I studied heartbreak for a year. Here’s what I learnt
We mark life’s big events with funerals, farewells and birthday parties. Writer Jessie Stephens argues that a broken heart is a turning point that needs a ritual, too.
The first time I had my heart broken was a Sunday night and I remember that it was autumn. I was 15 and sitting inside that room most suburban families had, with a desktop computer that meant something very different to teenagers than it did to their parents.
If I close my eyes, I can still hear the MSN Messenger ping and feel that drop in my stomach that came when certain names popped up on the right-hand side of my screen.
The curtains were drawn and I hadn’t spoken to my boyfriend, Jordan, all day. We had been dating for three months and I liked how he smelled. The first time we met, I remember considering my face from every angle, wondering how it would look if he sat to my right or to my left.
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He was the first boy to tell me I was beautiful. But that day, something had shifted. I think many of us know before we know. Everything around us starts looking a little crooked. When his name popped up on my screen, I immediately noticed that it no longer read “Jordan
My name had been replaced with someone else’s. A friend I’d introduced him to a few days before. I felt sick. I was struck by a sense that this wasn’t allowed. Hadn’t we agreed, implicitly, upon a set of rules where we didn’t do this to each other? How could the universe look so perfect one moment, and so different the next?
He would later tell me that his interest had changed overnight. I’d watch from afar as they shared jokes no-one else understood and I’d see her face glow from contentment as mine once had.
Fifteen-year-old me couldn’t know that this would be the first of many heartbreaks, the ones in my 20s far harder than that moment in my dark study. But it would be the beginning of an unrelenting fascination with heartbreak, and how, for some, it has the capacity to entirely upend a life.
For the past 12 months, I’ve closely studied heartbreak through the lives of three subjects. I learnt three things I didn’t expect to.
The first is that heartbreak never really leaves us. I once spoke to a man in his 60s whose heart had been broken at 14. He could remember her name and the colour of her hair. He sobbed recalling it, shocked by his proximity to his own pain from more than 50 years ago.
This was a man who had been married for most of that time, to a woman he loved more than anything in the world. But inside him, there was space for both. Love for the woman he married, and sorrow for the girl who left him, all those years ago.
The second thing I learnt is that what we need in the wake of a broken heart isn’t “self-help”. We need to sit in the muck for a while. Let ourselves feel things we don’t want to. The self-loathing and the jealousy and the destruction of our ego. A pat on the back, a tub of ice cream and an inspirational quote won’t speed up your recovery. A broken heart is a brand of grief we don’t respect or take seriously enough.
It’s an upheaval of everything we once knew. A way of erasing a future we assumed belonged to us, throwing our lives into chaos.
Which brings me to the third thing I learnt. We need to create some sort of ritual around heartbreak. We trivialise discussions around whether to delete an ex-lover from social media or if we should throw out all their things. But these are desperate attempts to design a ritual around a significant life event that lacks any.
We have funerals. And weddings and farewells and birthday parties. They’re markers of time. They announce to the world that this is a thing that matters. So how might we mark the end of a significant relationship? In the country of Burkina Faso in West Africa, people who are heartbroken can visit a grief altar, to sing and scream and stomp their feet and wrap their arms around each other.
No-one asks questions. But there’s a chant that roughly translates to mean: “I can’t do this alone.” Grief has to move. We must do something with it. And whether that’s crying or talking or writing or creating, we’re allowing the time and space we all need to fully feel and explore, and not demand happiness of ourselves when we’re so desperate to feel a little bit sad.
Eventually, heartbreak becomes a gift. A language we learn to speak that connects us to others who will inevitably experience the same thing. It’s the price we pay for love.
Heartsick by Jessie Stephens (Macmillan Australia, $34.99) is out on Tuesday.