One writer tries to find the best way to cope with loss, pain, and confusion.
I’ve always liked the beginnings of things: essays, relationships, nights out, apartments. There’s a cleanness to openings, before the muck of plot seeps in. Blame it on optimism, but I prefer first dates to second ones, and I’d rather linger at the pregame. Worst of all, I am impossibly precious about first lines.
Here lies the problem with writing about a breakup, though: You begin with the epilogue, and you track backwards.
The March before last, while I faced the dissolution of a four-year relationship, I found myself clinging to the notion that I’d write my way out of the emotional trenches that awaited me. That I’d lend some logic to my formless, fluid sadness by putting it down on paper. It would be productive, even.
What I didn’t account for, though, was the largeness of the loss itself. I’d imagined our breakup on countless occasions and I armored myself as best as I could against the depressive pitfall. My theorizing did little to prepare me for the ways it would hurt; for the full-body sting; for how few words we have to explain “heartbreak,” a noun I never liked in the first place.
Sure, I knew all along that breakups were survivable; the world is riddled with case studies proving as much. That didn’t change the heaviness of feeling around in a vacant space previously occupied by another body. “I know this is a long-term kind of hurt,” I texted a friend the day we broke up. “But in the meanwhile, what do I do with my hands??”
Nearly every day, I tried to write. I gave myself deadlines and kept my fingers occupied. Regardless of my discipline, prose arrived in jilted fragments. Bits and pieces, sans cohesion. My entries were dated, and unwittingly, I wrote them all in the second person, as if writing as the “you” could take me away from myself; as if abandoning the “I” might make poetic what felt more like injury.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that my intentions—at least, in part—lay in making my misery valuable. If a breakup had to hurt that much, I wanted a payoff. I thought the dull ache might be worthwhile if I could write sentences that bent with the gravity of my angst. Much to my chagrin, though, some 60 pages of stilted drafting later, the absurdity of that project became disdainfully clear: My sadness was not transactional. No matter how much prose I coughed up, my grief couldn’t be exchanged for some shinier currency.
I never wrote about my ex–let’s call him Max–while we were together. For as long as I could remember, I’d been inclined to believe that self-respecting writers avoided the subject of love like the plague. Unless, of course, they had something good and tragic to say about it.
My reluctance wasn’t just an aversion to clichés. It was wrapped up in the futility of the endeavor. Everything I’d ever read about falling in love didn’t prepare me for what it felt like to be submerged in that experience. It sated me in ways that resisted language. I no longer needed grammatical crutches to make sense of the world. In fact, I had no interest in making sense of it, for fear of poking holes. For fear of deflating it—this thing that made me feel like I was filled with helium in lieu of plain-old organs.
It was only after he was gone that I could write about him. The sensation had cleared and I was left with debris: birthday cards, razors, unresolved arguments, clothing we still have to return to one another. In some ways, it was a lingering. If I could explain to myself, in prose, what the static between us had been made of then he wouldn’t be gone just yet.
In any case that breed of self-torture grew tired. I had nothing novel or interesting to say about my despair except that it was plain and ever-droning. So I started to write about other things, instead: About the diner on Dekalb, about recycling, about riding my bike at night. I kept my hands busy; I took notes. But I didn’t write about us.
Nearly a year after our breakup, a book arrived in the mail from a former college professor of mine. Mintz, we’d called her.
She’d been my academic mentor, and in English classrooms, she’d ladled out praise, advice, critiques in careful doses along the margins of my drafts. I can still recall, verbatim, notes of hers that knocked me sideways. She taught me what “literary nonfiction” looked like, introduced me to novels and essays that changed my chemical makeup. I would’ve licked a subway pole if she’d told me it would make me a better writer, a better person. Or perhaps, just that it would amuse her.
The book was an essay collection about Milton that she’d written. It was about teaching. But it wasn’t really about either of those things: It was about separating from her husband, the pain of it, and her experience making sense of loss in a classroom where she was parsing through Paradise Lost with her students. And if I was looking for proof that a “breakup novel” could be inventive and poetic, and kind, this was it.
“I was writing the story [of our separation] as it happened,” I underlined, twice, in the first essay of the collection. “And that was a way of embedding meaning into something that felt intolerable.”
Six months later, this past December, I finished drafting a “breakup text” of my own. A short story, told in vignettes, each of them focused on clothing: “Here is what you wear to fall in love, what you wear to dinner, to leave him, to write it all down.”
In truth, the final piece skews more autofiction than personal essay; the occasional real detail traded in for a building block of narrative momentum. I gave plot to what felt, at times, plot-less and grossly human. But there was pleasure in that. In revising on paper what I could no longer amend in real life.
I’ll admit, finishing the story did not give meaning to an otherwise impenetrable experience. There was no beam of light, no gorgeous rebound. I never pawned off my heartbreak, never earned anything shiny in return. At some point, it did serve as comforting proof that the end was small, held up against the beginning. Against the middle. Smaller, still, than whatever would come next.
My recovery demanded other ingredients, too: a heavy dose of reflection, a dash of therapy, countless tear-sodden conversations with friends. Months of diffusing. More gin martinis than I care to admit. It happened so slowly that I hardly noticed. Then one day, lo and behold, I made it to lunchtime without thinking about Max once. Which was to say, I’d survived. I could see the light.
We don’t have a grieving ritual for breakups. In the aftermath of a separation, there’s no funeral march, no memorial service, no birthday cake, or ball-drop. Part of the frustration that came with finding myself dismantled by the end of a relationship, was in learning that we don’t have a proper place for that genre of loss. It hurt in ways that were deafening; that were garden variety; that were hopelessly cliché. Mostly, though, it just hurt.
Mintz writes about this, too: “The ceremonies of death, whatever we believe about ushering the departed toward an afterlife, primarily aid the living,” she says. “They corral the chaos of grieving, distract us in the near term. But the end of a relationship has no such dignifying formality.”
This was my grieving ritual, my way of corralling the chaos. Every day, I wrote. Every day, I salted old wounds, picked at scabs, dissolved myself into reels of memory that made the act of missing him feel like a physical blow. I lifted out little splinters of memorabilia and admired them: the ways they’d inhabited me, and us, while we were young, and stretchy, and unforgivably malleable. Mostly, though, I gave myself something to do with my hands.
Photos: Courtesy of Eliza Dumais
Want more stories like this?