day, my ex partner and I decided to ritualize it. We got together and talked about what we loved about each other and what we hoped for the future. Having had two weeks of post-relationship breakup time, we could also talk about what had come up for us, ask questions, get mad, and get out on the table what we needed to talk about. We (well, I) cried a lot. We left each other with a really nice memory, and gave each other the blessing of moving on. Of course it was sad, but it was also an act of kindness and created closure for both of us.
Of course, a shared funeral is not appropriate for all relationships (this was my first one), and the cut/dry is sometimes the only reasonable option, but there are many rituals you can do alone or with a community that can help create the same kind of acknowledgement of pain and closure we need when we are processing grief. Here are some rituals that have helped me in the past:
The Mourning Period
Give yourself a set amount of time to be a total mess. We all have coping mechanisms, and not all of them are super healthy. One of the nice things about breakups is that you have full on indulgence permission, and you can go ahead and do whatever you need to do. Whether it’s lying in bed for days, eating tubs of ice cream, or lying in a pile on your floor crying into your ex’s T-shirts, you have permission.
But give yourself a limit–I like 30 days. Set a date after which you will make a concerted effort to return to healthy habits like exercising and eating well, which are natural mood elevators. It doesn’t mean you have to stop being sad, just give yourself time to be a total mess about it, and then create a boundary around that so you can move forward.
The Breakup Haircut
There’s something empowering about taking control over your appearance when you feel you may not have much control over anything else. Symbolically, your hair represents your past because it was literally there through whatever happened to you. Six inches of hair represent a whole year of your life, and unlike other parts of your body that remember trauma and pain, you can cut it right off.
I joke that my hairdresser is actually my voodoo priestess because I only see her when big life changes are happening. She is the keeper of my symbolic past, and sweeps it away as I walk away literally and figuratively lighter.
Rearranging the House
Depending on what’s going on for you, you may be in the same space you shared with your partner, or in a whole new space (which can be in itself an excellent way to symbolize moving on). If you are in the same space, change it. Move some furniture, do a deep clean of the closet, throw some things out. Much like the haircut, you are choosing to work with something you do have control over, and can throw away some things that were with you in the past that you are trying to move on from.
Have a Party
After your mourning period and when you feel ready, gather your good friends around and have a celebration for your life, your successes and your happiness. Divorce parties are popular ways to remember that even though breakups are sad, they are also usually for the best, and it can take real courage and strength to get out of something that wasn’t right for the people in it.
I do occasionally feel that the appropriate response when I hear of someone’s breakup is not “I’m sorry,” but “Congratulations!” Be clear with yourself that this is not a funeral (though you are allowed to break down and cry in your high heels/nice suit), it’s a celebration. Think of it as a birthday party for your singlehood.
The Personal Ritual
Your community is absolutely, a vital key for getting you through the grief that you are feeling, but there are some aspects of your situation that you simply have to experience alone.
You could collect some stuff that represents your ex partner and ritually throw it away, bury it or (safely) burn it. You could ceremonially sage your house, a burning herb that is said to cleanse a space energetically. Especially if your relationship was not conducive to a funeral with your ex, you could write your ex a letter that you don’t send saying everything you didn’t get a chance to say, and then a letter to yourself detailing your accomplishments, wishes and hopes for your wide open future. A very effective meditation is to close your eyes and imagine your ex sitting in front of you as tangibly as you possibly can, and tell them in your mind everything you wish you could say to their face, imagining their reactions as you go. End with an affirmation of love, forgiveness, and compassion for them and for yourself.
Above all, acknowledge that you are going through a hard time that is unique and awful, but that pretty much everyone in the entire world can relate to on some level. Give yourself great heaps of compassion, and reach out as much as you can to the people around you. Hang out with humans and animals, and let yourself sit alone with your discomfort as well. Remind yourself that it does get better, and your future is now in your own hands. What could be more empowering than that?
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Ed: Sara Crolick
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