A little over two years ago, I lost two people I loved: my husband, and my friend of thirteen years. I lost them to each other.
If you think that some things are so bad that there’s no returning from them, I’m living proof that heartbreak can make you more loving and hopeful, and that loss can ultimately be a gift. They don’t tell you that you lose more than just love in divorce. You lose friends. You lose family. You lose your appetite. You lose the idea of who you were. At least I did.
They also don’t tell you what you gain.
I remember the early days. I sent a heartfelt message to mutual friends telling them I wanted to continue to celebrate birthdays and watch TV shows on Sundays. I held my breath and pressed enter. Crickets. Only one friend wrote a response. I never heard from most of them again.
Allowing a vacuum to open in your life is one of the most challenging things you can ever do. To sit in the emptiness, to let go of the familiar people you once loved who have hurt you deeply, well, is to be brave in a way that fundamentally changes you.
I didn’t know what would come to fill up the emptiness.
I gave up half of my belongings to my ex-husband and ex-friend and moved into a beautiful one bedroom apartment. I painted the walls the pure clean white I had always craved. A blank canvas. I began adding things slowly: a white tufted bed, a pale aqua wall, girly things that had felt taboo in a shared space.
I bought a juicer for myself when I didn’t feel like eating and started cooking simple meals for one when my appetite returned. I went to Meetup brunches with strangers and listened to stories about their lives.
I became quiet in a way I had never been. I saw things in ways I had always been moving too fast to see. Life slowed down. I noticed the rushing around me.
I watched my ex-friend Instagram my belongings: an iPod my dad had given me, peacock feathers I chose for the Christmas tree, a painting I’d purchased for its resemblance to myself and my then-husband, the couch I had lovingly had custom made. And I let them go.
I felt my anger and I let that go, too. I decided before I had any proof that there would be more of everything: more paintings, more Christmas tree decorations, more love.
I spent time alone and for the first time in a very long time, I coveted my own company. I traveled around Australia for a month. I went surfing and night diving and for long runs in the rain. I watched movies and stayed up as late as I wanted. I wrote pages of stories just for me.
I started to make new girlfriends. It felt a lot like dating. We’d go for tea and have long talks or go out dancing. There was no history to bind us; we were there only because we enjoyed each other’s company. It was something I’d been craving for years. A gift.
Sometimes I felt afraid, used, unworthy. Sometimes I played the victim, and sometimes I played the hero. But I chose to simply notice that and accept it, too. Mostly, I believed. I believed that life was fundamentally good and that one day I would love again. I started to see opportunities to love all around me.
At my lowest, I didn’t want to get out of bed. But I did. I had snowball fights with my mom and singing competitions with new friends, and jumped on a giant trampoline with a Belgian girl who was like an instant sister halfway across the world.
Intense moments of pure joy sprinkled throughout moments of intense pain. This is one of the gifts of loss that they don’t tell you about: the ability to become completely and totally awake to your life.
I would spend one day hibernating in a yurt, and the next I would go out and make new friends, diving headfirst into the sea. It can all exist at once.
Remember this when you think you have to figure it out, when you feel compelled to stuff yourself into the rigid role of griever. You can be happy and sad. Angry and centered. Surrounded by love and alone.
Anyone who looked at my photos from my time in Australia would be surprised to hear my husband had left just two weeks earlier. It wasn’t that I wasn’t feeling it; I just wasn’t willing to stop seeing the beauty in the world around me. I wasn’t willing to give up on the idea that the world, and the people in it, are fundamentally amazing. Because they are.
One day, in a documentary filmmaking course that I decided to take on a whim, I met an attractive, confident, creative man. It was just a stirring at first, the glimmer of possibility. Two months later, we went on our first date. Six months later, we road tripped down the west coast. A year later, we moved in together.
Today, we love each other, grow together and talk about how we became the people we are today and who we want to become tomorrow. We listen. We’re kind. We appreciate the journey it took to get here.
Love feels like complete and total acceptance, balanced with the desire for growth. Not just from and for my partner, but from me to me. Which is the true love story here.
These are the gains they don’t tell you about when you experience loss. Because to truly get them, you have to learn them for yourself.
I look around in amazement at the life I created in two short years. Where that unknowable vacuum once stood, there’s life and laughter and expansiveness like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
The people around me love me for me. I have stripped away the layers and allowed myself be seen for the first time in my life. I understand that I’m the creator, that I’ve been the creator all along. I choose not to be a victim and I’m slowly, slowly loosening my grip on needing to be the hero.
I mess up sometimes, and that’s OK. All I need to be is a human being. Heart open. Unattached. Ready to receive.
Here’s what I know to be true about times of loss and rebuilding. You must hold two very different realities at once: the ability to accept and fully experience your loss, and the unabashed hope for a better future. You cannot run through the loss to the shiny beacon on the other side, nor can you allow the pain to dim your heart.
It’s a balancing act. It requires presence. Can you be with your pain? And can you also lean into your desire? It’s the combination of the two: the stripped down loss, and the white hot desire that will lead you to the life you’re longing for.
Stretch out your arms in the dark. Be willing to cry and laugh in the same breath. Most importantly, no matter what, keep listening, listening, listening to the drum beat of your cracked open, loving, overly optimistic heart.
That’s how you rebuild a life. It’s how I rebuilt mine.
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