On the importance of honoring the end of a relationship
Recently I went to the funeral for my friend’s father. He died unexpectedly, and he had been struggling with Diabetes to the point of sporadically going to the emergency room. He was 69, and left behind his two adult daughters in the United States and two sons in the Philippines. While it is uncertain how his passing will affect each of his siblings, his children, his friends and his grandchildren, it was very clear how community support was orchestrated.
I compared this with watching the first episode of “Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce” in which the protagonist, a wife in the early stages of a divorce, walks through her kids’ school paranoid about who knows about her divorce and how she should act. When I reflect on my clients and my friends’ talking about their breakups, they feel confused, alone and uncertain about how much help to ask for and receive. They feel hesitant to go to group events where their ex’s friends will be, and unsure about how appropriate it is to share their grief with co-worker friends, or friends who are still friends with their ex. How sad that in this time of need and uncertainty there are not more rituals to support those grieving from ended relationship.
Responses to Loss from Death
After a death, there are many religious and secular traditions that help take care of the surviving friends and family. Some traditions include:
- Publishing the death in traditional newspapers and social media
- Personally calling distant friends and relatives
- Sending sympathy cards
- Gathering at funeral or memorial to show support
- Directions for where to donate money in honor of the deceased or to contribute to funeral costs
- Publicly and privately sharing positive memories of the deceased
- Ritualized period of mourning such as sitting Shiva in the Jewish tradition
- Bereavement leave and bereavement flights
Responses to Loss from Breakups
- Avoiding social media
- Avoiding friends and family of your ex
- Enforcing a no contact rule with your ex
- Feeling shame for downsizing to a more affordable home
- Custody battles over children
- Friends “comforting” a grieving person by enumerating negative qualities of their ex
- Seeking validation on dating sites and in public settings while intoxicated
Some of the awkwardness that results in avoidance after a breakup or death is due to the belief that someone is at fault, and therefore might not deserve our sympathy or support. Additionally, the prevalence of divorce and dating is a relatively new phenomena so there is less of an established tradition for how to help people grieve and move on after their relationships end.
Yet another hurdle to receiving support after a breakup is the influence of jealousy. Any type of loss can be sad and devastating, but couple that with the belief that you are inadequate if your ex forms a healthy relationship before you do, or that your ex is not entitled to find joy and connection with a new partner and you have a recipe for anguish, anxiety, suppressed feelings and confusion. Friends who want to be supportive sometimes hold back for fear of getting caught in the middle, or being interrogated on the well-being of the ex-partner.
HOW TO GIVE AND RECEIVE SUPPORT AFTER A RELATIONSHIP ENDS
1. Share your empathy
By empathizing with the feelings of loss, anger, hurt or confusion someone is feeling, you can help them to feel understood, even if there is no clear action you can take to improve their situation. If you aren’t sure someone needs help, ask helpful questions such as:
How can I support you?
Do you want me to check on you periodically?
Would you like me to let you know if your ex is coming to events with our mutual friends?
2. Exercise Compassion
If you are grieving an ex, have compassion for yourself and understand that loss of a partner triggers the same brain chemicals as a cocaine withdrawal. If you can manage to have compassion for your ex and trust they were the doing the best they knew how at the time, which might look like crappy lies and angry tirades, you are growing in your ability to form healthy connection with others for your next relationship
3. Ritualize Your Grieving
Take time off of work, or set up an actual ritual where you burn something that holds a memory, or formally clear out their belongings from your home. We have Turning a New Love Leaf Ceremonies through my Meetup in San Francisco in which we gather at the beach and let go of old loves.
Allow yourself time and space to mourn the loss of a relationship, but don’t let it take over your life. Know that many people feel the heart-wrenching pain of heartbreak, and that these feelings of loss reflect your capacity to love.