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How to help a friend through a break up without being a cunt

By Sarah Robinson on July 19, 2018

Being in the presence of a grieving friend is a privilege – another human being trusts you to see them at their most vulnerable, and that is undoubtedly a beautiful thing.

It can also be uncomfortable, challenging and really fucking hard.

Not being able to take their pain away sucks so much balls. On top of this, some of your own pain can surface too.

Then there’s that thing of not knowing what to do.

I think sometimes, people avoid those who are grieving because they don’t know how to support them.

I remember when a close friend’s mother died; I simply didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t that I didn’t love her; I just didn’t know how to make her feel better.

I didn’t realise that wasn’t my job.

What was my job? Nothing.

Well, sort of nothing. My job was only to be there for her, in the presence of her pain – not to make it go away.

As humans, it’s so tempting to want to fix things for the people we love.

We do it because we want them to feel better. We do it because we don’t want our loved ones to suffer.

But, if someone is grieving, they probably need to be. The University of Washington says it better than me:

Grieving such losses [including breakups] is important because it allows us to ‘free-up’ energy that is bound to the lost person, object, or experience—so that we might re-invest that energy elsewhere. Until we grieve effectively we are likely to find reinvesting difficult; a part of us remains tied to the past.

Your body is smart AF

Yep, the human skin and guts you inhabit are smarter than you know.

When I was younger and cuter, instead of feeling my grief, I’d numb the pain by eating a bunch of food and vomiting it up after.

But, the grief found a way – usually at night when I couldn’t distract myself anymore. I’d drink too much and cry and cry. At the time, I didn’t know why this happened.

It’s just so obvious now.

Some people eat. Some stay busy, work or thrash video games. There are plenty of ways to numb your pain.

Eventually though, grief and pain finds a way to be felt, because, well, it damn well needs to.

Of course, it doesn’t all happen at once. Grief doesn’t give a fuck that it’s been 3 years since your break up.

It’ll crop up in the tampon aisle of the super market, when the cunts at Woolworths play that song you both danced around to.

Whenever it comes out, know that it needs to happen. By feeling it, you are healing, which is exactly what your body needs.

This is why trying to fix or fast track someone’s pain is not actually possible. In fact, offering advice can make a grieving person feel much worse.

Being there for your friend, without offering solutions or silver linings, is all you really need to do.

Don’t get me wrong; this is fucking hard.

Being next to someone while they cry, or sit and stare into space, or hurl insults about their ex, is not an easy thing to do.

But, it needs to come out, so let it.

So I just sit there?

Just. Fucking. Sit there. Ultimately, all a grieving human wants is to feel understood and safe.

I’ve said this a whole bunch of times, but when we lose a loved one, MRI studies show pain receptors in the brain are activated.

Yep, break ups hurt because they physically fucking hurt. Hannah Waters of Scientific American writes:

As anyone who ever had separation anxiety as a kid — or who lost track of their parents at the beach — knows, our bodies produce stress hormones when we’re separated from our parents, and the only way for those bad feelings to go away is to come together again.

This biological reaction to separation keeps us together because staying together provides an evolutionary benefit. Kids and their parents — the core relationship evolutionarily — rely on one another for protection and genetic proliferation respectively, and so being drawn together and kept together is advantageous.

Why no silver linings?

One of the most frustrating things I experienced during my breakup was well-meaning people who offered ‘silver linings’.

I have done this to people too, so I’m not saying you’re a dickhead if you’re guilty of it. You (and me) just didn’t get the impact.

Ultimately we just wanted our mate to feel better, but by telling them why it’s not so bad, we unwittingly invalidate their feelings.

I’m talking about saying shit like, ‘at least you didn’t have kids’, or, ‘at least you were only with him for 6-months.’ 

It doesn’t help because our friend knows all this stuff already. And, highlighting it just makes them feel misunderstood and frustrated.

They may ask themselves, ‘if it’s not so bad, why am I feeling like absolute shit? Maybe there is something wrong with me?’

There is nothing wrong with them. The pain hurts because it hurts. Don’t minimise it.

So, what the fuck do you say?

Anything from a place of love and understanding.

  • If the person is crying, be there next to them, or on the phone, and give them space to let it out.
  • If you need to speak, tell them you’re sorry this is happening to them. Tell them you know it fucking sucks.
  • You don’t have to be there in person if you can’t be. A daily message saying you’re thinking of them means more than you know.
  • Even though we have all felt grief, no one truly gets the depth or nuance of someone else’s. Consider acknowledging this.
  • Don’t offer silver linings. If the sentence starts with, ‘at least,’ don’t say it.

Magic pills

I often wish I could give my grieving friends a pill to take the pain away. Most of the time I tell them this, because acknowledging my desire to ‘fix’ them makes it easier for me to sit back and not do it.

I also know, deep down, that after this intense grieving period, they will emerge stronger and more empowered than ever before. It’s a matter of time, even if they cannot see that right now.

After my relationship of 9 years ended, I wailed on the street like a banshee. My friends and family watched on, allowing me room to express my pain.

It probably sucked for them, but I am forever grateful for the love and understanding they showed me.

I look back now and think how fucking badass that raw emotion was. We walk around all day trying to look like we have it together, and then a break up happens and we’re raw AF.

There is so much beauty in this, even though it feels so far from that at the time.

Actual stuff you can do

Okay, even though I told you to do nothing, there are tangible things you can do to support a grieving human in their day-to-day life.

Post-break up friends are terrible at existing. They tend not to shower or eat, and they’re dental hygiene hits an all-time low.

If they’re neglecting the daily requirements of being alive, put your teacher voice on (be the nice one, not that bitch year 9 teacher), and tell them to wash.

These small things are huge to someone in survival mode. Other seemingly small but big things to do are:

  • Watch a movie with them. Not a romantic comedy, for fuck’s sake. (Although some sadists don’t mind them.)
  • Play music, but nothing that could trigger them. My friend played a lot of Britney Spears for me since there were no connotations.
  • Check in on them. If you can’t do a phone call, message to say you are thinking of them. A message is huge.
  • Bring them a coffee or flowers or something cool. Show them love.
  • If they don’t have a dog, visit with yours. Dogs make people happy(er), and they usually know when someone is down and work harder. (Bless their four cotton socks.)
  • Bring take out. Even if they don’t eat it, put it in the fridge because they will, at some point, eat it.
  • Don’t stop sharing about your own life. In the peak of my grief I helped another friend going through bad shit, I didn’t do a lot, but it reminded me I had purpose. Try not to censor yourself too much.
  • Ask them if they have seen their therapist and psychiatrist (if they have those). It’s vital they check in with these support givers, even if they don’t feel like it. Offer to make the appointment and drive them.
  • Sometimes, we don’t want to tell others about our break up, because it is too painful. If you believe certain mutual friends should know, tell them and ask those friends to reach out.

** This last point is a bit contentious, but I believe that grieving people don’t always know how to advocate for themselves. So use your good judgment on this.

Ask them what they need

When a person is in the midst of a melt down, whether it’s because of grief or something else, it’s the worst time to ask them what they need.

When I’m upset I say I am fine. I’m. Not. Fine. I have another friend who lashes out, even though her heart is pure gold.

In full-grief mode, your rational friend is no longer in control. It’s some version of an upset little child who needs a whole lot of love.

This is why it’s worth asking your friend what they need when they’re in a calm state of mind. Then, support them in the way they have asked when shit gets real.

What you said

I asked the legends on the Fuck off and die Facebook page what makes them feel better when they are going through a breakup.

No names have been used, and I asked permission before publishing these comments, because the Facebook page is a safe place for sharing.

Here is what they said.

Carers, take care of you too

It is so important to take care of yourself when supporting a friend through a break up.

If you’re feeling drained, take time out from supporting your friend. This is totally okay!

If you’re worried your friend can’t be alone, reach out to other people who care about them (even if you don’t know them, they will usually respond and help because you share a mutual love).

If you can’t be with your friend physically, a message or phone call is great too – just do what you can.

If you are not in working order, you are of no use to your grieving friend. So stay in touch with your body and what it needs.

You got this.

Love Sarah xox


art by Jade Foo

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