I wish that life didn’t include breakage. Relationships, hearts, bones. I wish we could all stay whole and hale, stable and intact.
Yet that’s a futile wish. A child’s magical thinking. Really, we need to bump into things, react, learn, grow from such stimulation, to evolve as a species and as individuals.
In so many ways, we are born to break, aren’t we? We are designed to recover, too. As little ones, we have an open fontanel, so that we can lose balance, bump our heads over and over, and get up and keep going. Although we have a cognitive memory of pain, our bodies cannot actually feel its intensity when we recall events.
But that doesn’t make it easy to be hurt, does it? And it’s one thing to sport a bruise on your arm, or wear a cast until a bone mends. It’s another to endure emotional pain or intellectual hurt on a much deeper level.
Ultimately, in this reflection, I’m focused more on emotional breakage, as opposed to physical wounds. Whether insight arises from growing up inside a family with a parent who struggled with addiction and then achieved sobriety, working on my own complex family connections to a living husband and daughter, mourning Jessie, wrestling via conversations with girlfriends about strained partnerships and parenting roles, remaining quiet when someone asks for news about a family with whom I don’t share intimacy, listening secondhand to narrations from divorced parents working out finances for education of their kids, or becoming privy to someone applying for a new job or ending a career, it becomes clear that we are all, always, navigating this journey of changed relationships. And that not all bonds survive.
When we mourn, what we feel is the ache of what should be there. What’s missing. The body we can’t touch anymore, or words we want to say aloud, with no one to hear them. It throbs: the absence of some part of ourselves. Or the emptiness once occupied by another person.
When I speak of this breakage and loss, I don’t just mean death. Oh, that comes first and most easily to mind. My daughter Jessie. Or my dear friend Rebecca. Other women in my life such as Liz, Pam, and Gloria. My father. Chris’s mother. Our neighbor Sue. The children we have watched in life, who have gone ahead, too many to name here, and too devastating to try at the moment.
They have truly died. Whether it was sudden or after a long journey, they have moved past where I can reach them (for now). Some passed away as a natural part of life’s cycle. Some left us much too soon.
Other relationships in our lives are broken, or altered, yet continue. Friendships that may have changed gradually or quite dramatically. Marriages or partnerships that have ended. Work connections that shift. Affiliations through different organizations that have tapered off, or run their allotted time. Acquaintances that simply faded.
Sometimes these are natural and inevitable partings. Other times, they are caused by a breech of intimacy.
In any case, many of our broken or ended relationships must be conducted real-time, since those involved are alive, and may often see each other in the same community, even after the relationship has ended or changed. Although we aren’t connected in the same way anymore, we have shared a past that was important and real, perhaps deeply emotional or as intimate as any family bond.
As wise companions have reminded me, the end of such a relationships is its own death. It requires grieving. Time. And comes at a cost. And yet, such a relationship is also characterized by the difficult aspect of going on.
Hopefully, most of these connections can continue with some acknowledgement for past ties. With recognition for what has come before, what was real and true when it was part of our lives. With respect for each other, with care for another’s dignity and tenderness for another’s vulnerabilities.
I have witnessed many families, former lovers, or past colleagues who successfully, with a lot of work and patience, and some bumps along the way, negotiate the ways in which they continue to remain in each others’ lives and must continue to navigate enforced connections, perhaps due to shared custody, shared investments or ownership, or contractual obligations. They can do so with humor, with kindness, with tolerance and respect for each other.
Other times, perhaps too much trust or safety has been compromised, and different boundaries are required. Perhaps distance, or utter non-communication, is the only possible result.
Most of the time, though, we stay in each others’ circle of connections. So when we encounter each other, as we must do? Sometimes it’s okay. It’s friendly, but distant. Or perhaps it passes with silence and a nod, or the barest greeting.
Contrarily, sometimes we can’t manage a polite social courtesy, because the hurt goes too deep to pretend in public. We look away, cross to the other side of the road, or hold back the words that want to tumble out or the hand that wants to span the distance, and make contact again.
Contact? Contact might not be a polite hello and a distant smile, a turning-away before any more can be expected of either of us. It might not be frosty and remote. It might not be sad and aloof. It might be up-close and too-much. Maybe what’s underneath the casual encounter comes, instead, as a slap in the face. A desperate hug. A shout. A whisper. A sob. Maybe if it was allowed to be admitted, it would be expressed as anger or resentment, or a slow inhalation and the soft question, “Why?”
When we don’t have business contracts, court rulings and enduring family commitments to bind us, to force a negotiation that gives us some rules and habits for how to stay connected, we can be left with a more casual reminder of what came before, and all that’s missing between us. We are reduced to random social encounters, small interactions when passing by, that don’t come with the promise of reconciliation or resolution. And don’t have obligations associated with them. Such moments don’t support closure. These sightings and interactions may actually keep an old wound open instead.
How do we go on? Sometimes we can create opportunities to make amends, or to achieve a sense of resolution. Sometimes we have to work hard to gain such chances. Other times, they just won’t happen, because that’s not the nature of the separation or the moving on. Or because we don’t have the capacity or courage to take the risk. I have certainly failed to resolve some of the relationships that ended in my own life.
Sometimes we have tried to find closure in private. Or remotely. By text or call. By email or letter. In therapy sessions. With words that aren’t shared reciprocally, each party listening and responding, but are delivered one way. Or as a flurry of exchanges that, nevertheless, talk over each other and don’t achieve any sort of two-way communication.
Sometimes we have knocked on the door. Sat with a neutral party to negotiate terms or help achieve communication. Offered the words. Reached out. Risked ourselves.
Although it may not be directly applicable to all situations, to all broken relationships, the wisdom of Step 9 (Making Amends) in the 12 Step process can be a good resource. And it is preceded by 8 other steps, so it isn’t sudden; the groundwork (for you) must already have been laid.
Whole professions are built around healing hurt — and building the foundation for new beginnings — from such breakage: counselors, attorneys, pastors, mentors, coaches, mediators and medical caregivers.
Oh, I don’t speak lightly of the work that goes into maintaining or mending a relationship. Nor do I pretend to know, firsthand, the toil of trying to navigate a broken connection that must continue to function on legal and logistical levels, if not emotional ones. Yet each of us has experienced some aspect of this territory.
Humans exist in a state of change and flux; this includes endings, shifts, and partings. Changes in connection. They come as part of living in community with other people.
Where relationships cannot continue, and if it is possible, we are called to make amends and do our best to create some closure. Or allow others to ask it of us. It will benefit ourselves, as well as others.
Along the way, part of healing is to forgive not just someone else, but yourself, too.