The text message was long and detailed, and caught me by surprise on Saturday morning, right when I woke up. A childhood friend who lives in Italy was letting me know her companion of 20 years had suddenly left. The news saddened me because I knew the range of emotions she was going through – I also knew the next few months weren’t going to be easy and there was precious little I, or her friends closer to home, could do to lessen the burden.
Breaking up in our 20s and 30s can be painful but we are so busy figuring out life, a life that still holds so much promise and novelties ahead, that the pain is more easily dulled. Breaking up in middle age, especially after half a life spent and built together, is another kind of pain altogether, more akin to coping with a death.
I have been through that pain: the first stage is emptiness, like being in the middle of a black nothingness. Rage follows in between bouts of sadness and crying, often accompanied by sleeplessness and loss of appetite (or its polar opposite, bingeing).
Men tend to retreat in stony silence. Women, well, women resort to their girlfriends. The business of consoling a person going through harsh times is difficult, even more so when a (former) couple is at the root cause of the pain. I watched my mother fall apart after her divorce and slowly pick up the pieces after six months of depression. I was too young to offer counsel so my help was merely practical. But by now, I have seen enough relationships go sour, and I have also been the recipient of the kindness of others, to know that some of our more instinctive responses to other people’s disasters are often of little comfort.
That time heals all wounds might be partly true but sounds like bullshit when getting up in the morning is still a struggle. Fixing a girlfriend up within months of a traumatic break-up is also a big no-no – drink bingeing, mindless sex and compulsive shopping are not coping mechanisms any longer by the time one reaches 45 – at least, they shouldn’t be.
But the greatest faux pas a well-meaning girlfriend can make is to throw mud at the one who left. As the injured party, it’s my right to proclaim to the winds what an asshole my other half is, but it’s not yours. Other than physical or mental abuse that would need our intervention, we are not privy to the workings of a couple, and to hear from others that the last 20 years of your life were, essentially, a mistake, is far from helpful. Besides, falling in love and breaking up always takes two.
“All my friends have suddenly become relationship experts” my friend bemoaned “telling me he wasn’t good enough for me. Frankly, I was happy with the good and the bad”. How often have we picked up the phone and called a girlfriend to complain about the failings of our husbands/partners/boyfriends? And how often have we done the same to let them know how wonderful he or she is in a million quotidian ways? The ratio is definitely imbalanced and to cast aspersions should be done at one’s peril.
Losing your companion at 40, 50 or 60 requires a re-evaluation of many aspects of your life – some practical and some more philosophical and, at the beginning, it’s overwhelming. Help that comes in subtle and tangible ways is appreciated: a place to stay, a week-end away, maybe a vacation, or meals delivered to one’s doorstep. Encouraging someone in mourning to talk is trickier – there comes a point when you are all talked out and the thought of going out with friends who, well-meaning no doubt, seem to expect more details, is tiring. In the immediate aftermath, silence, mindless tv and chocolate work much better.
While I was going through my heartbreak, I found refuge in my house and in the comfort of only a couple of girlfriends. I remember sofagirl asking me “What do you need right now?” and I was stumped for a minute. “Time, I guess”.
The healing is always done alone. As much as we want to rush and help and comment and commiserate, all we can and should do for someone nursing a broken heart, is to make our presence felt and check in with the “What do you need” question.
Time does heal but, in the midst of a maelstrom, a present and silent girlfriend, who knows your tastes in chocolate is all one needs.
All images C&S