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The real reason losing someone hurts so much

A deep dive into where that pain is coming from — and three steps to get all the way out

I was a little (OK, a lot) late to the game with that whole Downton Abbey thing. (It’s an acclaimed British TV show, kids.) During the show’s prime, I was in a very different one of my own — absorbed in a relationship that had me out at night mingling in Hollywood and bonding with rappers’ girlfriends in lines for posh bathrooms instead of binge-watching anything. That relationship was tumultuous and consuming and turned into a violent engagement right in front of my eyes. We were so in love and so hopeful for better days together … and I can finally say it now: such a mess.

About a month into the solitary aftermath of “That’s it, this is over” I found myself totally absorbed with the lives of these upper class Brits and their servants on Downton Abbey. (A few years before all this, I’d had a chance to interview the executive producer without having watched a minute of the show. I always felt pretty awful that I’d pretended to have a clue about why her creation was so loved. So now with a lil’ time on my hands, I decided to remedy that completely inconsequential faux pas.) 

While I thought I might escape real life for a while on this TV trip to old England, soon some poignant moments in the show had me choking on sudden sobs as I was forced to look at the loss of a love and plans for a lifelong union. Despite the distant context, each unfulfilled passion or death-too-young on the show gave me a new chance to digest what I’d been through as a beautifully heart-wrenching story. The extreme crying actually felt better than the what I’d been doing: willfully forcing myself not to feel anything about it at all. I kept going back to these gut punches from the show for a little release, but the sadness was getting exhausting.

And then while on Downton Abbey Season 3 late one night, I heard Lady Mary say something from the abyss of her premature widowhood that cracked open a chain that had bonded me to misery in my own loss:

“Sometimes I wonder who I miss more,” Mary said to her maid, “Matthew … or the person I was when I was with him.”

That was it. Locked on the scene, I didn’t cry this time. I just felt a small click near my heart and then a gentle rush around it like something flew away, and it had room to beat at full silent force again. Just like Mary, I recognized that my best self had been in hibernation. Not only in the painful weeks after my relationship exploded, but often in my life before that. And with the break up, I had lost someone who had loved my most unique qualities out into the open.

As good as it feels to have another person recognize the good stuff about us, that can’t be anyone else’s job. It’s that simple — though maybe not so easy to accept and put into practice. We’ve heard something close to that message countless times, but most people barely skim the surface of its meaning. The cult of “love yourself before you can be happy with someone else” has gotten all mixed up with the “treat yo’ self” movement these days. So people wonder why they still feel a lack in or out of relationships when they’ve been doing their best to follow pop wisdom and splurge on mid-week spa days or sky-diving adventures with buddies.

The actual challenge in that “Love yourself!” encouragement is different. It asks us to brave our own depths long enough to discover the most unique facets of who we are — and how worth loving we are. Even … no, especially … when our best and worst are held out in the light for all to see. Each relationship offers that spotlight on ourselves like few other experiences can.

Now listen. You and I know a loss is about a lot of other things besides all this deep sh%# too. What about just plain missing a person? What about shopping for groceries and seeing their favorite vegan breakfast sausage in the freezer section and feeling like you’ll never get through another day? What about running into friends who knew you together and having to explain, again and again, the split you still want to deny has even happened? And how about that conversation replay. How you might have acted differently in this or that moment and made things turn out differently?

Of course those things trample you and may seem impossible to get past; some days you need to curl up in a ball because of them. But, dear sweet lamb, they’re really just the surface details of relationships. Which will dissolve with a little time and some happy distraction. I promise.

So onto that distraction: To really heal so that you can feel good and love again (remember that’s the goal more than having any specific person love you), take as many bubble baths or pilgrimages as you want. That’s not a bad start. But here are the three steps to work the miracle you’re looking for:

  1. Let yourself feel pain and loss in big, heart-smashing doses. Cry. Pound your bed or the floor with your fists. Stay up all night and binge-watch a show with lots of M&Ms and wine by your side (or, you know, something like that). You’ll be surprised what dawns on you while you’re in the depths of the abyss.
  2. Get to know and love all parts of yourself. You know how Mary on Downton Abbey thought only Matthew had made her soft and loving? Ridiculous. She was those things already, with or without him. But she needed to celebrate her time with him as a gift that made her realize it. You can do the same. What did this person who’s gone love the most about you? Did it surprise you? Did you see it in yourself, too? And which of your qualities fueled the most conflict between you? Examine ALL of that under a microscope with a light heart as if you’re just meeting yourself for the first time. With kindness.
  3. Do one thing, an action — but keep it simple and easy — to enhance or celebrate one of your qualities that you hadn’t thought about until you saw it through the eyes of another. For me, I decided to take over the job my fiancé had been doing of saying out loud — at parties and on the train and during breakfast — what my gifts are. I had let his extroversion be the key to something I should have been doing more for myself. And as soon as I was forced to do it on my own … miracles.

When the excruciating hurt over a loss stays and stays, it’s telling you that a deeper and misplaced longing is at work. It’s a natural and understandable inclination to go back to your ex or replace her ASAP with a new version … a fast fix to relieve your longing. That’s the route most people take. But If you’ll stay alone long enough to follow and trust the three steps here instead, you will come into gifts much greater than the ones behind you. And your deep yearning to love and be loved will take care of the rest. 

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