One of the most difficult parts of breaking up- whether we’re talking a run-of-the-mill breakup or a divorce- is dealing with the grief we have about the future we planned that never will be. It’s an aspect of loss that’s rarely talked about, but it’s no less relevant that missing someone’s physical presence. In fact, I have found that grieving over a lost future can be much more difficult in some ways than just grieving over the lost relationship.
I’ve had my share of grieving over futures lost. Sometimes I feel like I’ve had more than my share. I’ve already survived a divorce. Since that time, I’ve gotten through one unrequited love affair that ended without closure and another love affair that finished abruptly. In all 3 situations, I had to deal with my feelings about a future that would never happen. I had to let go of the idea of growing old with the person I married. In the unrequited love affair, I had to release my fantasy ideas of what a relationship with him might have looked like had he chosen me. With the most recent breakup, I’ve had to deal with the loss of a future that we planned together over almost a year.
Part of the grief over the lost future contains an element of fear and uncertainty. If this future we were so sure we were going to have isn’t going to happen after all, what will our futures look like? It can be intimidating. All of a sudden, time stretches ahead of us without a plan. What will we do? Who will we be without this relationship? What will enter all of this empty space in our lives? We struggle with these questions and with the loss of a planned future all the while dealing with the ordinary but excruciatingly painful aspects of separating ourselves from another person.
But life goes on. The world certainly doesn’t stop spinning to give us time to wrap our heads around the latest plot twist in our lives. As much as we’d like to pull the covers over our heads and just feel the things we’re feeling, we can’t. We have lives to live and bills to pay. And while we’re working and raising our kids and living our lives, we’re often haunted by all the futures that we thought were meant for us. It’s like a film reel still rolling in our heads with all of those images of what the future might have been while we struggle with the reality of our every day lives.
What I’ve found interesting is that the grief can hit me when I least expect it. I can see a photograph of a bride and feel the loss of the marriage that I had and the one that would never be. I can scroll through my social media feed and see travel images and remember that all my future travel will be without this partner or that one. My whole life begins to take a new shape, and while that shape may be even better than the ones I had imagined, it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the loss of the others. And we’re entitled to feel that loss.
It’s no less real because it’s of a future that didn’t happen. There’s no law in existence that says we can’t grieve a thing that didn’t come to be. In fact, sometimes it feels worse because those beautiful lives we planned don’t even leave us with memories of actual experiences. Instead, we only have the fleeting remembrance of plans we made that never happened for us.
So now we learn to live with it. We learn to take those empty spaces in our lives and allow them to be filled. We don’t have to plug another person or even a new hobby into those spaces. Instead, we can be open to what the Universe has in store for us. We can let those spaces breathe. We can begin to open ourselves to the possibilities. But how? How can we learn to live with the future that will never be?
We can ask ourselves some important questions.
What do we really want our lives to look like? How can we live out these dreams in some way each day? For me, on the heels of my breakup, I re-evaluated my life and decided that I had some interests that I’d like to pursue in addition to the dreams I had for myself. I began to use Duolingo to learn Italian every day. I also made a new bucket list and evaluated the steps I was taking for my writing career. I made sure that every day I would be doing something to future these new plans. I began to fully invest in a new future, just as I once had with the old one that won’t happen.
We can spend a few minutes each day imagining that the things we dream will actually happen.
In the wake of heartache, this may seem particularly tough to do. Why would we want to imagine another dream that could be taken away from us? It’s important that we visualize what we want from our lives so that we can start to believe in it. When we believe, we’ll begin to do the things we need to do for our lives to align with these dreams. But the very first step is imagining, even for 5 minutes each day, what our lives would look like if our dreams were a reality.
We can excavate those old dreams for the memories that comfort us rather than hurt us.
This one is the primary challenge for me. When a relationship ends or a dream dies, it’s hard for me to take the positive out of the experience and hold on to it. I simply want to forget. But that’s not what’s best for me. Or for you, I’d imagine. Instead, we need to mine our own experiences for the lessons and for the memories that we can take with us. Those futures won’t happen now, but that doesn’t mean we wasted our time. It doesn’t mean that the memories we made while planning those lives are unimportant. We need to find a way to make peace with the end of those plans and still accept the good in the memories we did make along the way.
We can open ourselves up to the possibilities by finding a way to step outside of our comfort zones.
This is probably the last thing we’ll want to do when recovering from a heartache. I get it. I really do. But we need to push ourselves to try something new. It might be a new food or a hobby we’ve always wanted to try out. For me, it was signing up for my first half marathon. I was a runner in school, but that was some time ago. I was a fairly sedentary adult for many years, and then I began to train toward a 5k. I thought that was all I was capable of, to be honest. But last month, I started training for a half marathon, and I’m already up to 10 miles at a time. It shocked the hell out of me, but I often find that we are all more capable than we imagine.
Sometimes, we just have to find the right motivation to try. Maybe running isn’t your thing, but there are so many options available. An art class. Scuba diving. Flight lessons. Sky diving. Archery. Calligraphy. Learning to crochet. Whatever random thing calls to us that sits firmly outside of our comfort zone. It’s time to give it a try.
Slowly, our lives begin to take on those new shapes, and we begin to feel less like we’re being haunted by what never will be. One lucky day, we might even let go of those ideas to hold on to something new. A bucket list. A goal we want to achieve. A new dream. We realize that the future stretching before us isn’t empty. Even if it feels that way. Instead, it’s filled with wonder and possibility and potential. We need only open ourselves up to it and to remember that the future that didn’t happen doesn’t erase the one that’s meant for us.