January 16, 2016

Relationships Need Funerals, Too.

Joshua Earle/Unsplash

There’s nothing like a funeral to kick my butt into serious re-evaluation of my values and translate them into action.

A few months ago my friend’s dad died of Diabetes, and I responded by evaluating my diet and my relationship with my parents. Other people are making New Year’s resolutions, but I’m already three months into reducing my sugar intake and practicing Non Violent Communication with my parents.

One of the things I appreciate about funerals, is that everyone knows what to do. Once my friend’s sister posted her dad’s death on Facebook; I knew to text offering sympathy and help. I told my parents, who sent her a card with money, and we all wore dark clothing to the funeral.

I allowed the news of her dad’s death to naturally come up in conversation with mutual friends, and some reached out with condolences. It’s still a sad reality to face the death of a parent, and she knows that she can call any of those aunts, uncles and friends and talk about her feelings, or ask for favors.

I compared this warm, earnest outpouring of sympathy and support 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 my clients talk about their breakups, they feel confused, alone and uncertain about how much help to request and receive. They feel hesitant to go to 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 knew their ex first.

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. We know we can participate at different levels, and when we are in the position of grieving we are likely to feel entitled to advocate for our needs, because our society accepts death as a legitimate hindrance to happiness and productivity.

How many times have you heard, “I’m sorry I can’t ______________ because my ______________ just passed away?”

Some common responses to death that I notice include:

  • Publishing the death in traditional newspapers and social media
  • Personally calling distant friends and relatives
  • Sending sympathy cards
  • Gathering at funerals or memorials 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

Compare that with mainstream American responses to breakups and divorce:

Responses to Loss from Breakups.

  • Avoiding social media
  • Avoiding friends and family of your ex
  • Enforcing a no contact rule with your ex
  • Selectively telling a few people about the breakup
  • Feeling shame for downsizing to a more affordable home
  • Custody battles over children
  • Pity parties
  • Friends “comforting” a grieving ex by enumerating negative qualities of their ex
  • Reactivating Tinder

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.

We ask ourselves questions such as, Am I close enough to so and so to reach out to him? Is showing this kindness an act of taking sides? Should I pretend like I don’t know about the affair?

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, 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 asked to report on the well-being of the ex-partner.

So what can we do to push through the awkwardness and uncertainty to support ourselves and those around us who are grieving from a relationship ending? Here are some tips:

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 in on you?

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 the 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 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 connect with others for your next relationships.

3) Ritualize Your Grieving.

Take time off of work, 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!

Here’s to cultivating love and connection in times of darkness!


Relephant Read:

You Are Here: A List for Love & Letting Go.


Author: Regina Fletcher

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: Joshua Earle/Unsplash // Jem Yoshioka/Flickr


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