If you had told me back then that I would consider heartbreak to be any kind of gift, I might have been tempted to spit.
It is a year – as I write this – since I moved out of the last of many matrimonial homes that I shared over more than a decade with my now estranged and soon to be ex- husband. And what a year it has been… If you had told me back then that I would consider heartbreak and the total devastation that follows in its wake to be any kind of gift, I might have been tempted to spit. I would certainly have snarled that only someone lucky enough to have kept their own heart intact would take such a silly view.
But I have learned the hard way that heartbreak is a gift, and that like so many of the gifts that find their way into our lives, it arrives all wrapped up in what is just another type of (albeit painful) packaging.
The first of the many gifts that heartbreak has brought to my door is, ironically, the gift of great love. I have come to understand through those painful weekends – when I was at a complete loss to understand what had happened, why it had happened and the fact I could do nothing beyond accepting it had happened – that my life is full of love: the love that I give and the love I receive.
The first of those understandings was that the love I had felt and expressed for this man remained unchanged by his decision to end our marriage, in a manner that for me was a bolt out of the blue. This gift – of knowing that I can and did love so deeply – reminds me that love does not change and that however it comes into or out of our lives, our only real task is to be grateful for the experience of it.
The second understanding with regard to love is that it can and does show up in so many different and unexpected ways. When we married, all those years ago, we had followed the legalities of a registry office contract with the blessing of a hand-fasting ceremony amongst the stones at Avebury, officiated by the then arch druid, Terry the Biker.
“How clever of you,” remarked a friend who I had sent some snapshots of that day to. “Getting Father Christmas to marry you.”
Her comment made me chuckle then and still brings a smile to me now when I think of Terry with his long greying beard and matted woolen garb. He had raised an eyebrow at our union telling us, “I would never have put you two together…”
Terry was wrong. I cried with happiness on our wedding day and remain grateful for the gift of having felt so happy in our marriage, despite our many obvious differences.
At the point of my husband’s very sudden departure – a point when every word that came out of his mouth was like a knife twisting in my heart – I truly understood what I was losing and why it meant so much to me. But also, the realisation that I had been capable of such great love was a gift, because as soon as I acknowledged it, I knew if you can love that way once you can love that way again.
Every word that came out of his mouth was like a knife twisting in my heart
I went out and bought a heart made from dried meadow flowers to hang on the front door of the house where I made a temporary solo home, and spent a year crying and licking my wounds, and as I hung it I told myself that love, however battered and broken, still lives here.
There was talk – of course there was – of friendship, and texts that pinged in saying that with the right amount of luck and the wind beneath our now separate wings ‘we’ would be ok. I wanted to scream back, “There is no ‘we’ because you have destroyed it.” And in that moment, I was gifted the task of surviving what every woman dreads (I cannot speak for men): being discarded in middle age without the funds to survive and maintain the same lifestyle, and without the sexual allure or hormones to attract a mate again, either in the same way or for the same reasons.
How could this be a gift? Because I have learned that, even if I am that woman, I can find ways to still count… at least to some. My relationships with almost every other person in my life has improved dramatically since I found myself packing what was left of that marriage into an old shoebox tied with a black ribbon and now tucked away until I can finally let go of that too. The rings, the loving cards, the sweet declarations and all those other affirmations that had made me feel I counted for something. Now I would have to find a way to make myself find and feel a value that no longer depended on an external mirror of my worth.
For months I felt there must be something very, very wrong with me. Why wasn’t I bouncing back? Why wasn’t I so furious I never wanted to hear his name again? Why didn’t I believe what everyone told me – that he was never worthy of me and that I was well rid of him?
For months I felt there must be something very, very wrong with me
I didn’t believe it because it wasn’t true. To use one of his parting shots, we had been a great team and I had, in his words, only ever been kind and generous to him. He said he would always love me – but his behaviour since has said something else.
A gift? Yes, because it was the first time I understood what it means to live in a way where people love you and care about you in an over-arching way but, unlike a life partner, have no time or interest in the minutiae of your life or the processes that take you through transition from A to B, wherever that may be. In other words, I had been granted the gift of looking after and out for me. But I was not entirely alone in this transition. I had the gift of companionship from the dog my ex had chosen to bring into our home five years before, and although our new circumstances made life tricky because we lived on the waterside and had no garden, I slowly began to build a deeper bond with this animal who depended on me utterly to thrive. And I was over the moon when, after a year of going out of the house four times a day, including the dreaded late night ‘walkies’ for her comfort breaks, a friend remarked he had never seen a dog in such good condition and shape.
I took to taking two- or three-hour walks with her almost every day and slowly those walks transformed themselves from being about exercising her to being about my sanity. I processed every negative feeling about myself that I had ever had – from childhood right up to finding myself abandoned (again) – on those walks and although they subjected me to so many scenarios of happy families and couples spending their leisure time on the beach, I eventually found a way to be happy for those folk and to remember the times when I must have seemed that way to others who may have been feeling more forlorn.
Just a few days after my husband made his shock announcement that, “it is over” (cringingly I had to ask what is ‘it’?) my sister called to tell me our mother had been given a very poor prognosis by the cancer consultant. I had always thought my sister and I to be the closest of confidantes and yet in that moment of such sorrow and dread, we were both gifted a new level of bonding that took us through the end stages of our mother’s life and into the bereavement and reshaping of a family that follows the loss of such a pivotal person in the narrative of the tribe.
Losing a life partner also gifted me more time to spend with others and in a more meaningful way. I discovered that heartbreak is a fast track to an open heart and one that is more compassionate than you can ever imagine. I didn’t just breeze in and out and half-listen as I texted some arrangement or pressed send on a work email. I put the technology of life aside and really listened to what the younger people in my life were confiding in me; to the other dog owners who stopped me for a chat about their beloved pets and to the work colleagues coping with losses and challenges of their own. In short, I was gifted the opportunity to become ten times the person I had been before.
Heartbreak is a fast track to an open heart – one that is more compassionate than you can ever imagine
One of the more difficult gifts of what the Americans now called Sudden Spousal Abandonment – yes, it is a real condition with some unique challenges since at the heart of the bereavement lies a deadening rejection of everything that is you – is the gift of humiliation. I spent a long time on those dog walks thinking about what humiliation really means and about the fact it stems from the word humble – a state of grace that is almost impossible to achieve without the shock of a humiliation that you think might just kill you. A state of grace. So again, a true gift.
At some point in that long and sad first year when the wedding ring lay wrapped carefully in tissue paper in that shoebox, I stopped crying most of the day and night. I stopped dreading lonely weekends and realised that life was stepping-up to meet me half way on the road to recovery.
“You’ve spent the last year learning to be independent again,” said my 17-year-old niece who in those first difficult months had spent almost every Saturday night making the hour-long bus trek from her work in a theatre cafe to sleepover at my house and make sure the weekends were not so lonely. I love her for that. A gift.
And finally, after that long year of anniversaries, ‘this time last year’ sorrows and feeling the knife turn again upon learning his parents had visited him in his new home, I finally found the greatest gift of all – my own courage.
Life was stepping-up to meet me half way on the road to recovery
I looked out at the tide that lapped up to the terrace of my beautiful rental home and out again, twice a day, and thanked it for its soothing presence through those terrible winter nights, and explained to it why I had decided that a beautiful view does not make up for living a life. I sent a text to family and friends and said this way of living is not sustainable for me. The gift of honesty, and of course, the risk of more humiliation as I finally said, “I need help”. What came back, within less than an hour, was a phone call from a family member who said, quite simply, come and live with us. We have a small and humble space that can be yours for as long as you need to regroup. You know you will be most welcome. The gift of coming home to those I had grown up with and the gift of a genuinely warm and loving welcome.
I finally found the greatest gift of all – my own courage
I dug about as deep as a person can dig and called the removals men. I made a date and packed away that old life that is never coming back to me. I had already given away much following the shock end of my marriage and this time, I gave away things that really mattered to me: my beautiful statue of a hare that someone who had been so kind through the year had admired; the enormous handmade beds that had languished in storage, symbols of another time, another life; and the rusty old camper van I had bought to celebrate my 50th birthday – all given away to people who would love them all over again.
Finally, as I packed the last of my book boxes, I gave away those self-help books that I had read long into the night – I couldn’t afford therapy – whilst I struggled to understand how my life had changed without giving me any say in that change. And on the morning of my big move, I sat by the water’s edge and returned all the stones and pebbles I had collected over that year to the beach.
I don’t know what my new life will hold or challenge me with. I only know that a person can do no more than to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To keep going… to keep noticing when others are in distress and in need of comfort, to understand when to stay silent and to learn to embrace silence in your own world and to celebrate those small moments when life just rushes at you full of fun and excitement and adventure.
I have a feeling, as I sit now on the doorstep of the ramshackle shack that I call home for now, that if I were to be sitting with a shaman, a buddha, an apostle or someone further down this road than me they would tell me I have learned one of life’s big lessons – that the biggest gift of heartbreak lies in one word: wisdom.
A person can do no more than to keep putting one foot in front of the other
And so it is from this place that I thank each person who has gifted me along the way – most of them in ways they will never know about. Some simply held my hand whilst I cried for my lost love. Some knew nothing of my change in circumstances and so gave me the gift of treating me ‘normally.’ I am much changed by this experience and I am still a work in progress. There is no fast track through but I understand my life remains a gift and I am the only person who can really hold my hand and guide me to another shore.
Susan Clark is a writer and editor based in Devon. Her book, What Really Works – the insider’s guide to natural health, is available on Amazon. Click here.