Recently, I read On Grief & Grieving by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler—a powerful book about how human beings cope with many types of loss, including the death of a person you love, the death of a dream, or the death of a particular identity.
After finishing the book, I meandered over to Kessler’s website. There, I found a very thoughtful, beautiful list of what to say—and not say—to someone who is grieving, particularly someone who is grieving the death of a parent, sibling, spouse, or child.
Kessler’s list inspired me to create my own list, but focusing on a different kind of loss: break-ups and divorce.
If you know someone who is grieving the end of a relationship (something I’ve been personally navigating this last year), I hope this list is helpful for you.
What not to say
The following statements might not feel comforting to someone with a broken heart—either because they’re aggressively positive/cheerful (which hurts), or aggressively cruel/critical of their ex (which hurts, too), full of pressure (“hurry up and stop feeling sad”), dismissive (“get over it, things could be much worse”) or just don’t feel “true” (too black and white, not acknowledging the grayness and complexity of the situation).
Even though you have the very best of intentions (you want to help them feel better) these particular phrases might not be helpful right now.
1. “You need to get back out there and start dating again!”
2. “Well, you are fabulous. He’s an idiot. It’s his loss. One day he’ll realize what a huge mistake he has made and by then, too bad, you will have moved on!”
3. “Break-ups are tough, but you know…things could be much worse. My friend’s husband just got diagnosed with cancer and he’s been given six months to live. Now that’s really something to feel sad about.”
4. “You’ll fall in love again and all of this will just be a distant memory. You’ll see.”
5. “This is great fodder for your next book! You’ll turn this whole experience into a bestselling novel or movie script! You’ll be laughing on the red carpet at the Oscars while he’s watching at home on the couch!”
6. “She’s an asshole. You deserve so much better. One day you’ll think, ‘I can’t believe I wasted five years with her’.”
7. “I totally get what you’re going through. I went through a rough break-up last year…but then I met someone amazing and now we’re engaged! You’ll get there soon, too!”
8. “Well, I’m sure you’re learning plenty of valuable lessons from this experience.”
9. “This is such a great opportunity for you! You can use this time while you’re single to improve yourself, focus on yourself, love yourself, take a painting class, learn tai chi! So many great things will come from this! It’s really a huge blessing!”
10. “You know what you need to do? Blast some fun music and have a dance party in your living room! You’ll feel so much better!”
(When you’re so heartbroken that you can barely convince yourself to eat or take a shower, a dance party sounds…ah, how do I put this? Excruciatingly horrendous.)
. . .
What to say
Here are a few things my family and friends have said to me this last year—things that have really, really, really helped.
1. “Heartache is so painful. I wish I could do something to take the pain away, but I can’t. I’m so sorry you have to experience this and I know it hurts so much.”
2. “You don’t have to go through this alone. I love you. All of your friends love you. We’re here for you.”
3. “You can text me anytime you want. My door is always open to you.” (Also: “If you feel the urge to text your ex, text me instead. Text me and say everything you want to say to him. You can pretend I’m him. Send it all to me.”)
4. “If you want to call me and cry, vent, talk about your ex, or talk about something completely different, anything you need, just call.”
5. “Every relationship is different and every break-up is different. You are grieving right now, and there’s no ‘one right away’ to grieve. I hope you’ll do whatever you need to do, and take as much time as you need. There is no rush.”
6. “What’s something that would make your life just a tiny bit easier right now? Could I bring over some food? Wash your sheets and make your bed? Fill up your car with gas? Something else? I know you’ve got so much weighing on you right now, so I’d love to do something to make your day a little easier and calmer.”
7. “Hi. I am just checking in. How is your heart today?”
8. “Hey. How are you doing today? If the answer is ‘not okay,’ that’s okay.”
9. “I just wanted to tell you: I’m proud of you. No need to reply unless you want to. I just wanted to send a hug in your direction.”
10. “I love you.”
. . .
Everyone grieves in their own way. No two experiences are alike. If you’re not sure what to say to someone who is grieving, trust your hut (heart + gut) and follow your instincts. If you’re still drawing a blank, you can always say:
“I’m so sorry to hear about this. I wish I knew what to say. I don’t have the right words.”
Sometimes saying nothing at all—just being there, and offering a few moments of your undivided attention, being quiet, caring, and compassionate—is the best thing you can offer.
And to anyone out there who’s currently cradling a broken heart: you’re not alone, you’re going to survive, and I’m right there with you.
I don’t want to push my advice onto you, however, if you want a few recommendations on how to cope with the pain, I can recommend listening to soothing whale sounds, boxing class/punching things, gentle piano music, ho’oponopono, crying, more crying, therapy, cbd oil, quiet walks at night-time when the streets are emptier and calmer, writing letters and then burning them, sleeping a lot, cleaning and decluttering your home to get rid of stale energy, lighting candles, washing your sheets, being in/near the ocean, and anything else that your hut (heart + gut) urges you to do.
Your hut knows what it needs.
Over the last ten years or so, I’ve had lots of conversations—with friends, clients, colleagues, people on airplanes, people waiting in line at Trader Joe’s—about how to write a book.
Here is a summary of every conversation I’ve ever had with people about their books. The questions, worries, and hesitations that I’ve heard, most often—and my responses.
. . .
Q: I want to write a book. But I’m worried nobody will actually read it. What if I do all this hard work and then only five people read my book?
A: If that happens, then you will know that you created a positive ripple in five human being’s lives, and that’s a beautiful thing. If your book helps even just one human being to feel a little happier, calmer, stronger, encouraged, uplifted, entertained, inspired, or less alone in this crazy world, then, in my opinion, your book is a success. (Changing one human life is a big deal.)
. . .
Q: I want to write a book but I’m so busy (work, kids, dogs, ponies, iguanas, etc.) and I worry it’s going to take forever and ever.
A: If you have major time constraints, one option is…don’t write a long book. Write a tiny book instead. Think: 20, 30, maybe 40 or 50 pages on a topic that lights you up. A tiny book about meditation. A tiny book about surviving divorce. A tiny book filled with love messages for your children. Tiny books are beautiful. Tiny projects can make a big difference in people’s lives. Not every book needs to be War & Peace.
. . .
Q: I want to write a book, but I worry my message isn’t original enough. It’s all been said before. I’m not contributing anything new to the world.
A: There are certain timeless, universal messages that human beings need to hear again…and again…and again. These types of messages are not necessarily “new” or “original” and yet, we still need to hear them. Repeatedly.
For instance, this message: “Be kind to one another. Treat your brothers and sisters with respect and compassion.” Jesus delivered this message. So did Gandhi. So did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So did Mister Rogers. So does Ellen DeGeneres. So do thousands of other people throughout history and today. Same message—delivered by different people in different ways and different formats (books, speeches, TV shows, words and actions, too.)
If you feel like your message is not “new,” perhaps this is actually a very good thing. Perhaps it’s a sign you’ve tapped into one of those timeless messages that human beings have always needed to hear, and still do, and always will.
There are thousands of songs about falling in love. We still need more. There are thousands of songs about heartbreak. We still need more. There are thousands of books about how to lead a purposeful life. We still need more. There are thousands of essays about how one person’s choices can change the world. We still need more. Because we all bumble through life and we get distracted and we forget things we’ve heard before, things we know to be true. We need reminders from a variety of voices—from other people, and from you.
There’s always room for more art.
. . .
Q: I love writing, but I hate the marketing side of things. Ugh. When I think about promoting my book, my stomach feels gross and my chest feels tight and I can’t breathe.
A: One mental reframe that has changed my life is this idea: Marketing can feel like an art project. For instance, if you design a flyer about your book, that’s an art project, and that’s marketing. If you host a beautiful event at your favorite bookstore, with chocolate and music and interesting questions to spark a conversation amongst the attendees, that’s an art project, and that’s marketing. If you write an e-newsletter where you share a personal story that’s related to the theme of your book, that’s an art project, and that’s marketing. Marketing = Making Art. See? They’re even spelled almost identically.
. . .
Q: I want to write a book and I think I’d like to self-publish it. But I get so overwhelmed by the technical side of things. Design, layout, printing, etc. I’m not a techie person.
A: If you feel overwhelmed, ask, “What’s the simplest possible format for my book?” Maybe you could write a short book, go to your local Fedex Office store, talk to a helpful person there, and they can help you get 10 copies printed. Glossy cover. Spiral bound. Done. Start with that. Simple. No drama. Minimal expense.
Or Google “book printing and binding in Los Angeles” (or Tacoma, or Chicago, or Melbourne, or wherever you live) and you’ll see plenty of businesses that can help you get this thing done. You can walk into the store and say, “Please help me figure out how to print my book!” and a nice person will say, “Of course.”
. . .
Q: I’ve been wanting to write a book for a long time, but I am stuck. I can’t seem to get started (and/or, I can’t seem to finish).
A: Maybe, deep down, you don’t really want to write a book—and that’s completely okay. Maybe you’d be much happier doing something else—hosting a podcast, making a comic strip, re-painting your house, or throwing a dinner party and telling stories to your closest friends and making memories together.
Or maybe, deep down, you really do want to write a book, but you need something to get unstuck. Maybe you need a week of quiet time in a peaceful environment to work on your project without being interrupted every twenty minutes. Maybe you need a break from social media to clear your mind. Maybe you need a writing coach to lovingly prod you along. Maybe you need to change your book concept—make it simpler, smaller, tinier, less daunting to complete. Maybe you need a really strong cup of coffee and a pep talk from a friend and a desk with a view of the river. Maybe you need to trot over to your local public library, put on your headphones, hunker down for an afternoon, and just get the first page out. Maybe all of the above.
Ask your hut (heart + gut), “What do I need to get this project finished?” See what your hut says. Your hut always knows.
. . .
If you really yearn to write a book—any type of book, a book for your clients, a book for your family, perhaps a book for the whole wide world—I hope you will do it.
Keep it simple. Keep it short, if that feels more realistic and sane for you. Set a beautiful intention (“I hope this book creates a positive ripple effect in the world, big or small”) and let that intention carry you through to the finish line.
My dad is currently writing a mystery novel set inside an opera house. He has never written a novel before.
When I asked him, “Why are you writing this book?”
He said, simply, “Because I want to.”
Sometimes “Because I want to” is the only reason you need—and the best reason of all.
My younger sister Olivia, my dad, and I all went out for dinner in New York City.
I live in Hawaii (mostly) these days. Miss O is based in Colorado. Dad’s in California. It’s unusual that we’re together in the same location. I wanted to make the most of this rare, precious moment.
And so, we ordered whiskey and crusty bread and garlicky Brussels sprouts. Dad regaled us with stories about his favorite opera composers and their unbelievably scandalous lives. Olivia described her new apartment, which she can’t wait to move into, her favorite grad school courses, her hopes for the future.
I listened to my dad’s stories. I nodded when my sister spoke. I smiled when it was appropriate to smile. I politely thanked the waiter for each item. But, to be honest, I wasn’t completely in the room. My mind was only halfway present.
I was ruminating on…other things. Mainly, the heartbreak I experienced last year, which still hangs heavily over my body like a lead blanket of grief. Also, the deadlines looming. The new emails (that I haven’t answered yet) inquiring about the old emails (that I also haven’t answered yet). An internal clanging of loss and sorrow and unfinished to-do lists and self-created pressure.
While collecting our coats at the exit, the restaurant hostess smiled at me and said, “It’s wonderful that you got to have dinner with your dad tonight.”
“Yeah, uh huh, for sure,” I said, or something to that effect. Only half-listening. In a thick fog. Rummaging around in my bag for a stick of gum.
“My dad died last year,” the hostess added, very quietly. Her voice was so soft, nearly drowned out by the din of the bustling restaurant. “I miss him every day.”
I looked up, meeting her eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
I stepped outside and immediately linked elbows with my dad, holding him very, very close as we walked arm in arm back to the hotel.
Sometimes, I fall asleep in the middle of my own life. Until something, or someone, reminds me to wake up. Because all of this is temporary.
My friend Sherry once said to me, “I’ve often wondered, why do we wait until someone’s funeral to say how much we love them, how much we appreciate them, all the reasons why we adore them? Why don’t we say it now, to their face, while they’re alive? Why do we always wait until it’s too late?”
It’s a very good question.
. . .
If there’s something you want to do, do it now.
If there’s something you want to say, say it now.
If you’re reading this on a phone in your bed, put down your device and hold your partner instead.
The emails can wait.
One day, all of this ends.
But for now, here we are.
And today is not over yet.
It was the night of my sixteenth birthday. I was throwing myself a party. And I was terrified that nobody would show up.
I was a quiet, painfully shy teenager. During lunchtime at school, I’d make a beeline for the computer lab or the library rather than chatting with my classmates. Kids at school would often ask, “You’re new, right? When did you transfer here?” And then I would awkwardly explain, “No, actually, I’ve been at this school for two years just like you.” The part I wouldn’t say aloud: “It’s just that I’m really good at making myself invisible.”
But right before my sixteenth birthday, I became determined to make some new friends. I had recently taken a big leap out of my comfort zone—signing up for a theater class at school—so I invited a few of the “drama kids” to attend my birthday party.
I checked out a book from the library (written in the 1970s) with a title that was something like, How To Entertain Your Friends & Be The Hostess With The Mostess! Second Edition. The book suggested making three types of fondue—cheese, chocolate, and then, to really blow people’s minds, Japanese sukiyaki with slivers of meat—and that is exactly what I did. I labored for hours, creating an elaborate table with fondue, bread chunks, apple slices, baby tomatoes, raw meat and raw eggs for the sukiyaki, toothpicks, bubbling vats, and little handwritten signs indicating all the gourmet pleasures that awaited your tastebuds.
And then, as my various fondues simmered expectantly, I perched myself at the edge of my parents’ couch and I waited stiffly…staring at the doorway…hoping that someone would show up.
This was the pre-cellphone era, so nobody could text me to say, “I’m on my way” or “See you in five” or “Heart – shooting star – birthday cake emoji.” I had no idea if anyone would come. So I just sat there, in that empty room, listening to the clock tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Each tick, a little needle-jab in my heart.
Fiiiiiiiiiiinally, there it was—the blessed sound of a car pulling into the driveway. Feet on the gravel. The doorbell. I leapt to my feet.
The first person to arrive was Heléne, an incredible singer, like a tiny blonde Aretha Franklin. She took one look at my fondue table, laughed hysterically, and then hugged me. “You made all that? You are adorable,” she declared. (She would soon become one of my closest friends.)
Gradually, a few more people arrived. Ethan. Kendall. Dylan from down the road. To my great surprise, there was very little interest in my international fondue table, but people found a bag of potato chips in the kitchen and plopped onto the ground, forming a semi-circle on the rug. Pretty soon, a rousing game of Truth or Dare was in progress.
And then it happened.
My secret crush, Gus—the real reason I’d wanted to throw this party in the first place—arrived. He had curly brown hair and was wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt, a leather jacket, and cargo shorts, which may sound like a strange combination but let me tell you, this look was working for me. He smiled and said “happy birthday,” and I melted into a puddle of fondue-goo. Gus joined the game of Truth or Dare. The next several hours passed in a happy blur.
Later, as things were winding down for the night, Gus asked if we could go somewhere “a little more private.” We went into the spare room that my dad used as his office, and then—right by my dad’s combination fax + Xerox machine—Gus said:
“I was kinda disappointed that nobody dared me to kiss you.”
(Me, internal dialogue: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
And then he said, “Is it okay if I do that…now?”
(Me, again: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
I got my first kiss on the night of my sixteenth birthday.
It was sweet and precious and perfect in every way—one of my favorite memories of all time.
The whole moment almost didn’t happen…because I almost didn’t throw that party…because I was so nervous that nobody would show up.
“But what if nobody shows up?” is an intensely paralyzing fear. It grips your throat and tightens your stomach and blocks you from sending important emails and starting new projects and taking new risks. It’s a fear I’ve felt so many times throughout my life, in various ways.
“What if nobody hires me?”
“What if nobody buys my book?”
“What if nobody registers for my workshop?”
“What if people do register, but then everyone flakes out at the last second and no one actually comes to the event?”
“What if, even worse, only one person shows up—and then it’s one solitary person and me, looking like a pathetic loser?”
“What if I spend all this money buying various types of cheese and then nobody shows up for my party?”
The underlying fear is: “What if I take a risk and it doesn’t immediately ‘pay off’ in the way that I envision?”
Let’s assume nobody shows up. So what? What does that actually mean? What’s the absolute worst that could happen?
The worst that could happen is you eat some cheese by yourself, alone in a quiet room, and you read your favorite book, and have a nice peaceful evening. Is that really so awful?
The worst that could happen is people don’t hire you and then you re-write the program description on your website and later, you try again. Is that so horrendous?
The worst that could happen is you run short on money and you have to get a part-time job to help fund your dream, or apply for a loan or a scholarship or a grant…or you wind up with extra tickets that you can give away to friends and family…or you find yourself with extra copies of your book that nobody bought so you donate them to libraries and schools…or you wind up with some extra cake that nobody ate so you share it with your neighbors. None of these situations are fatal.
The worst case scenario is usually not that bad.
The best case scenario is you get to make art, make money, make new friends, make memories, or even make-out with your crush by the Xerox machine.
Throw the party.
People might show up, or not. Things might go exactly as planned, or not.
Either way, you’re going to survive. Either way, it’s going to be a beautiful night. Either way, you can feel proud of yourself for taking a brave step. Either way, it’s a move in the right direction.
Either way, you win.
I know a woman named Christina. She married a wonderful man, earned several university degrees, and built a satisfying career. The present was joyful and bright–and the future, even brighter.
Then one day, a blade fell and sliced her world into hideous ribbons. Her husband Bjarne. Cancer. Stage four. He died at age thirty-five, leaving Christina a widow with two young children at home.
After this horrific loss, Christina felt imprisoned inside “the waiting room of grief,” as she calls it. That limbo space where your old life is over but your new life hasn’t begun. You’re not dead. You’re not alive. You’re not here. You’re not there. You’re in between two worlds, feeling unable to move forward, up, down, anywhere. Paralyzed. Numb.
“Just give it time,” Christina’s well-intentioned friends and colleagues told her repeatedly. “Time heals everything. You’ll see.”
Years passed. Many birthdays and parent-teacher meetings and winter holidays. A great deal of time. But Christina didn’t feel like she was healing–at least, not fully. Yes, she was functioning. She had a consistent routine. Kids were being fed. Bills were being paid. But she didn’t feel alive. The house was still standing, miraculously, but the lights were shut off.
She waited and waited and waited. Waiting for time to work its healing magic. Then one day, while researching neuroplasticity–the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and adapt to new situations–Christina had an epiphany: You don’t build a new brain–or a new life–just by giving it time. Time is not enough. You also need action.
Action. Movement. Forward momentum. Even the smallest step–taking a breath, opening the window to let in some fresh air, trying on a new shirt, checking out a new book from the library–begins to reshape the architecture of your mind.
Action is the medicine that brings you back to life.
Surviving the biggest heartbreak of my life has required…a lot of action. For me, the action plan includes a weekly appointment with my therapist. And also, plunging into the ocean and screaming underwater like a battle-mermaid, and painting, and talking to my parents on the phone about everything and nothing, and yoga like never before, and writing things down and burning the paper, and praying and meditating and chanting, and ho’oponopono, and finding “that one song” that somehow encapsulates everything and blasting it at a spine-shuddering volume, and going to an empty studio at night and dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing, and glowing in the dark, and running until my legs are wobbling, and watching the eclipse, and selling the house that B and I bought together, and buying all new underwear and other things, and writing the phrase “You’re doing a great job” at the top of my checklist every single damn day just to remind myself…I am.
All of these actions, and thousands more, create little splinters in the ceiling of the waiting room. Cracks of gold. Light pours in. First, just the tiniest sliver. Almost imperceptible. Then it widens. Then more.
Six months ago, I called my older brother and–through choking, hysterical sobs–I told him I was going to be celibate for ten years, minimum, and that I could never love again, never trust again, never believe anyone’s promises ever again, and everything I used to believe is dead, etc. He told me, “You feel like that now but you won’t forever, I promise.”
I told him he was wrong. He said I owed him a dozen of his favorite bagels from a special bakery in Montreal, shipped to his home, once I realized he was right. I told him, “You’re never getting those bagels.” He said, “We’ll see.” I told him my heart will never be the same. He said, “You’re right. Things will never be the same. But that’s a good thing.”
Beyond the waiting room is a strange and beautiful new world. I feel myself moving closer to it. Today’s actions compounding upon yesterday’s actions–actions laying new pathways in my brain. New energy. New dreams. New hope. Maybe one day, even bagels.
You live inside the waiting room until one day, you don’t.
Everything feels impossible until one day, it’s not.