June 28, 2019 was a beautiful sunny day in NYC.
It started just like any other Friday for me, I got up, walked my dog, said goodbye to my live-in boyfriend, headed to an early workout class and then to the office. Life was good. He and I texted throughout the day like we normally did, but his texts stopped around 4pm. I didn’t think anything of it because he was often very busy at work. So I went home, walked the dog and waited for him to come home so we could figure out our Friday night plans. We were about to leave for the summer house we rented, and I was busy packing pool floats and sunscreen.
I never got to go on that trip. The pool floats and sunscreen were returned. The course of my life changed that day.
What happened next is a blur. It felt like an out of body experience. I remember him coming home from work and accusing me of doing something that I did not do (again) – the “last straw” as he put it. He told me it was over and that I needed to move out. He then left our home, went to our summer house without me while I cried in disbelief.
I really didn’t see it coming – we were talking about marriage and starting a family. I thought I had finally found “the one.” The rug was pulled from under me suddenly and to make matters worse, he moved on almost immediately with someone we knew – a woman in our friend circle with whom I had suspected something was going on. He had repeatedly told me he wasn’t interested in her and that he would never date someone we know. Devastated would be putting it mildly.
There are no words for the anguish I felt when he left me and started dating our “friend.” Unsurprisingly I never heard from her after the day he left me. It’s interesting to note that she and I are each other’s complete polar opposites – she’s the kind of person who would never dress up for a theme party and is very concerned with materialistic things and appearances. She’s very proper and somewhat quiet. I can be the life of the party and I’m very independent. I found it difficult to talk to her in social situations – we just didn’t get each other.
I leaned on my friends and family for the next few months, and I am so thankful for them, although some friends did take his side. I had to quickly move out of our home (which was heartbreaking as I had just moved in and donated most of what I owned because he didn’t like my decor), get out of bed each day to walk my dog and go to work when all I wanted to do was hide under the covers.
Gone was the confident, bubbly and fun person I used to be, replaced with someone who felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and anxiety. I had trouble functioning day to day. Even though I was seeing a therapist, I cried every day, was stuck in a loop going over the details of what happened and finally was coerced by concerned friends and family into seeing my doctor. I remember crying in her office and asking if it was normal to be this upset all throughout the day for this long. Of course she said no. I needed help and thankfully I got it.
For the most part, the people in your life who care about you feel terrible when you feel terrible, and they want to say and do things to help get you over your pain. But sometimes, we say and do the wrong things because we are uncomfortable when someone we love is hurting and we just want things (and them) to be back to normal. Although we want to help and have the best of intentions, we sometimes put our foot in our mouths, or worse, we’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing that we avoid the person and say nothing at all.
Knowing what to say, and what not to say, when someone is going through a difficult time is so important, and yet, it can be very hard. When someone shows raw emotion or is going through a breakdown, it makes others uncomfortable. Every situation and every person, is unique, and everyone responds to a crisis differently. During a crisis, I had a number of people give me advice such as:
- “Everything happens for a reason”
- “I’ll say a prayer for you”
- “Time heals everything”
- “Throw yourself into your work”
- “You shouldn’t feel this bad after X amount of time”
- “It’s for the best”
- “Things will get better”
- “Let it go”
- “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”
- “Things could be worse”
- “Focus on the good things in your life”
- “Have you thought about discussing this with a professional?”
- “I know how you feel”
- “Let me know if there’s anything I can do”
- “Think positively”
- “You’re better off without him”
- “God works in a mysterious ways”
- “Everything will be fine”
- “There are plenty of fish in the sea”
I’m sure that many of us have uttered at least a few of these phrases to someone who has experienced a profound loss such as losing a parent or spouse, going through a divorce or sudden breakup, losing a job or the diagnosis of an illness, and while they are all intended to help, sometimes the best thing you can do is to just say “I’m here for you” and intently listen to them.
When someone is feeling down or going through a tough time it is important to take them seriously. Let them explain how they feel. Advice, anecdotes and clichéd sayings can do more harm than good.
Never say “I know how you feel” because you don’t. Each of us experiences trauma differently and to assume you know how they feel and talk about your personal experience with a similar situation isn’t always helpful to another. If someone trusts you enough to tell you how much they are hurting just listen to them without any judgment.
One of the other things that I found not to be helpful is when people told me that there are others in the world who are worse off than me. Yes of course that is true, but my pain was valid too. Someone actually said to me that he was “just my boyfriend” meaning I should be more upset if he was my husband. I thought that was so insensitive. That same person said “you’re acting like you have cancer or someone died” – it is no one’s place to compare your pain with something else. My life was turned upside down, I suddenly lost my significant other, my home and many friends too. I know the people who said this to me meant well – they were trying to give me the perspective that my sudden breakup with the man I thought I would spend the rest of my life with was sad, but things could be worse. But to me there was nothing worse especially when you add in the betrayal.
Also, someone who is going through a divorce may be just as devastated as someone who has suffered a death in their life – loss is loss and no one can judge what’s worse because it’s a highly personal and unique experience.
There’s no set timeline for getting over something traumatic. Everyone is different. People still tell me today, several months after my partner left me that I should be over it and thank god I didn’t wind up with him – but they’re not me. It’s easy to say those kinds of things when you’re a bystander. I know I’ve done it too with others. Grief and pain affects each person differently – please be patient with those you love especially when they seem stuck in negativity and sadness (and get them help if you think they’re spiraling).
Here are some things that people said to me that were very helpful. (These people actively listened to me and avoided judging me.)
- “Tell me more about what’s going on”
- “I’m so sorry you’re going through this”
- “If you want to tell me more, I’m here for you”
- “You are not alone. We will get through this together”
- “Let me know what I can do to help”
- “I’m coming over with a bottle of wine and we can talk”
- “This really sucks”
- “You are stronger than you think – you got through your mom’s death and you will get through this too”
- “I can’t imagine what it must feel like but I’m here for you”
- “You will get through this”
- “A lot of people love you. You don’t have to get through this alone”
- “I’ve seen you get through extremely challenging times in the past, I believe in you”
A simple, “I am so sorry you are going through this,” can be the absolute best sentiment you can offer to someone in pain. It expresses empathy and genuine kindness, which is often what they need most. Simply reflecting people’s own emotions and struggles back to them is incredibly powerful.
Of course you have your own life and are busy so you may need to establish boundaries at some point, but when someone you care about is going through a life-altering crisis, they just want to know they have a support system and that someone will listen to them. I will never forget the friends and family who had my back over the past seven months (as well as those who sadly did not). It is during the toughest times in our lives that we discover who is truly in our corner and on who we can count. Someday you may need a strong support system too, so please treat others as you would want to be treated.
Listening to and being there for someone going through a tough time can be difficult emotionally for the support network, so if you find yourself on this side, set healthy boundaries between their emotions and yours. This enables you to recharge and put things into perspective.
There’s no perfect thing to say in difficult situations, but we can support each other by expressing kindness, empathy and compassion and listening without judgment. Bad things happen to everyone and situations like these can strengthen your relationships and help you for when you need to lean on others.
I’m happy to report that I’m doing much better today – I have a great support system in the world from my true friends and family. I don’t know that I will ever be truly okay with what happened, or that I’ll completely trust someone again, but I have learned to accept that I cannot control what others say and do, that nothing is forever, that it’s about the quality of your friends not the quantity, and perhaps the hardest lesson of all, that some relationships are just not meant to be.
I just want to say to anyone who is struggling to keep it all together that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes – no one’s life is perfect and there will be highs and lows. With a supportive network, being kind to yourself and inner work, you really can emerge as a better version of you from anything.