When our relationships fall apart, it’s normal to turn to family and friends for support.
We feel like our inner world is crumbling away, there’s nothing to hold onto, and our belief system is collapsing. One day we’re overwhelmed with powerful emotions such as anger, sorrow, and grief. The next day we’re in a state of numb disbelief.
Family and friends want us to return to our “normal” selves as quickly as possible. The intensity of our raw emotions is unsettling for them. It threatens their perceived sense of safety and control—and as far as they’re concerned, that’s to be avoided, no matter what.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh says it best when she states:
“The first and most common offerings of family and friends are always distractions. ‘Take her out…get her away…change the scene…bring in people to cheer her up…don’t let her sit and mourn.'”
This is what our friends will suggest too. Because our Western culture, with its emphasis on speediness and non-stop doing, doesn’t allow for the messiness of the grieving process.
Many perceive “falling apart” to convey weakness, softness, or vulnerability. Getting back on our feet and moving on with life “conveys strength” they say. When we’re brokenhearted and hear, “Pick yourself up,” or “Keep yourself busy,” or “Time to move on,” it brings a sense of shame attached to the falling apart.
The people around us don’t want to see how fragile we are. Our vulnerability may trigger something deep inside them, something long buried. Some people avoid seeing us after we’ve experienced a difficult loss.
This was my experience after my husband took his own life. Colleagues and acquaintances asked how I was doing. They wanted a brief answer, so I would give a terse “holding up well” response, often avoiding direct eye contact. They nodded their heads with approval. I silently heard their thoughts: “Yes, you’re handling your difficult situation well. You’re showing courage and stoicism in the face of a painful loss.”
But I wasn’t holding up well. Not at all. My sense of self was shattered.
In times of heartbreak, we often want to wail like a two-year-old and collapse into an exhausted sleep. Instead, to give the impression of coping, those pesky feelings have to be numbed. We turn to anti-anxiety medications, anti-depressants, alcohol, and sugar. We throw ourselves into our work, taking on new projects to keep our minds off our loss. We may even jump into a new relationship so that the euphoria and novelty of it dials down our inner pain. We work hard at maintaining our image of coping, telling ourselves and others that we’re fine. We stop feeling. But here’s the thing: emotions cannot be suppressed selectively.
Like an antibiotic kills bacteria, numbing out suppresses our capacity to feel joy, as well as sorrow.
Numbing out also has the effect of making our pain much worse when we finally stop numbing ourselves and start to feel it. Simply put, the powerful feelings of loss don’t dissolve of their own accord over time. They persist until they receive proper attention and processing.
Loss is an unavoidable part of being human. It’s as fundamental to the human experience as breathing. There’s nothing courageous about running from the pain. Similarly, there’s nothing shameful about feeling despair when a loved one leaves our life through separation or death. Anger, fear, sadness, and grief are legitimate feelings. They testify that we have the strength to be vulnerable and the courage to love.
An important first step is facing the enormity of what has happened and not downplaying or avoiding it. When we stop wanting things to be different than they are—when we accept the fullness of our experience of loss—a doorway to a more meaningful life appears.
Heartbreak can break us open. It can thrust us on a journey inward. We begin to peel away the layers of shame, fear, self-doubt, and self-loathing that obscure our true selves.
It was Marianne Williamson who said, “Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor.” And it truly does.
It’s time for a radical change in how we support a family member or friend after a breakup. We must question what underpins our desire to push them faster through the grieving process. Is it our own vulnerability we don’t want to get in touch with? Do we feel being real and honest is a sign of weakness?
The next time the words “move on” or “you’ll find somebody better” are on your lips—pause. Give your family member or friend time to process and to simply be with their deep pain.
In my experience of grieving the loss of my husband in my thirties, the friends who supported me the most were those who had the strength and presence to sit with me without trying to distract me from my pain. Such friends hold space for us and witness what we’re going through without offering solutions and without treating us like we need to be “fixed.” If we have even one friend who has the capacity to do this, it acts as a catalyst for recovery.
There are three tips I’d give to somebody who wants to support a person who’s heartbroken:
1. See them as whole and resourceful, not broken and fragile.
2. For the love of all that’s holy, don’t use the word “victim.” I don’t think there’s a word more disempowering than that. I remember being assigned to the “Victim Support Unit” after my husband’s suicide. The people there were compassionate, but I resented being called a victim.
3. A person grieving a great loss wants your presence, not your pity. There’s never a time where pity is appropriate or helpful.
By keeping these tips in mind, we can support our loved ones in healing their broken hearts, rather than pushing them further into despair or triggering shameful feelings in them.
Author: Miriam Reilly
Image: Unsplash/Sydney Sims
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy Editor: Travis May