You can bounce back after a loss
A month after my friend Julia’s mom passed away, Julia lamented the empty hole still in her life. The only advice I could give her, based on my experience of losing my father six years earlier, was, “Give yourself time to adjust to your ‘new normal.'” I wish I could have shared something more helpful. My words, though accurate and sincere, hardly seemed adequate to help heal a broken heart.
Broken Heart Syndrome Is Real
When we lose someone we love, we often describe it as having a broken heart. And we might illustrate that feeling as a heart with a crack in it. We probably even say something, like, “My heart is broken. Well, not literally, but … you know….”
The truth is you literally can have a broken heart. It’s called broken heart syndrome, and according to the American Heart Association, the symptoms are quite similar to a heart attack: chest pain, shortness of breath. You can have this short-term heart muscle failure even if you don’t have heart disease.
The good news is that the physical manifestations of broken heart syndrome are treatable, and there’s usually no long-term heart damage. Nearly everyone who experiences it recovers fully in a few weeks.
Channeling Al Green: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?
The emotional aftermath of a broken heart isn’t so simple.
Whether you lose someone through death or divorce, your emotional reaction may be similar: You might want to scream, beat your breast, hide on a deserted island, run naked through the streets. According to clinical psychologist Lisa Slade Martin, Ph.D., you should do all these things if you feel like it (well, maybe not the naked part).
“Admit to every minute, every day that feels awful. If it makes you tired and it’s hard to get out of bed, give in to the need to rest and sleep if life will allow you,” she says. “It can be helpful to take time off of work, give some of your responsibilities to caring family and friends, and veg out. Wallow, sulk, embrace the awfulness.”
This is necessary, according to Slade Martin, in order to grieve and move toward recovery. “Although many people believe trying to push the feelings away will help them feel better quicker, it can actually prolong the pain, especially if the thoughts and feelings are pushed away using substances, or with compulsive behavior like gambling or spending,” she says. “It may be counter-intuitive, but it is actually more productive to embrace the pain, to practice acceptance of things you cannot change.”
After those first few difficult weeks, it might be a good idea to shake things up a bit. Take a short trip somewhere you’ve never been, sign up for a class, get a makeover, de-clutter your living space, mentor a child or volunteer at a soup kitchen.
But don’t expect an unbroken line toward recovery. “There will be temporary setbacks, alternating with periods of hope,” Slade Martin says. “More like an upward staircase.”
How Long Should Grief Last?
There’s no definitive answer to this question. The process takes as long as it takes, mostly because we don’t have control over how long we go through it. “The closer we were to the person or the more we depended on them, the deeper the grief,” Slade Martin says. “The deeper the grief, the longer it lasts.”
Sometimes we think we should be over it because other people expect us to go back to normal. This is often, the experts say, because other people are tired of or frustrated with our grief. And what, exactly, is normal anyway? It can take three to four months to recover from a one-year love affair; heartbreak after the death of a spouse after a long-term marriage might last several years.
If, however, you aren’t able to function—not cleaning your house, foregoing a shower or leaving your house with stank teeth, or withdrawing completely from social situations—for more than a month or two, this could be a sign of depression. A support group or a counselor might provide better support than friends and relatives.
And take comfort in the knowledge that one day, after you’ve given yourself time to adjust to your new situation, your broken heart will heal. (Turns out my advice to Julia wasn’t so lame after all.) “When you return to a feeling of being alive, life will be different,” Slade Martin says. “There will be a new normal. Don’t expect to go back to feeling like you did when your loved one was in your life. But you can find opportunity to make your new life interesting and vibrant.”