Loss and grief are inevitable. Every heartbreak offers a choice, and it’s the same one we get with every challenge in our lives: will we choose to love? How we navigate through loss determines how, when, and sometimes if we emerge from it. When heartbreak comes to us, if we lean into it we’re more likely to find its gifts.
I once had a house with a sweet little backyard, at the center of which stood a huge oak tree. It was gorgeous, tall, and old enough that couldn’t wrap my arms all the way around its trunk. We had mulched around the space, as one often does, and on top of the mulch I had spread out hundreds of smooth, flat river stones. I loved to walk on them in my bare feet in the shade of the beautiful tree.
One of my most vivid memories of that spot is a sad one. I was on the phone talking to a friend, and on this day, I was telling the story — very much in progress — of the extraordinarily painful end of what I had believed to be a life-long committed relationship. My partner of 14 years was ending our relationship. Up until that time in my life I had not known what devastation was. I was circling this tree, walking the stones, pouring my heart out over the phone as it sunk in that I would be losing this, too. This place, this spot, this tree, this home, along with the comfort of my partnership, my sense of security, and what I had thought was the love of my life.
A few weeks later, with everything I owned a movable storage unit, I drove away. I had packed all my clothes, enough furniture to suit an apartment for one, and a few pieces of art from the walls. I drove 14 hours nonstop to Denver. When I arrived, I couldn’t move into my apartment yet, so I drove seven more hours to the small mountain town of Silverton, a former mining town, to stay for couple of weeks with my best friend, Mollie. She was the artistic director for a small theatre company there.
Mollie showed tremendous compassion and patience over the next few months while I grieved. She got me out and about when I wanted to stay in. She went on walks with me. She rounded up an impromptu birthday party when I turned 39, just a few days after moving to Colorado. She took me high into the mountains to see stunningly beautiful places where are my sense of smallness felt beautiful and awe-inspiring.
One day we stood around 13,000 feet above sea level on a mountain, well over the tree line at the headwaters of the Rio Grande. In this place, I had no sense of scale. How far away was that mountain that peak? How large was that? How small? And what on Earth was I doing here now in this place? It was a deeply humbling and inspiring. Taking me to this place, she literally uplifted me. When we returned to town, I had begun to shift myself to a new perspective. My life, I decided, was in an adventure phase. It was incredibly painful, and I missed my old home, my old relationship, my old life, but I knew that life would continue.
I started to remember, then, that I wasn’t actually happy in my old relationship. I was just comfortable. I realized that for more than the last decade, I had felt like I couldn’t be myself, or that I shouldn’t be myself. Now because all was lost, I had nothing to lose. Knowing that, I found a new conviction that from now on I would just be me. I wouldn’t hide my interests, I’d say what I thought, share what I felt, and care for myself the way I’d always wanted my partner to take care of me. I learned that loss and grief can open our eyes, and can make us stronger. As Marilyn Monroe said, “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.”
I soon saw how my loss made room in my life for something better. Have you ever made a vision board? You know, a poster where you cut out photos of things you want in your life, and you visualize and imagine your perfect life? I had. And my vision board was becoming real. I ended up getting exactly the life I wanted. But it wasn’t to be with my former partner. There was someone else that was a better fit, a new family I was meant to be a part of. For that to happen I had to lose some things. Much sooner than I would ever have anticipated, I met someone new: Kevin. And as I got to know him, I discovered that he had all the qualities I had wanted in a partner. Before I knew it, I was in a new relationship. It felt much too soon, but I plunged in anyway, because it felt so perfect. Everything was in sync.
All these years later, I’m happy to say that things have worked out. We’ve been married now for four years, together as a family since 2011. I LOVE my life now, so much more than I ever did, more than I’d thought possible. And this life now could not have been if not for the loss of what I had before.
Very soon after I moved to Indiana to start this new chapter of my life, Mollie learned she had ovarian cancer. We lost her in late 2016 when she was only 42.
When she died, I felt this void. She was gone, but my love for her was not. I needed a place to direct it. So I turned to friends – not just my friends, but her friends and family. All my love for Mollie, I decided, I would now share among those who also treasured her. We gathered not just for her memorial and celebration of life, but we reconnected. And we remembered how much more we had in common than our love for and friendship with Mollie. Something else beautiful came out of this reunion that was prompted by her passing.
We wanted to do something to remember Mollie. She taught theatre for many years, and inspired a lot of young artists to pursue their creative passions. A few of us got together to talk about what we might do, and then last summer, we established The Theatre Mine, a new non-profit theatre organization in that small mountain town that Mollie loved. We raised money to bring in guest artists, and in early June of 2018, we got together for the first annual new plays festival named for Mollie. It was a fantastic week full of laughter, creativity, discovery, play, friendship, communion, and Love. And we’ll do it all again next year.
I would not say that these rekindled friendships and this new theatre company’s birth make up for the loss of Mollie. At all. But they are wonderful, beautiful, precious things that came about because she died, and I’m grateful for them. We lost Mollie, but not our love for her. And we get to pour that love into something that she loved doing, something that we loved doing with her. It has already started to touch the lives of many people who never met her.
I think sometimes we don’t really know the depth of our love until we lose someone we love. What becomes of the brokenhearted… that’s up to each of us to choose. Heartbreak can teach us a lot if we’re willing to let it. The gifts of heartbreak reveal themselves as we move through it. When we bear the pain we are sure will kill us, we find that we are stronger than we thought. Heartbreak teaches us the importance of honest vulnerability. When we find willingness to be vulnerable — or when the pain gets so bad that it breaks down our walls and our denial so we must be vulnerable, willing or not, we can discover new empathy and compassion.
If we’ve lost a relationship, we have an opportunity to choose to love ourselves more fully. And we don’t need someone else to love us first. That actually makes us easier to love, and helps us love others more freely, and with healthier boundaries.
Heartbreak and loss, unexpectedly, can prove to us that we’re not alone… if we choose to stay open.
It can bring us back to what’s most essential, most important in our lives. It makes us humble. It can open our eyes. It helps us discover our resilience.
It can bring us closer to a higher power, or God, or Creation.
It can reveal strengths in us that we didn’t know we had.
It can open new doorways.
It reminds us to cherish the love in our lives, to savor the friends and family who mean the most to us.
It can shake us up and bring new clarity, helping us to see the world in a new way.
Heartbreak and grief are universal. Not if, but when we find ourselves in grief and heartbreak, we are presented with an opportunity, and a choice: Will we resist and deny, thinking we’ll avoid the pain and in doing so ensure that it’s worse and that it lasts longer? Will we swear we’ll never be hurt again? Or will we let our heart open even more? Will we isolate ourselves and close ourself off?
Sometimes when we experience a great loss, when things fall apart, we want to avoid the pain by shutting down, or numbing ourselves. I say, let’s have the courage to love, even in our grief and loss. Heartbreak can make us stronger, softer, more flexible, because the heart breaks OPEN. It doesn’t break closed. When you are feeling lost, alone, grieving, and heartbroken, don’t give up on love. Remember that you are not alone, that you are loved. Keep on loving, no matter how often your heart may be broken… open.