To my fellow broken hearts,
First thing’s first, I write to offer you my condolences. What a time for a broken heart. What a time to lose love. In the face of so many other losses – from our ability to casually gather around a dinner table with friends to seeing a stranger’s smile, from hugging our grandparents to our general sense of safety and security in the world. A broken heart on top of all of it almost seems cruel. This is when we arguably need connection, intimacy, a teammate the most. Its when we need love to really show up – goddamn it – just like the apocalyptic movies promised and do its job; help ease our loneliness and existential dread, lend life meaning and stability as the tectonic plates of our collective souls unexpectedly and rapidly shift. And then shift again. Unfortunately, the pandemic seems to have other plans in store for us.
Instead, it ruthlessly confronted us with a challenging paradox: COVID slowed our world to a grinding halt, yet simultaneously accelerated relationships. It’s almost as if our physical movement was replaced, in direct proportion, with emotional movement. Where we could not go without, we had to go within. Like a cramped New York City houseplant in a pot too small, we grew steadfast in whatever direction available. And so, some relationships launched into the next phase, with couples who barely knew each other moving in; couples who had been thinking about marriage suddenly eloping, buying homes in the suburbs, getting pregnant. While others evolved – or rather devolved – at a similar speed just in the opposite direction. We may have remained healthy, but our relationships got sick; passion fizzled, intimacy died, partnership collapsed. The complete and total upheaval of life as we knew it left couples dangling on the existential edge. We had no choice but to jump. Some flew. Others – with vulnerable psychological immune systems further compromised by pathogens like chronic stress, isolation, and grief – we fell.
From one who fell to another, I feel for you. I really do. But the reason I am writing now is not simply to empathize. It is more to let you in on a secret. In the solitude of relative quarantine and in the vast emptiness created by the amorphous ghost of a partner that once was, I’ve come to believe this: Though when a relationship ends it can feel like a death in its own rite, it is also, at the same time, a near death experience. The you that you are in this very moment would have never lived if your relationship had not died first. The new people, new experiences, new wisdom gleaned and insights gained – this you is alive today not just in-spite of your heartbreak, but directly because of it.
And your next love? That person is someone you will only meet because of the absence of your former partner, because they irrevocably shaped you and who you will be drawn to next, because the deep wound of love lost left a scar that someone, someday, will find beautiful. And in the not so distant future, when you’re with your new partner, sipping Americanos in bed post-coital on a Sunday morning, you will have almost no choice but to thank your ex and be grateful the relationship ended at the exact time it did because had it not, the person you needed to become in order to find and fall for the love of your life would cease to exist.
So, can we all now breathe a collective sigh of relief? Perhaps we can even say, “Phew, that was a close shave!” Because the truth is, this version of you almost didn’t make it. But good news, you’re here. You’re alive to tell the tale.
I don’t mean to sound so glass-half-full here. In reality, I’m grieving and likely so are you. Layers upon layers of heartbreak exist right now; the hearts of the families who could not say goodbye to loved ones dying alone in hospital beds. The heart of this country, founded on the promise of equality and justice, betrayed and cracked in two as an election draws near. The heart of the earth, mourning the countless lost forests, its abundance barren and scorched. Cumulatively, the heart of the world is breaking right now. You are not alone. We’re all broken together.
Heartbreak of this magnitude, the likes of which many previously thought unfathomable, has shown us that anything can happen. Nothing is certain. With that said, uncertainty may be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s also the best medicine; uncertainty means possibility. This train has gone so far off the rails, both in the micro of your life and the macro of society, that now it can go anywhere. The unique combination of the disintegration of the fabric of society at the same time as the disintegration of the narrative of who we love, and in many ways thus, who we are, means that we get to write a whole new story. What will you do with this possibility, not just with the gift of the you that lives because of your heartbreak, but also with the countless iterations of you that now have the potential to come to fruition? It’s like playing chess, but without any pieces. And guess what? It’s your move.
If you’re not sure where to go yet, may I humbly suggest finding that existential edge again. At a time like this, it won’t be hard. Then, while surrounded by the fragments of all of our broken hearts floating in the ether, jump. Adyashanti once wrote that disorientation only arises from the mind attempting to orient itself in a new context. He compares the process to jumping out of a plane. If you just let go and fall, there’s no problem. However, as soon as you start grasping at the air in an attempt to get your bearings, you feel disoriented – you no longer know which way is up and which way is down.
So, what’s the real difference between falling and flying? If we look closely we find the pandemic has presented us with yet another paradox: Hanging on – to a former love, to an old you, to the world as we knew it – may be the very thing that makes us feel like we’re falling. But, if we can just let go – into the new people we’ve become, our hearts cracked open so wide that we can fully welcome in whatever comes next – well, this may just be what allows us to fly.
I can’t wait to see where we land.
Dr. Jordana Jacobs is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City specializing in love and loss. Her approach is integrative, combining psychodynamic and existential therapy into her treatment of patients. Dr. Jacobs’ training at Memorial Sloan Kettering working with terminally ill cancer patients, her studies in Northern India, and her Vipassana meditation practice inspired her research on the complex relationship between death awareness and love. Her dissertation, entitled “Till Death do us Part: The Effect of Mortality Salience on Satisfaction in Long-term Romantic Relationships” specifically explored the ways in which priming for death has the potential to increase intimacy in partnerships. In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Jacobs now gives talks and leads meditations aimed towards helping people accept inevitable mortality so that they are able to live and love more fully.