“If your heart hurts a little after letting go of someone or something, that’s okay. It just means that your feelings were genuine. No one likes ends. And no one likes pain. But sometimes we have to put things that were once good to an end after they turn toxic to our well-being. Not every new beginning is meant to last forever. And not every person who walks into your life is meant to stay.” ~Najwa Zebian
It’s hard to describe what betrayal feels like. Unless you’ve experienced it, I mean, in which case you’ll know. You’ll know that moment—the punch to the gut, which in my case, even though I was standing in an empty room all on my own, literally knocked me to the floor. I’d seen something, you see.
Proof that my partner had been cheating.
It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining. I think I’d been listening to music, probably something upbeat in the hope it would squash the worry that something wasn’t quite right. Maybe (most likely, knowing me) dancing, to carry some of the nervous energy away. Scrolling on social media, distracting myself with other people’s realities, to stop me thinking about my own.
And then something—something—made me look. A pull. An inexplicable urge. And so, of course, I did.
There it was. What I’d known in my gut, but had been told repeatedly couldn’t be true. Labelled as “over-reacting,” “seeing things that aren’t there,” “being too sensitive.” What I now know to be gaslighting, that abuse isn’t always physical (even though in my case it was that too). Tangible evidence for all to see.
And so here I was, in a heap. Collapsed to the ground like a house of cards that had been caught by a gush of air. But it wasn’t air that had taken my legs from underneath me. It was the end of a relationship.
To this day, I don’t know how long I was lying there. I can picture it in my head even all these years later. Like a boat that’s adrift. Wind knocked out of my sails. Listless.
The night drew in, and with it came this incredible wave of noise. Like I was sitting in a busy café, and someone had turned the music up to try and compensate, but you couldn’t make anything out. Except no one could hear this noise, because it was all happening in my head. Thoughts about “what if?” and “if only,” ironically contributing to the din.
I wanted a hand to reach out from the darkness and give me the answers. To say “It’s going to be fine.” But it wasn’t fine. It was painful. Distressing. Desperate.
And then, something. A message. A friend. He had no idea what was going on; I hadn’t told a soul. But he knew. At least, he sensed it. So he had messaged me and gently reminded me that I have a right to be here.
I look back on this moment in my life now as if it was another person. I’m still me, of course, but different, like we all are when we go through grief. Because grief doesn’t just belong to death. We experience it for anything that mattered to us that’s no longer there.
Even a child leaving for college.
Endings mean we go through this process; not in stages, but a journey that takes as long as it takes.
Here are a few insights and tips that might help if you’re on this journey now.
1. Grieving is a unique experience.
It’s raw at first; it can be messy, but it does look different to everyone. Some people feel rage, others feel numb. I felt completely lost for a while. There is no right way to mourn a loss; we just find our own way, hopefully with the support of others who get it. Even then, people need to resist the urge to cheer us up or “silver line” what’s happened.
We don’t always need to find the “upside” of pain or be told “at least you can always get remarried” (sigh). What helped me that night was the generosity of a friend, a simple act of kindness in the willingness to just hold space with me.
But of course my journey to recovery didn’t end there. Allowing myself to be open to the idea that I didn’t need “fixing”—that I just needed to go at my own pace, finding healthy ways to cope—was hugely beneficial.
2. Feel what you feel.
Sometimes we numb out with booze, food, or mindless scrolling so that we don’t have to feel the pain we’re enduring, and I get it; grief can be gnarly. But the reality is, whether we give our feelings a name or not, they’re there anyway. Sure, we can push them down for a while, but if we keep putting pain on top of pain, eventually it rises up and grabs us metaphorically by the throat.
Give yourself permission to sit with your emotions when you can, or with someone else if it helps.
3. Reach out.
I am so grateful in my case that someone reached in, but in the weeks that followed I went in search of people and services that I knew would be able to help. I got in touch with a therapist to sit with my grief and found a mindfulness teacher—a Buddhist monk as it happens. He trained me to be still with the painful thoughts of rejection and abandonment I was having, and the trauma I had been through.
I also found agencies who could offer practical help with housing and finances, as I literally had nowhere to go, having been isolated from friends and work, what I know now to be a common sign in these cases.
If you or someone you know has been affected by domestic abuse or are suffering with difficult thoughts, find what services are available in your local area.
4. Share what you know.
I do not see what happened to me as a “lesson.” I didn’t need to experience trauma in order to be a “better” person; I was good enough before all this happened actually.
Having said that, I did find meaning in these moments. I decided to use what happened to me to help others; I became accredited to work with victims of crime and now volunteer my time in a women’s refuge. I also work as an independent advisor to police authorities to help raise awareness of what helps (and what doesn’t), as well as writing and supporting people in other ways. When you’re ready, you could use the benefit of your experience to help others too.
5. Take care of yourself.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that when you’re going through a difficult time, your needs matter too. You’re not saying “me first” to the people in your life; you’re just saying “me included.”
For me, this meant making sure I was eating, getting enough sleep, and yes, even dancing round my kitchen—it all helps.
I’ve always believed self-care is in the little things, like changing your bedding, putting out clean towels, and getting fresh air. But it can be other things, like spending time in nature, chatting with a friend, or learning new ways to cope healthily with what life throws at you.
It doesn’t have to be expensive; in fact, restorative acts of self-care don’t have to cost a penny. I love taking myself off somewhere to enjoy a cup of tea and reading a book. You’re allowed to have and do nice things that can help lift your spirits. Give yourself permission to say no and make sure your tribe includes people that help you rise, not bring you down.
We deal with endings all the time in life, and some might seem inconsequential, but that doesn’t mean we have to forget or pretend they didn’t happen. We can honor our experiences in helpful ways; we might just need to figure out how to do that for a while.
Allow yourself time and space to discover what helps you best. This might mean taking time out or just taking a deep breath, revisiting your values to understand what really matters to you, setting new boundaries, or distancing yourself from those who don’t help. As Elizabeth Gilbert once so beautifully said, “We can love everybody, but some we must love from a safe distance.”