My marriage ended in heartbreak but something magical has happened.
A story of hope for anyone struggling to cope with the unforeseeable. This is how I weathered the storm of heartbreak and grief, to discover a peaceful joy waiting patiently on the horizon. It had been there all along.
“When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Viktor E. Frankl
It was a conversation I never could have imagined I’d be having, and a situation I couldn’t have foreseen. As the gravity of it hit me, everything went black. I was plunged into darkness and I couldn’t see or hear anything. I can still feel it like it was yesterday. It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach, stamped on my heart, and punctured my lungs. I fell to my knees, my limbs turned to jelly. My hands started to tingle, palms sweaty, my heart racing a million miles an hour.
Within a matter of seconds (but what felt like a few long minutes at the time), my back straightened, my jaw clenched tightly, and I was braced, ready for the next blow. It didn’t come. What more did I possibly think could come after the unimaginable had already happened? I suppose it was a survival instinct, to get ready to defend the next threat. I took a huge breath, a purposeful swallow, and my mind obediently got to work conjuring up a plan to make everything okay. I’m not someone who gives in and lets bad things happen. I will do whatever it takes to fix this.
I imagine this experience feels familiar to some of you, irrelevant of the context. We’re all met with loss at different times in our lives. The strongest physical reactions to emotional pain I’ve experienced were during the breakdown of my marriage.
In a heart-wrenching revelation, my then-husband told me that he no longer wanted to have children. Only six months after our beautiful wedding day. He was sorry that he had changed his mind but realised it wasn’t what he saw for his future anymore. We had just moved in to a new house with an extra room we both imagined would be for our future child, and had often spoken about starting a family during the seven years we were together. So this situation really wasn’t something I had reason to foresee.
I experienced a similar blow to my heart ten months later, only much more painful this time, when he finally confirmed that there was nothing more we could do to figure this out. The marriage was over. We loved each other, but we wanted different things. We tried so hard, hoping couple therapy would give us the answers, but it only dragged us further into debt and desperation. We spent agonising months working out if we could sacrifice, or find solutions, but it became clear we had reached the end. All I could think was that we had failed. Failed each other. Failed our families and our friends.
In that moment, my entire world came crashing down around me, and I genuinely did not believe I could survive it. Divorced at the age of 30. The future seemed scary, lonely and pointless.
But I did survive it. And not just those impactful, crushing moments, but also the strained relationship leading up to his revelation, the agony of the months between the first conversation and the final decision, and the two years that followed. I just about managed to continue functioning as a friend, sibling, daughter and Auntie, whilst remaining determined not to abandon my newly launched business, music teaching, and performance commitments with my band. If you’ve experienced heartbreak and grief whilst also continuing to parent on top of everything else, as I know so many of you have, you are truly amazing. The damage it caused me physically and mentally was excessive, and all that mattered to me was reaching the end of each day without letting down too many people.
“At the close of this day, find the courage to hold hope, to breathe deeply, and hope that better days will come.”
Tyler Knott Gregson
I wanted to write a few words to provide hope for anyone who needs it right now — whether you’re navigating grief, heartbreak, loss, illness, anxiety, depression, or anything difficult and unforeseen.
Humans have an incredible capacity to adapt. Often, we hear stories from others and think to ourselves ‘there’s no way I could survive that’, ‘that person is superhuman’ or ‘they’re so inspiring.’ It’s correct to say that we can’t imagine being able to have such strength, and yes they’re inspiring, but isn’t it interesting that none of these people would have thought they’d survive what they have, either? Our body has the ability to withstand more than we would ever be able to make sense of before an event. We all carry around our own little piece of the weight of the world, but somehow we soldier on.
I’ve experienced something magical recently, and I’m going to try to find the right way to share it with you.
The tide has finally turned for me, only not in the way I imagined it would. Even in my darkest moments of despair, I always managed to hold on to some hope that this storm would pass. But what has become clear to me now, is that I waited too long. I hung around awkwardly in its wake, like a lost child hoping for a responsible adult to scoop me up and carry me home for a warm bath and a cup of cocoa. What I needed to do a little sooner, was to take one step forward, and then another, and walk myself home.
I was always surrounded by the most amazing family and friends, who stood grounded and strong throughout, arms outstretched with unconditional love, unfailing in even the harshest of moments. I know without a doubt that they will forever be ready to run me that warm bath and bring me that cup of cocoa... I’m grateful to them beyond words. But eventually, I realised something important.
I was the only person with the power to fully restore the calm, and make way for the peaceful joy I’d been waiting for.
If any of you feel caught up in your own storm right now, I hope that my journey can bring you the courage to restore calm sooner than you thought possible.
I’m resisting the urge to defend the sadness and pain I felt during the breakdown of my marriage, and make sure that you as the reader know that I am aware that people endure so much more than I have on a daily basis. Because what I’ve learnt is that our suffering isn’t lessened by the knowledge that others are also suffering, it doesn’t work like that. It’s damaging to shame ourselves during difficult times; to try and talk ourselves out of an emotion is unhelpful.
Don’t get caught up in comparative suffering.
Someone will always be suffering ‘more’ than you, but don’t let that take away from the validity of your own pain.
“Empathy is not finite, there’s enough to go round. It’s not like a pizza! Accepting a slice for yourself doesn’t mean there’s less for others.”
Yes, there might come a time when we reach a different place and choose to reframe our suffering, but we have to mourn our loss before doing so.
The physical manifestations of my heartbreak still surprise me to this day, and telling myself not to feel certain emotions would have only made matters worse. Everyone responds to stress in different ways, and I experienced a whole variety pack of responses to heartbreak; extreme hair loss, panic attacks whilst teaching, dramatic breakdowns in restaurants and on public transport, trips to hospital with unexplained blood loss and excruciating back pains, ultrasounds that showed problems which eerily disappeared further down the line, disillusioned beliefs that my family and friends were all only pretending to care about me and in fact didn’t love me at all (this was so far from the truth) and misplaced anger towards happy couples and families.
Had I tried to talk myself out of experiencing these things at the time, it would have had little effect. So if you find yourself trying to do this, please know that you are wasting precious energy. Surrender to the emotion and stay in it as long as you need. At some point, when the time is right, things will start to shift. It’s only then that we can begin to reason with our emotions, we have to feel them first. As inconvenient as this might be at times!
My marriage ended in 2018, and as I write this in July 2020, I have finally found true joy again. I have exhaled a hugely therapeutic sigh of relief, as I return to living life with a full heart. I’m telling you this, because I remember what a comfort it was in my deepest grief, to hear stories of hope.
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
It’s important before I continue, to be clear that there’s no magic pill or ten-step programme. I’ve had to work really hard to get here. But in that, is a lesson that I wish I had known all along.
Recently, I had to endure another painful breakdown of a relationship, for the same reasons as last time. As you can imagine, I experienced a lot of thoughts of this being ‘unfair’, wondering why this happened to me again. There was a lot of unhelpful negative self-talk. ‘Why doesn’t anyone want to have babies with me?!’, ‘It’s not fair on my family and friends that they have to deal with me going through this again’, ‘There must be something unloveable about me that means guys are unwilling to commit to me’, ‘My friends are starting families and even having their third child now, where did my life go so wrong?’ The list goes on…
However, this time round, there was a significant shift in my response to the heartbreak and pain.
Of course I was sad, and I spent time crying. And I mean reaaaally crying. The deep, cathartic, scene-from-a-movie-full-body-wailing sort! Did you know crying releases oxytocin and endorphins, which are the same chemicals released in hugging, stroking and exercise? That’s why we experience such comfort and release afterwards... It’s not the unhelpful sign of weakness I used to think it was!
But the life-transforming magic that happened in the weeks that followed, was the result of every small action I’d been taking since the devastating breakup a few years ago.
The way we deal with the messy stuff internally, drives everything. When we can no longer change the external situation, we have to focus on the internal stuff. I haven’t had access to therapy, so I’ve been working hard to fix myself! I can see how this could be frowned upon, and believe me when I say that some days I didn’t have the strength, but it’s just the way I’ve dealt with things. We’re all different. I didn’t want to give in to my depression, even when it was clouding my vision and I struggled to see a shimmer of light. I knew life was more important to me than hiding under the bed covers. Whatever was on hand in the form of self-help during this time, I took it. I never gave up on joy, mainly for the sake of my family.
One of the key steps to feeling better in myself was the following:
Mood follows action.
You can’t always ‘think’ yourself happy! I tried to do so for a long time before realising it wasn’t working. And happiness shouldn’t necessarily be the goal, because happiness is fleeting.
I turned my quest for joy into a sort of science project!
Over time I worked out that I needed to take a practical approach to healing. However, I feel it’s very important to point out that a practical approach doesn’t mean ignoring emotions. My practical steps also included effective ways to get better at understanding and working with my emotions. Being practical in dealing with any negative situation isn’t about denial and lack of acceptance, it’s about refusing to stay stuck.
So, after wasting a lot of time trying my hardest to think myself happy, I gradually conjured up a checklist of things I needed to add to my routine; practical actions to reach a more positive place.
I’d take things off the list that weren’t quite working, and add things in whenever I discovered new actions that had a positive effect. It might seem forced, and a lot of effort, but as I said, we all approach these things differently. And it only works if there is a genuine desire for change. This is what I felt I needed to do to move forward in some way.
I am still working out how best to use the things in my toolkit to benefit others, and haven’t figured it out just yet. I want to make sure that when I share these suggestions, I do so in a sensitive and useful way, as I’m very conscious that what helped me might not be beneficial for everyone.
Anyway, this all ended up forming a sort of ‘How To Cope With Heartbreak’ guide for future Emily! And it came in really useful during my most recent breakup. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves what is good for us. I added some extra discoveries during this time, and took out some things that were no longer needed. But despite this ‘How To’ guide helping me a lot, there was a missing piece of the puzzle that I was yet to discover…
I have spent these last few years feeling lost, dissatisfied, unfulfilled, and pretty much numb to genuine positive emotions. After my marriage ended, I moved back to my parents’ house. I didn’t have the strength to consider anything else at the time. Leaving London meant another sort of breakup for me. It was the city I’d called home for thirteen wonderful years, where I had moved to study at The Royal College of Music and start a career in the only city that made sense to me as a performing musician. Leaving London meant saying goodbye to my music teaching and performing jobs, my friends and my community.
Perhaps most difficult of all was leaving my band, who had become like a second family to me for the past seven years. My husband and I met in the band, and I decided we couldn’t carry on working and performing together. It was all too much. I couldn’t find a way to carry on that life without him. So for the last few years I’ve been sad. I stopped playing my instruments, stopped singing, and stopped listening to music.
It seemed as though my friends and siblings were all moving on; creating things, getting promoted, starting families, planning holidays, renovating their houses, etc, whilst I had regressed to my childhood bedroom with my one-eyed teddy staring back at me (I’d like to add that I’m of course very grateful to Mama and Papa C for taking me in!). As I mentioned, I did manage to find some joy and happiness in a new relationship during this time with someone I love dearly, but there was a lot left unresolved within me that I can see with hindsight was going to make things tricky.
So, I took a step back from the world, acknowledging that what I’d been through was difficult and that I needed some time to adjust. But eventually, I’d had enough.
At some point we choose to be the victim or the creator.
Be wary of the voice inside your head telling you that you have a right to be sad.
Self-compassion and self-pity are two very different things.
We absolutely must practise self-compassion, self-forgiveness and self-care, and experience all of the necessary stages of the grieving process. But eventually we can be curious and compassionate towards our emotions, at the same time as keeping a certain amount of distance from them. Your emotions should not be in the driver’s seat telling you what to do — they will inevitably take you on a dangerous ride! Become an observer of your emotions and remember you don’t have to entertain them. Easier said than done, but perhaps I’ll share the practical tips that helped me another time.
Don’t let self-pity become your identity.
‘You’ve been through something awful, it’s inevitable you’d be sad.’ ‘Being positive is a form of denial and it shows you didn’t care.’ ‘You should feel guilty when you’re happy.’ You might tell yourself something along these lines, or hear similar phrases from others. But be sure to question these voices — are they serving you well? Try not to sit in one part of grief for longer than it is serving you. Be wary of others encouraging you to dwell in the darkness, and be wary of savouring your misery! Yes it would be a lack of acceptance and a sign of denial to be skipping and jumping through life after a tragedy, but if you find yourself wallowing in a dark room, angry at the world ten years on, it’s important to question if that way of living life is in alignment with your values. After all, most of us will encounter difficulty more than once in our lives, and we can’t let it stop us in our tracks for longer than is necessary. It is our values that should be guiding us, not only our emotions. Be sure to work mindfully with both.
‘Living in alignment with your values’ might seem a bit wishy-washy to some of you, and I understand, but it really helped me. I’ll try to explain why this works.
Have you ever found yourself saying or thinking ‘I just want to be back to my old self’ or ‘I want things to be as they were before’ or ‘This isn’t how my life was supposed to turn out’? I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could go back to being the Emily of before. But I’ve realised that if I ever start to think like this again, I need to remember the following:
Stop trying to find a way back to the old you, the person you were before. Not only is it exhausting, it’s impossible, so it’s a misplaced use of your precious energy.
Cancel the search for the version of you that you look back on with a warped nostalgia. Stop longing to return to the you of before. It’s essential to accept that you are forever changed, as difficult as this can be. The trauma or suffering you have experienced, is what Cathy Rentzenbrink describes as ‘a guillotine moment’. One of the hardest things about this concept, is not only accepting it for yourself, but finding the strength to have the patience in waiting for your friends and family to come to terms with it too. They also miss the old you, but they love the core of you, the heart of you, and that overpowers everything else. And the old you hadn’t yet discovered the awesome new part of you (even if you haven’t yet either!).
At one of my closest friend’s weddings this Christmas just gone, my friend introduced me to a group of wedding guests and she said, “This is my friend Emily. The story I always use to describe Emily, is the time we were walking through Gravesend, and whilst all I could see were grey houses and some tired streets, Emily was constantly commenting on the beauty she noticed around us — ‘Oh, look at those pretty flowers’ and ‘Ahh, isn’t that garden cute.’ Emily always manages to notice the beauty in even the most mundane things.” When my friend told this story, I felt a deep ache of sadness. My boyfriend was with me at the time, and I felt he was also thinking that this Emily sounded different to the person he had fallen in love with! To him I had always been a little bit troubled, trying my best to keep on keeping on. I could sense that he, much like me, kind of knew that the Emily my friend was describing was the true me, but I’d lost track of her. Things started to change for me from that moment on.
The mission I set out on, to resurrect the ‘old Emily’, was the wrong one, but it was the start of a very important journey. So thank you to my darling friend who reminded me of me!
After my most recent breakup, I hid away in the countryside, isolating by myself for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown. I was alone with my thoughts. It started me thinking; what is it that I want to resurrect from the old Emily? What do I mean when I say that?
What I realise I meant now, was finding a way back to my core values. Taking the time to become clear on the way I choose to be in this world, to contribute, and to live this one precious life. My friend reminded me of one of my values — to see the world through a lens of curiosity, to make sure I don’t miss the beauty surrounding me. Remembering this value was a good starting place for me to take my first tentative step forward into the light, to start living in accordance with my values again.
I would really encourage you to set aside a bit of time somewhere quiet, or maybe go for a walk and sit somewhere afterwards, and note down what is important to you. This way, no matter how you’re feeling, what people ask of you, or what happens next, if you refer back to your values (perhaps two or three commitments or ‘vows’ to yourself), the action or decision you take next becomes clearer.
If one of my values is to see the world through a lens of curiosity, and notice the beauty around me, then my day-to-day mindset and actions have to match up. The gift of living to see tomorrow is unknown, so will I be able to say that I lived my life in accordance with my values if I spend it feeling that life has been unfair to me, hiding under my bed covers, resenting all the happy people living lives full of joy and love? No. So if I want to live in accordance with my values, I have to decide on the next small action. Perhaps pulling back the covers, then maybe taking a few purposeful breaths, maybe opening the curtains, or stepping out in to the garden and looking up at the sky, and before you know it, those little steps, bring about a change in mood — remember, mood follows action — and then I am one step closer to living a life in accordance with my values.
Once you’ve taken some time to figure out your values, you might feel better equipped to get curious about the journey ahead… and even a little bit excited!
“I think what people find in tragic challenges is a part of themselves they didn’t know existed. A new character arises in the midst of grief.”
I really believe this to be true and have experienced it myself. My Mum had a life-threatening heart condition a while ago and I was told to refrain from any heart rate-elevating exercise whilst specialists carried out tests on me to check it hadn’t been passed on as a genetic condition. I didn’t immediately view this instruction to not exercise as a huge loss! But during this time, I realised how much I took my health for granted, as a touring musician with a love of booze and cheesy chips…
So once I had been given the all-clear, I took up running regularly. I had avoided sports my entire life, believing my body simply wasn’t designed for it. I was always the last to finish in cross-country at school, and most of my adult life had been spent on the verge of fainting when running for a bus! It turns out, after many difficult months of very slow jogging and gradually building my fitness, I actually enjoyed running. When I finished second female out of hundreds running at my local parkrun, I took a moment to appreciate what an achievement that was, something I genuinely never thought possible (I’m still determined to finish first place one day!). And I don’t know if I’d have discovered this within me had it not been for my Mum being so ill. I wish it didn’t take traumatic events to lead us to these life changes.
“Sometimes in life we are lost, but we can rename it. Humans will not change unless they are faced with obstacles and adversity. Every challenge is an opportunity for waking up. You cannot stay the way you are. You can go one way or the other. A challenge pushes you further into egoic reactivity and negativity. It makes you more unconscious, more reactive. On the other hand, a challenge can have the effect of forcing you to become more conscious. There is an importance in using the adversity that arises, to recognise it as an opportunity for becoming more conscious, of growth.”
In the past, when people spoke about how suffering can be used as an opportunity, I really struggled to understand. Now, finally, I realise what that means. If you’re not in the place to hear this, and you feel frustrated by my even mentioning this, I just ask you to hang in there. During my lowest moments, I worried for the safety of the next person who dared say anything along the lines of ‘everything happens for a reason’, or, ‘God has a plan’.
If you’re struggling with hearing similar phrases from those around you, I think it’s important to try really hard to remember that when a loved one is in pain, we feel powerless, and we say and do anything we can to let them know we care. If possible, we should show grace for those trying to comfort, as well as those suffering. As imperfect humans, we are just doing our best. Grief is a sensitive and personal journey, and we’re all just finding our way.
Please don’t be in a rush to work out what you’re supposed to learn from your suffering. The mind won’t work in such a way if you don’t allow the raw, painful emotions first. Change is a process not an event. Grief demands patience and a gentle acceptance, and it is unpredictable. Treat yourself as you would a friend.
“Research shows that those who navigate difficult situations best are those who practice self-compassion, not self-criticism.”
The mourning process is different for everyone. There are tools which can be helpful, and it’s important to practice a mix of them all, and not stay using one for too long. Conversation, communication and isolation. There are times we might feel strong enough to mindfully choose to navigate the situation in the most benevolent way possible, but other times when we truly feel the depth of the loss. Sometimes we simply can’t choose, sometimes the emotion just hits us. Choosing positivity and summoning strength is not possible 24/7, and if it is, I wonder if there’s an underlying lack of acceptance buried within.
You have to surrender and accept before you have the capacity to overcome.
The amount of time that takes is unique to every situation.
To overcome heartbreak, I believe we have to find the capacity for self-compassion, forgiveness and acceptance, in order to feel we can surrender. When we find the courage to do so, we experience a surge of relief throughout our whole being, giving our hearts the permission to open once again. In doing so, all the good stuff starts to seem possible again!
I found huge release in the realisation that I had a choice. In catastrophe, disaster, grief, adversity and tragedy, we always have a power. Our power is how we choose to deal with this, it’s only a small shift of mindset that can take us from disempowered to empowered.
From this moment on, I choose to live with awe and wonder. What I’ve learnt is that we can either decide to live a life of gloom, looking for exterior things, and people, to lift us up temporarily, or we can choose to live a life of awe and wonder, accepting that there will be hard times and moments of sadness along the way. What we choose as the undercurrent to our outlook on life, can change our lives.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”
After three years of half-heartedly gazing at the stars in a sort of passive nostalgia, I have finally found the courage to look up at them with my whole heart.
Some people say that endings should be thought of as a graduation rather than a divorce…
Well, I think I’ve graduated!
“May today there be peace within. May you trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith in yourself and others. May you use the gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content with yourself just the way you are. Let this knowledge settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”
Saint Terese of Lisieux
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