I still think about my second boyfriend.
I had just moved to Texas. I met him at a country dancing bar one of my first nights out in town. I was 17; I snuck in on a fake ID, fingers crossed for the chance to experience “adulting”.
He was a cowboy from the hill country. I had never fallen so hard for anybody. I would bike multiple times a week across town, 45 minutes up a huge hill to land sweaty and delighted at his Christian university and spend a couple hours talking, playing ping-pong, and listening to him play guitar.
He called me one day as I was preparing to go to class. “It’s over,” he said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
I was in shock. “No,” I said, and hung up the phone. Then I knelt down, my head in my hands, there on the sidewalk. It took me many months to feel okay again.
The cowboy still comes to my mind sometimes. Not because I miss him or want to be back together — I don’t feel like we ever really knew each other. I think of him because I never got closure on who we were, or who we were meant to be.
Doors that never close
We live lives of tiny ties. Doors left open often inadvertently, because we don’t know how to close them and move on. These become the undercurrent to everyday, the strings attached to our souls. They are spiderwebs of grief and guilt. Every time we see that movie, or hear that song, we think of the people we’ve left behind.
I don’t think about my first boyfriend much. He and I parted on good terms, knowing why we had to end. But I never got completion with the cowboy. Or one of my college best friends. Or my grandpa, before he died. When I think about them, it’s with confusion or nostalgia, not with joy.
Our culture has no practice in mourning well.
We assume mourning is a time-limited process that can be buried with the deceased, or given away with their photographs. We map it with models, the “grief process” of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But no model can replicate the human experience of losing part of our soul. Salman Rushdie says, beautifully:
“Whenever someone who knows you disappears, you lose one version of yourself. Yourself as you were seen, as you were judged to be. Lover or enemy, mother or friend, those who know us construct us, and their several knowings slant the different facets of our characters like diamond-cutter’s tools. Each such loss is a step leading to the grave, where all versions blend and end.”
The size of sadness
Grief can be difficult to integrate because it is so much bigger than daily life. Everything else pales in comparison to it: joy is small, pain is small; I can want to hurt myself just to feel something of the same size.
Any place where our internal experience is out of proportion to the outside world creates pain. If I’m really excited after getting a promotion at work, and my mom says “meh” when I tell her about it, that causes pain. If I’m more or less intellectual, emotional, or spiritual than the people around me, that causes pain. Pain comes from isolation, a lack of reflection of truth that can cause me to question if what I experience is important or real.
It’s hard for the external world to reflect what it isn’t experiencing with me. My friends can care about me within my grief, but after a while, they will find it hard to keep extending empathy, in the same way as people often find it difficult to live with a partner or family member who has chronic pain. Empathy takes energy. At some point, those around us may run out. Then we are alone with our grief, which is so much bigger than anything else.
Here’s one thing I do when experiencing grief. I make the world as big as my grief is.
The last time I went through a major breakup, it involved a betrayal. My partner slept with one of my friends and didn’t tell me about it for a week. In retrospect, I set up conditions that made it hard for him to be open with me. At the time I didn’t care about my role in the situation; i just felt pain.
The morning I found out, I sat down to meditate, and I couldn’t stay with the sensation. It was just too much. So I made a decision.
I found a design that I liked off the internet, one that had some meaning to me. It was a little butterfly, which I took to mean “something always rises”. I am in control of how I choose to experience anything, even agony. “Something always rises, always.” The acronym was SARA — the letters of my name.
I called around until I found a tattoo parlor that would take me on a couple hours’ notice, and I made an appointment that afternoon. Then I took off on a 15-mile bike ride. I biked until my legs were sore and I couldn’t think. I ended up at the tattoo parlor, and I got my first tattoo.
By the time evening rolled around, I felt cleared out. My body felt as intense as my emotions did: pain and the endorphins of relief.
I was clear to the point where I was able to meet my ex-partner for a conflict mediation. A year and a half later, we are still best friends.
Grief requires intensity. It asks for a meeting as great as its own sensation, often time and again until the feeling fades. I have dreams of sending my friends and family on a wilderness excursion when I die, just so they have to work through something big together and so integrate their feelings about me.
Sometimes the intensity is too much to stand and I have to disconnect. I have a drink or palliate until I can face the grief again. I don’t think there is wrong in that, as long as I am willing to meet the feeling again if and when I am able.
There is one other method I find effective in moving through grief, and it comes back to the tiny ties that make disconnection difficult.
The Role of Ritual
“The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered ‘Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
To “really live”, in the Dalai Lama’s frame, means to live in the here and now. To let the words of this article permeate your self, as you read it, and land somewhere in your body rather than among the tomorrows of your mind. That requires slowing down. It requires listening. And it requires enough internal clarity to be able to let more things in.
Many researchers seem to think that our current problem with presence has to do with attention span. It’s true that the average attention span has fallen from 12 seconds to 8 since smartphones came out. For context, a goldfish has an attention span of about 9 seconds.
But I think it’s more than that. I think that our minds and hearts are so full already that we don’t have room to let more in. The amount of complexity in our world has increased exponentially in the last couple of decades: we are in contact with more people, cultures, ideas, options, and demands on our time than ever before. Most people I know spend as much time organizing themselves as they do producing, connecting, or contributing.
It is hard to let more in without clearing something out. It is hard to move on without completing what has been. And in our lives of tiny ties, that takes intention.
So I’ve become a fan of ritual. Ritual is a simple way to mark transitions, especially beginnings and endings.
For example, when I start work, I often light a candle. It means I’m letting go of whatever was on my mind before, and focusing on what’s important here and now. I’ve been amazed how much that simple act of starting — and blowing the candle out when I’m done, to take work off my mind — has helped my clarity and productivity.
For grief, the ritual is different. The emotion is stronger. It’s hard to bid someone or something farewell just by blowing a candle out. Here are some grief rituals I like to use.
- Fire: Get a pen and paper, rubbing alcohol, epsom salts, a lighter or matches, and a pyrex bowl. Pour a half-inch layer of salt into the bowl and saturate it with the alcohol. Then, write on the paper everything you’re letting go of with the person, relationship, job, or whatever else you’re grieving. Write a few words or a sentence for each thought, and tear it off in a strip of paper. “Her smile.” “His support.” “The way I felt getting a solid paycheck every month.” You may be able to pick these things up again someday, but there is beauty in allowing for a current completion. Light the salt and alcohol and feed each piece of paper to the fire, fully feeling the goodbye as you let each one burn down before adding the next.
- Earth: Go somewhere with trees and take a walk. Take off your shoes and go barefoot if you can. Feel the solidity and permanence of nature, as well as the constant death and change that happens there: bugs, plants, bacteria, and animals are all fading and being born even as you walk. Fully feel your grief and gratitude for what you’re leaving behind.
- Water: Immerse yourself in cold water. This is simple, but provides a powerful state change and awareness.
- Connection: Find a friend, acquaintance, or therapist. Ask them to 1) just listen for 10 minutes to you sharing about your grief, and then 2) respond in any way other than giving advice — a hug, curiosity, sharing impact, or empathy are all good options. Make sure you set a timer for the 10 minutes. It is much easier for people to be present when they know the time span, and you can always ask to extend if you’re not done talking.
Grief rituals close these doors and allow us to move into the next room of life, without always looking for who’s following behind.
Letting this article die
Make the world as big as your grief, so that it feels matched. Allow it a full completion, so that you can move on.
There is beauty in moving through life whole-heartedly, painful as it can be.
May you live your sadness powerfully.