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What I Learned from Sara

Two years ago today, I woke up on a friend's couch in NJ and received the text that no one wants to receive. It was my friend Sara's daughter, Cami. She was telling me that Sara had passed away.

Two years later, I feel angry. I know enough from therapy to know that anger isn't a feeling, it's a response to a feeling. So what am I really feeling? I'm feeling frustrated. I'm frustrated that I didn't listen to Sara sooner. She told me that I was amazing and special and deserved a ton of love, support and acceptance and for some frustrating reason, I didn't listen to her. It might have been because it was a lesson she was teaching me, as she was learning it herself.

See, when I met Sara, she and I were in relationships with people who didn't really love us. We didn't see it at the time but we were both settling for people who were sort of along for the ride, but not really invested in the long-term--especially when our lives took a challenging turn. Her journey battling cancer was just beginning and I would soon start my gender transition process. We would spend a lot of time talking about our relationships at work, and she kept telling me that the beginning of a relationship should be fun and exciting--that I should feel chosen and wanted and cherished and loved. Those were the feelings I had at that job and around her and with other people, but not with the person I had chosen as a partner.

It frustrates me now that I that I didn't see what was so obvious. Life is like that, right?

Sara's relationship was similar. She fell for someone who was attractive to her for a few reasons, but didn't really provide what she needed. At the end of her life she woke up to this, and drew boundaries that deeply inspired me. It's like she suddenly got it, and I'm so proud of her for going out strong.

For Christmas one year, she gave me this plaque to hang on my wall. And now it's hanging right by my front door, so I'm constantly reminded not only of her love for me, but the truth of what it says.

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More than any work we do, the relationships in our lives are incredibly important. How we treat people is a mark of our character. Our ability to love, respect and support other people, especially during difficult times in their lives, is a testament to how much we love, respect and support ourselves. We may not always get it right, but the most important thing we can do is be responsible for our shortcomings and ask how to make it better. We can apologize from our heart, not from our bruised egos.

Whether it's a primary partner, a family member or a friend, this is what we can strive for in our relationships.

We CAN do this, if we CHOOSE to do it. It may require some additional outside resources and some deep digging into our own issues and blocks, but we always have the choice. And if someone isn't willing or able to give us what we want to give in return, it is better that they leave our lives.

For a long time, I felt guilty that I hid from Sara's love and didn't show up the way I could have in the last year of her life. She speaks to me through her beautiful daughter Cami, who is patient and gentle with me, just like her mother was. She absolves me of my guilt and reminds me that Sara knew how much I loved her. I feel so grateful that I get to love Sara even more now, through my relationships with her incredible family.

And while I should have listened to her sooner, I know Sara is fist-pumping for me somewhere when I summon the courage to draw a boundary like she did. I feel her on my shoulder and listen to her voice in my ear anytime I experience any less than the love she gave me and told me I deserved.

How To Heal a Broken Heart

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Sometimes, loving means losing.

If you aren’t waking up in partnered bliss (or something close to it) this morning, here are some words to perhaps comfort you. Whether you’re single and alone by choice, chance or due to a recent death of a beloved partner, you may find yourself catching your breath a few times today—and maybe shedding a tear or two for memories or dashed hopes.

For me, the sadness of missing a certain someone hurts more than the fear of being alone without a Valentine. I don’t want a placeholder as much as I miss the heart, mind and spirit of a beloved person I held dear.

Having loved and lost more than once in my life, here is my best advice to heal a broken heart.

1)   Grieve it

Whether it happened on purpose, by accident or because a life ended, it’s an ending. It’s a loss and losses aren’t easy for us humans. Some are more welcome than others, especially if we made the choice to end the relationship. But if you find yourself not exactly leaping for joy and dancing in the streets, I recommend you spend significant time grieving the loss you’ve experienced. Many people, if not most, often jump to the next thing: the next person, the next job, the next topic of conversation. They push down or avoid the feelings about the loss or absence or the way things ended. It’s hard, painful stuff and many people find it easier to numb out and “move on” by compartmentalizing and avoiding the grieving process. But I don’t recommend this. It catches up to you, eventually. I recommend you do and do it good. Go through the pictures. Thumb through the hand-written notes. Remind yourself of what you valued and treasured about that person. And hold it alongside the truth of what hurt or didn’t feel right and good for you. A healthy grieving process will earn you years of authentic healing and solace in the long-term. You’ll be able to make real peace with what happened, whatever it was.

2)   Consider your part

If the ending or loss happened despite your best efforts, it’s really easy to blame or shame the other person. This feels good in the short-term but rarely does anything to really help us build character. Having done this myself in relationships and jobs, I know how tempting it is to nurture the victim part of us that wants to feel wronged or hurt, abandoned or rejected. We want the other side to hurt too, dammit! This is natural because we are human, but it won’t help you truly forgive and forget. It also increases the chances that we will perpetuate our contribution, whatever it was, in the next situation. Sometimes, we do this to preserve our sense of self, and we can miss seeing something that would be good to know about ourselves. If you consider and fully contemplate whatever your part was, you’re one step closer to being part of the solution and prevention of it repeating itself again in your life. Or you might get insight you never had before and you can see the other person in a totally different light. Which is a good thing-for you and other people in your life.

3) Say what you need to say

A lot of people are really bad listeners. Don’t talk to those people. They are often too self-absorbed and caught up in their own lives to pay attention to what you’re saying. Chances are, they haven’t fully grieved losses in their own lives and they won’t bear witness to your process in a way that really helps you. Find people who don’t say cliche things like, “he/she is resting in peace” or “sorry it didn’t work out” or “it wasn’t meant to be.” You have a broken heart! It hurts! Platitudes don’t honor the deeply-rooted and real feelings you’re experiencing. Talk to a professional and/or compassionate friends who make you feel heard and supported in your process, however long it takes. If it is safe or welcomed, express anything that remains for you to the other person. Or write a letter or email and delete it. Over and over again. Until it’s all out. When you can safely process all the feelings you have about the complexity of the loss and its impact on your past, present and future, you increase your chances of healing sooner and more completely.

4)   Practice forgiveness

Whatever happened, happened for a good reason. Sometimes it takes us months or years to fully understand and appreciate this, but having experienced tremendous heartbreak numerous times, I can tell you that with every fiber of my being. If the person left or died suddenly, forgive the abrupt ending. Is it harder or easier for you to forgive someone who has passed on? Or how about someone who is still alive but out of contact? Don’t try to see the meaning right away, it may not be apparent. But you can practice forgiving yourself and the other party for whatever shortcomings or shortsightedness led to the loss. People do and say things coming from their given capacity at the time, and it is unfortunate and frustrating when the needs, interests and abilities of each partner don’t match up. Consider what you did and didn’t do or say that worked or didn’t work. Give yourself a break, because you probably did what you could—or wanted to do—at the time.

5) Practice platonic love

I’m assuming you have at least one if not MANY people in your life. And I bet you love them all a lot. Spend the day calling them or emailing them or texting heart emojis. Tell your kids, tell your parents, siblings and friends about your gratitude for them. Hug them. Make Valentine’s Day cards for your plants who selflessly receive your carbon dioxide and give out oxygen day in and day out. Send love to strangers on the street or in countries far away. Within minutes of doing this, you’ll realize that time spent mourning the loss of one person, however significant that person was, is time you can also invest in other relationships in your life. You could probably spend the day making cards for everyone you’ve ever loved in your life and not finish before it’s time to go to bed.

If you do all these things, I hope you find and feel more peace than you did when you began reading this article. Perhaps it revealed something new for you and can help you reach a different stage of your healing process.

For more information, read up on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her theory about the stages of grief. You can find where you are in your process and remember how many people share your feelings around the world. Know that time, will indeed, heal your heart if you help it along just a bit.