Advice For The Broken-Hearted

05/13/2017 05:00 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2018

Dear owner of a broken heart,

There is so much chipper and well meaning advice on the topic of heartbreak. It’s as if the giver of such advice has forgotten how the first stages of grief feel terrifying and futile, like you’re fighting an octopus underwater with your hands tied behind your back. ​ If I had been asked to give self-help advice directly following one of my losses, my advice would probably have been something like: HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DO THIS???

Now that some time has passed since my last heartbreak, I want to share with you the most useful advice I received during the octopus fighting stage of grief.

Don’t listen to suggestions that sound overwhelming, even if you know they will be good for you.

When the guy at work says, “Have you tried reading this book?” and you don’t want to read a book, answer, “No, thank you.”

When your sister says, “Have you tried cutting out wine?” and you don’t want to cut out wine, answer, “No, thank you.”

When your neighbor says, “Have you tried yoga?” and you don’t want to do yoga, resist the impulse toward violence and answer, “No, thank you.”

Do listen to well meaning advice that sounds moderately not horrible.

When a friend says, “Have you tried dipping french fries into a chocolate shake and then enjoying the perfect combination of sweet/salty/creamy/crunchy?” and you think that sounds moderately not horrible, answer, “That sounds moderately not horrible. Come over, please.”

(Footnote: Dairy is the food group of consolation.)

Don’t expect anything to feel any better than moderately not horrible right now.

Your body is responding to your panic and fear by shifting into survival mode. This is a biological response and results in both the depletion of your feel good chemicals and the suppression of your body’s “happy” functions (like eating, sleeping soundly, and canoodling).

Do expect to feel better again.

One day, after an immeasurable number of muted reactions, you’ll find yourself crawling along in traffic when a silver BMW cuts you off and almost takes off your front bumper. First, you’ll hurl a prolific string of threatening expletives toward the driver, and then, you’ll break into a joyful grin as you realize that YOU JUST FELT SOMETHING.

(Footnote: For some reason, anger is the first emotion that returns to a lot of people. But don’t worry, other emotions, like contentment, pride, amusement, and “whoooaaaa, check out that rainbow” aren’t far behind.)

Don’t worry about the big picture.

Your big picture planner is temporarily out of order. It will be back online after a few necessary repairs to your heart, psyche, and self esteem. ​

Do allow yourself to dwell in the details.

Through some strange alchemy, the broken heart is sometimes best transformed by an unwillingness to move on too quickly. It can feel good to repeat the circumstances of your loss, over and over, in order to solve a mysterious equation whose only possible conclusion is “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair”. Find a friend or two that will not tire of reviewing these clues with you, and never, ever listen to someone who tells you to “focus on the positive” or “just get over it”.

(Footnote: You’ll reach other conclusions to the mysterious equation over time. One of them might be that the evidence justifying your loss is not substantive.)

Don’t compare yourself to others.

Your loss is unlike any other and comparing it to the losses of others can be painful. Although your exact path through grief and into healing is uncharted, there are other people who have walked similar paths and took the time to make a map.

Do seek support from those who have the map.

I don’t know who gave it to me, but in the years after my father’s death, I carried with me a small scrap of paper with the Suicide Prevention Hotline number written on it. I never called the number, but having the paper with me reminded me that there were people out there who really wanted me to survive.

(Footnote: Here is a list of thousands and thousands of people who want you to survive, too.)

While there is nothing you can do to move your heartbreak along, nothing is exactly what you should be doing. Your body and mind need time to absorb the shock of your loss and they know exactly what to do.

In the meantime, trust your instincts, rely on the help of others, take things moment by moment, and for real, try the french fries dipped in a chocolate shake thing.

Love, Lisa

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