[This is a very personal piece of writing on grief that I posted to my Facebook friends quite awhile ago. It met with heartfelt appreciation, and I was encouraged to post it publicly someday, if I ever felt ready to do so. Thank you to everyone who encouraged me and supported me when I needed it so desperately. Here it is – I’m ready. Like a phoenix from the ashes.]
April 17th, 2012, marked the 5-year anniversary of the day my ex informed me that our 14-year relationship was over and it was time for me to leave.
On that date in 2007, I learned that for several months he had been carrying on a clandestine online affair in an MMORPG, with a married woman he’d never met who had five children and lived on the other side of the country. The two of them were in love, they had decided to leave their respective spouses for each other, and he wanted me out.
Within a month, I had moved back to Portland and was living alone, heartbroken and crushed.
I knew I would never see him again. We would not be friends. I don’t know how I knew this. I resisted that knowledge, even as I was certain of it. It definitely wasn’t what I wanted. Sure, we’d had our problems, but I once loved that man with every fiber of my being. I would have stepped in front of a speeding bullet for him without a moment’s hesitation. Still, I knew.
It is surprising how quick some people have been to pass judgment on how I coped with the aftermath of this loss. To the sanctimonious people who do this – and it always seems to be the ones who have not been through an unwanted divorce or breakup of a cherished long-term relationship – I have this to say:
You have no idea how painful it is to be betrayed, deceived, and abandoned by your beloved – someone you deeply adored, lived with, gave your heart to, trusted, respected, and wanted by your side until death, despite his flaws. You may think you know what that kind of loss must be like if you’ve read a book about it or watched a friend go through it, but unless you’ve actually been through it yourself, no, you do not. And even if you’ve been there yourself, you still only know your experience of it, which is filtered through your own specific combination of cognitive and cultural biases.
If you dismiss people in this situation – or, say, people who post about it at length, five years after the fact – as drama queens or whiners who like to wallow in negativity for the sake of attention, I suggest you try harder to get a clue, because YOU DON’T FUCKING GET IT. Quit it with the “first world problems” bullshit already.
Unwanted divorce is anguish, and I do not use this word lightly. It scars people for life. In my case – for complex reasons I still do not completely understand – I lost not only my ex, but an entire social circle dating back to my early university days. We had once called one another our chosen family. I lost my dream house – the one where I had once aspired to work in my home office as a freelance writer, start a mini-ecovillage, build a tiny private gothic/industrial bellydance studio and Pagan temple, and celebrate my 40th birthday. I ended up spending my 40th birthday alone, eating chocolate and sobbing.
My ex deliberately deceived me and absconded with my half of the funds from the sale of our house (over $50,000). He got away with it only because I had foolishly allowed the title to be issued in his name only, and, to this very day, I still can’t afford to pursue him for his debt to me according to the terms of the arbitration contract we signed. Believe me, I tried. Soon the statute of limitations will expire anyway, so I have no choice but to take the hit.
I come from a comfortable white middle class background, with parents who were professionals and stressed the value of education. My ex was a software engineer in the computer games industry; I was an honour student with grad school aspirations in philosophy and psychology, and I have completed three baccalaureate-level academic degrees. I’ve worked as a teaching assistant, a computer lab web design assistant, and an office manager, among other things. I’m obsessively organised, business-savvy, computer-savvy, and very much a “planner” – I was pretty confident that I was prepared to handle most of life’s slings and arrows. Now I’m living out the story of the times: the bottom is falling out of the middle class, and many of us are hanging on by a thread that is rapidly unraveling. Before the divorce, my ex and I were doing fairly well, and were on our way to early retirement. We had investments, many of which I managed conservatively. Then the one-two punch was delivered: he left, and two years later I graduated, with my accounting post-bac certificate, right smack into the worst recession since the Great Depression. Oops! Bad timing! No job for you!
Now, despite my skills, investment savvy, frugal habits, education, and work experience, I’m barely scraping by. I would prefer to support myself solely by writing the non-fiction books that are sloshing around in me, waiting for me to get my life arranged so they can be properly written. I have several well-developed book outlines, and a small but loyal following of readers. I believe I am competent enough as a writer and a business person to get there. With my safety net mostly gone, however, I’m not optimistic about being able to pull this off. Books can take years to write, and it takes the cooperative efforts of many people to get them professionally published. If it weren’t for my family, I’d be in real trouble. I’ve been juggling job-hunting, volunteer work, and freelance gigs for three years now, while simultaneously trying to finish my first book manuscript (currently at 60,000 words) and get up to speed on electronic publishing so that I can eventually edit and publish my back catalogue of 20+ years’ worth of written work in e-book form. I live on food stamps, a few subcontract writing gigs, the occasional tip-jar donation from my blog readers, and some family gifts. Fortunately, I am debt-free and frugal by nature, so I’m able to live on very little income.
Oh, and when my ex left, my health insurance went right along with him. In case you hadn’t heard, in the USA we are only considered worthy of receiving dignified, affordable health care if we are married to, or employed by, someone with a good insurance plan. Thank gods I’ve been relatively healthy for the past few years. Since my financial assets are gone now, I’m eligible for the Oregon Health Plan, but the state doesn’t have enough funds for all who need coverage, so I have been on the waiting list for two and a half years. (My ex is working at MIT, last I heard. He won’t speak to me or answer e-mails.) So I live every single day with the constant threat of being unable to pay for any medical care I might need, and the ever-present possibility that because I’m uninsured, I won’t be able to get medical care at all.
Relationships end for a thicket of tangled reasons that even the partners themselves may not fully understand. I made my share of mistakes in that relationship, and no doubt my ex told a few stories of his own. Nonetheless, I dealt with him in good faith even after he threw in the towel and took up with someone else, and I didn’t deserve what he did. When he e-mailed me to tell me he was running off with all the money from our house, he wrote to me, and I quote: “This e-mail will vilify whatever is left of your opinion of me.” Even his parents thought what he did was wrong, and as I understand it, they tried to convince him to at least settle his debt to me fairly. He didn’t listen.
I’m a non-fiction writer. I’m not very good at writing fiction. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
I was a wreck. My grief triggered a relapse of my clinical depression, and I had to go back on medication after years of being medication-free and in remission. My sense of self fractured. My self-image had been filtered, in part, through a lens coloured by 14 years of his daily influence for better and worse. Suddenly that influence vanished, and I had to sort out what remained. My hard-won self-confidence took a nosedive right into the gutter, and my formerly feisty passion became foggy and dulled. My social anxiety, which had previously been very mild and easily manageable, spiked into danger zones. I cycled so rapidly and unpredictably from one emotional state to another that I frightened myself. I feared that no one I’d want to date would ever find the nerdy, broken, lonely, desperately needy middle-aged version of me attractive ever again.
Worse still, my ability to take joy in solitude was smothered, and it terrified me to think that I might never get that mojo back. As an introvert, I cherish solitude, and I take great care to distinguish it from loneliness. Solitude nourishes my creativity; loneliness erodes it. There is a complex and sometimes paradoxical relationship between intimacy and solitude, and broken bonds of attachment shredded into mere scraps the fabric I had woven together so painstakingly.
For almost a year after my ex left, a “good” day was one in which I could endure three or four consecutive hours without a single suicidal thought. There were countless days when I thought about suicide every five or ten minutes. I sobbed openly – I discovered, to my chagrin, that I was physically incapable of stopping myself – while strangers stared as I stood in line at the bank. I curled up into a fetal position on the floor of my studio flat because the crushing sensation in my chest made me suspect a heart attack. I hoped fervently that I wouldn’t survive it. I’d had no idea that emotional pain could be so undeniably physical, and could make me want to die so thoroughly and viscerally. And don’t even get me started on the white-hot rage. If you met me during this dark time in my life, your first impressions of me were probably not very positive, as I was but a pale shadow of myself.
But I DID survive it. I’m still here. Somehow I fucking muddled my way through. I’m justifiably proud of that fact alone. Do not try to use shaming phrases like “first world problems” to take me down a notch or convince me that I have no right to my feelings about this just because others have suffered worse fates than I.
I’ve even gone on to make new friends and find happiness. And with hindsight, it’s clear that I am better off without him in all ways except financially. But I will bear scars from that loss for life. It shaped the person I have become in fundamental ways. It changed me into a different kind of person – someone I am still getting to know, in fact.
Now then…here’s some hard-won advice. (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?)
People who have been through a loss of this magnitude are likely to be in near-constant, inescapable pain for a long, long time – much longer than you may think is reasonable. The damage sustained may not be obvious, because in our culture we expect people to stuff down their pain, paste on a faux-happy face, and carry on with business as usual, and there are few or no safe places for people who are hurting to let down their guard. We even add insult to injury by mocking them: “Oh, boo fucking hoo, your boyfriend broke up with you. Talk to someone who has REAL problems.”
People who are suffering like this do not need your thinly veiled pressure – no matter how well-intentioned – to move on or “get over it.” What they DO need – often more desperately than they even know themselves – is your support, love, and patience. They may not always be able to ask for it, however, for a whole host of reasons. For one thing, they fear (often accurately!) that even the people who care about them won’t want to “go there” with them, and won’t be able to handle the intensity of their pain without inflicting further damage, however unintentional. If you want to be a real friend, then reach out to them, if you can do so respectfully, while taking into account any boundaries they may have. Don’t try to fix it. It’s going to fucking hurt no matter what you do. Grief has its own inconvenient timetable, and you cannot opt out. Yes, you can try – gods know I did – but it will catch up with you sooner or later. Unfinished grief lives on in our cells. Just be there, and allow it to run its course.
Don’t offer advice unless asked, and in general, try to think before you speak. Platitudes can be even worse, so skip the New Age crap. It’s often better to say nothing at all, even if it feels awkward, than it is to say something well-intentioned but potentially hurtful. Offer lots of hugs, though – real ones in the flesh, if you can, not the cheap Internet substitute. Let them know you care and are thinking about them. Write them heartfelt letters. Ask if they could use your help getting gigs or a job. Stand in bank lines with them. If they’re up for it, give them a chance to help YOU – this can sometimes help to distract them from their own pain and allow them to feel useful, and this can be a win-win arrangement for both parties. Be gentle if something happens to trigger them and they lose it in public. Take them out for tea or lunch. Participate in cathartic rituals with them, if you are so inclined. There are very few acceptable places for rituals of profound grief and loss in our emotionally stunted culture, so offer to help them find or create one if that’s what they so desire. Call them, if they enjoy talking on the phone. Offer to grocery shop and cook for them, and do the dishes too. Sit beside them and listen to depressing music together in companionable silence. Hand them tissues patiently while they weep, scream, rant, and rage – and when they’re done (for the moment, that is; expect more waves of grief to come later) let them know you still love them and have faith in their ability to survive this.
One of the most healing gifts you can give to the people you hold dear is to just be there in the dark moments when they need you, and bear loving witness to their grief and pain. Give them your full presence and attention when you can, without trying to smooth over or fix things. By no means is this an easy thing to do – I mean, who wants to watch people they love suffer? But if you can develop the strength and skills necessary to do it, you may be able to help them cope, and the quality of your relationship with them may be much improved.
And finally, don’t be so quick to pass judgment on others when you don’t know the half of it. Even after reading this, or hearing me tell the story verbally, you still don’t know the half of it. Everything I have written here is truthful, and it is a faithful account of my experience. Yet you can’t ever know all of what “really happened”. Even I can’t know that. All I know is my own view of it.
Thank you for listening.