Sometimes I listen to the British band, Bastille, because their sound appeals to my Anglophilic tendencies and is reminiscent of some of my favorite 80’s alternative bands. A recent song that caught my attention is Good Grief. The lyrics describe the phenomenon of grief as a terrifying event (“watching through my fingers”–like at a horror movie) with complex twists and turns. Triggers are described as, “Caught off guard by your favorite song, Oh I’ll be dancing at a funeral, dancing at a funeral,” with a chorus that echoes, “Every minute and every hour I miss you, I miss you, I miss you more.” In a split second, people can go from feeling okay to feeling devastatingly sad. This is the norm for relationship loss.
I’ve become more aware of the song lately because I was recently asked to participate in a question/answer webinar about moving on and healing from lost relationships. Just about anyone who has been in romantic love agrees that it can be a uniquely and exquisitely joyful experience, but that it can also be proportionately and uniquely painful.
Although I’m usually in the business of helping people preserve and repair relationships, much of my practice consists of people in the throes of grief from recent relationship loss, or who are embarking on new relationships and terrified to proceed because of previous losses.
Losing important relationships can be downright traumatic. The pain is so deep and often unpredictable, that it can also be disorienting and, as Bastille hints, terrifying. People are extremely vulnerable in these scenarios. One of my wishes is that we as human beings were more validating toward people in this kind of pain. Most people are so uncomfortable with it that it can be hard to get adequate support.
Here are a few things to know and do when facing breakup recovery:
- It’s going to hurt. No duh, right? Except that it’s one thing to know it cognitively and another thing to experience it. The brain registers grief and loss as actual pain. There are even studies demonstrating that taking an analgesic like Tylenol can blunt emotional pain. I explain to people that it is NORMAL to be in pain, and if they were not in pain something would be wrong. The pain from a lost relationship means that there was a connection, and as human beings we feel pain with lost emotional connection. Feeling pain means you can also feel joy.
- It’s going to hurt for a while. People often expect to feel better faster than they do. It’s not atypical to see people in active grief for a year, or even a few. For some relationships, grief triggers may not ever entirely disappear, but they generally get less intense, and the time between triggers increases.
- Feel pain well. This sounds strange, but what I mean by this is to actually set up a specific amount of time daily or weekly to actively grieve a relationship. Create a grieving ritual. Write stream-of-consciousness style for a number of minutes. Think about memories you want to keep. Allow yourself to express sadness. Set the timer, and when the timer is up, have a ritual to transition into another activity. Complete a mundane task and then move on toward a new activity. There will still be diffuse pain, but I believe that actively grieving in a specific time and space helps create a boundary and contain some of the grief. It moves people through the process with less complexity.
- Practice mindfulness. You cannot control when and where triggers will show up. They are everywhere. They lie in songs, places, dates, smells–potentially in any stimulus. When a trigger happens, focus on breathing and become curious about emotional physical reactions and just “be” with yourself.
- Actively restore, strengthen or begin other new connections. Our society places a premium on romantic love and underrates other types of human connection. Think about what kind of son/daughter, brother/sister, parent, neighbor, friend, grandchild, grandparent, community member, etc., you want to be and reach out to someone. Write a note—even if it’s a text. An attempt at human connection is movement toward health.
- Find self-care activities to appeal to the senses. Yoga is an excellent idea—calming, restorative and tactile. Take warm baths. Listen to music. One of my favorite calming sensory activities is to sit near a container of kinetic sand and just handle it. I used to provide sand tray therapy, and I noticed that my clients often significantly visibly relaxed while playing with sand. These are all soothing activities for targeting distress.
- Write down anything you have learned from the loss of this relationship. Yes, really.
- Figure out how you would be happy if you never got involved in another romantic relationship again. Why would I ask this? Because you will be less likely to rush into a compromised relationship. Yes, romantic love can be nice (although being in a romantic relationship and feeling alone is MORE alone than being alone and alone), but people do survive and finds ways to be happy through other connections (see #5). What do you want to accomplish in life?
- Do something new. Visit somewhere new. Read something new. Take a new class. Go to a new restaurant. Do new by yourself. Do new with others.
- Write down a few things you would like to be doing in 2 years. Rule number one is that it cannot include the break-up partner.
- Practice visualization. Visualization is powerful, but most of us talk ourselves out of it instead of actually doing it. Visualize a time, without the break-up partner, when you felt confident and happy. Sit with that image and see if you can imagine guiding yourself toward the future (see #10) preserving those confident feelings.
One of my favorite episodes of This American Life, is #339 from 8.24.2007, entitled, “Break-up”. Radio producer Starlee Kine wrote about a painful break-up during which she listened to Phil Collins songs and asks Phil to help her write her own break-up song. In her description, she wrote, “I was no longer listening to his (Phil’s) songs for pleasure, but for pain. They were break-up songs. And hearing them was the only thing that made me feel better. And by better, I mean worse.”
I laughed when I first heard her assessment, because that resonated with me. In short, hearing the songs created pain, but facilitated grieving in the long-run. That, in essence, is how to mend a broken heart.
Lastly, I know you feel alone, but you are not alone. The reason there are so many break-up songs is that it is such a ubiquitous human experience. You can heal, and choosing activity over passivity can help.
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