How Loss and Grief Can Foster Empathy and Connection7 min read

by Darcie
girl hiking mount batur bali

What is Grief?

When I Googled “grief,” I found this definition: “deep sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death.” I think it’s common to associate grief with the death of a loved one.

But I have found that grief can occur in other situations, like when someone leaves your life by choice. There is no doubt that that is a loss, which results in deep sorrow, or grief.

My Experience with Loss and Grief

I experienced loss and then grief when a boyfriend and I broke up three and a half years ago. One thing I’ve realized about myself is that I struggle to let go of people who impacted my life in a lasting way.

This man was one of them.

There were many reasons why he impacted my life. It started with the fact that he was my first real, official relationship. He was the first person I fell in love with and said “I love you” to. Anyone will tell you that first loves are powerful and they stick with you.

We also shared many comment interests like playing and watching tennis, a passion for travel, a desire to better ourselves and support each other in that endeavor, and positive, forward-thinking personalities.

We both come from financially stable families who own their own businesses. We are driven, go-getters, and are always looking for the next thing to move us forward.

Based on these commonalities, we dated for three year and a half years and discussed getting engaged. We had created a vision for the future in which we merged our individual desires to create a joint life plan. I was excited for what was to come.

Yet, on the brink of the proposal, certain desires for the future shifted, which led to a devastating time of confusion, fear, sadness, betrayal, and, eventually, loss. Out of respect for his privacy, I won’t go into detail, nor do I think it’s relevant for this article.

After three months of back and forth, pushing and pulling, promises, broken promises, and even more confusion, I ended the relationship.

Sadly, he seemed relieved.

The very next day, I booked a one-way ticket to Bali. I had dreamed of going to Bali since 2008 when I met someone in Nicaragua who gushed about the magic of the island. As strange as it is to say, I always had a feeling that I would someday go there alone.

And that’s what happened.

Emotional Effects of Loss

On March 16, 2015, I flew to Bali, where I stayed for three months. And it was indeed magical.

blonde girl in rice field ubud

But not because I suddenly felt better. In fact, I largely felt awful the entire time. It didn’t help that my ex chose to email me the day I left, penning a long letter about how he felt a “strange and unfamiliar sense of liberty” following our break-up, and that he hoped I’d find what I was looking for on my “adventure.” This letter added to my devastation and caused more rumination about the demise of a relationship I had thought would last forever.

He also called me three times while I was at the airport. I ignored all of the calls. I turned off my phone and got on the plane. No looking back.

I kept a journal while I was in Bali. A theme of numbness and feelings of unreality permeates my words. If you are familiar with the five stages of grief, you know that the first stage is denial.

I was definitely in denial.

It is so unbelievably jarring to one day be taking steps forward with a clear direction, and then next for that vision to be shattered.

Morning and night were the times when I felt most alone. I would ruminate and dwell on what happened, things we said to each other, trying to make sense of it all.

blonde girl lotus temple ubud

I felt like I was living a dream.

blonde girl sunset bali

I suppose being in Bali added to the feelings of unreality.

Even when I made friends,

blonde and redhead sunset bali

and even started seeing another traveler who was in Bali for work, I still felt like a dull gray version of my normally full-color self. I can’t imagine that I was interesting or that I was a person someone else would want to be around.

Instead of being vibrant, I felt jaded.

I want to say that when I left Bali on June 23, 2015 that I was healed.

girl in pool uluwatu bali

But that would be a lie. I did feel better, but once I got home, I had to adjust to the triggers of my relationship with him that were right where I had left them.

In the past three and a half years since the relationship ended, I have found peace with its ending. I can look back on the good times with fondness and reflect on the not-so-good times with acceptance.

I learned so much about myself during that relationship, and I am grateful that its ending led me to Bali where I proved to myself that I am so much stronger and more independent than I ever knew.

Grief As a Tool for Connection

This experience gave me a perspective on grief when my uncle passed away suddenly on April 6, 2017. I do not claim to know the tremendous loss that my aunt experienced when she lost her husband of over 40 years. Not even close.

Nor do I claim to know what my cousins went through when they lost their dad.

But I can empathize better now with their feelings of numbness and sense of unreality. My cousin, Hilarie, who is like a sister to me, recently told me that it still doesn’t feel real.

Loss comes in all shapes and sizes, and it doesn’t discriminate…

Virtually everyone on this planet has experienced loss of some kind.

Its effects manifest themselves in different ways.

For me, I knew I needed to get away. I couldn’t stay in San Diego. And I was fortunate to have the time and means to do so.

I recognize that that was a gift and a privilege.

I also know that it didn’t remove my grief.

While I was away, I stayed connected to my parents and friends. I felt the power of my tribe around me during that difficult time. And that support meant everything to me.

One time I wrote in my journal, “I don’t want to be at home, but I miss having familiar people around me.”

It was lonely, and I got tired of telling my stories to strangers.

But I also found that friends back home reached out to me regularly, and I never felt forgotten.

I know my cousin Hilarie is handling her grief differently than I did. I want to respect her way of coping, which is mainly to deal with her grief alone or with her mom and brother. But I still want her to know that I haven’t forgotten what happened. I want her to know that I understand that grief, that very deep sadness, doesn’t just go away because people stop talking about it.

I know she lives each day with a hole in her heart.

She once told me that I am one of very few people who continues to ask about her dad or how she’s doing.

That broke my heart.

I know from experience that I can’t do anything for her except let her know that I am available if she wants to talk and occasionally bring up her dad and remind her that I haven’t forgotten.

Lessons from Grief

Grief is a journey that we have to walk alone. No one can take away the pain. Time will lessen it, but I have learned that loss sticks with you.

I don’t think a person is ever whole again.

But there is beauty in brokenness.

Loss underscores human resilience, encourages connection, and expands a person’s capacity for compassion and empathy.

I know I can never fully understand Hilarie’s loss, and she cannot fully understand mine. And that’s okay. Empathy doesn’t mean “I’ve been there.” It means that I am in tune with her pain. And even though I can’t take it away, I can metaphorically hold her hand so she doesn’t have to walk alone.

Humans aren’t meant to do life alone. We are social creatures. And in the face of loss, when grief consumes us, sometimes the only thing that makes life less gray and a little more colorful is the compassion of a friend who says “I’m here.”

What have your experiences with grief been like? How did you cope? Did the loss result in connection with others? Or did you struggle to find someone to connect with? I’d love to hear your stories with grief and loss below.

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