How to heal a broken heart when you didn't get closure

Megan Holstein

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“Like time suspended,
a wound unmended —
you and I.

We had no ending,
no said goodbye;

For all my life,
I’ll wonder why.”

Lang Leav, Love & Misadventure

There isn’t anyone in the world who doesn’t have baggage.

We carry around our disappointments, abrupt abandonments, and broken connections around with us wherever we go — and we feel the weight, too. As the cliche goes, “wherever you go, there you are.” Like lead weights strapped to our back, we carry these hurts wherever you go.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to carry these weights around anymore.

Learning how to let go of the past is a long and difficult process, and I’m not all the way through it. But I’ve been practicing a few years now, and this is what I’ve learned you need to do:

Admit you’re hurt

It can be hard to admit that we’re hurt. Perhaps we think admitting we’re hurt is akin to admitting weakness. Or we feel that being hurt long after something happened indicates we have a character flaw.

These things may or may not be true, but it doesn’t matter. If you feel hurt, you feel hurt. Ignoring that pain won’t make it go away. All it will do is make you blind to the effect it has on your life.

It is deceptively simple to identify if there is anything you still feel lingering hurt over.

  • When you’re at parties and sharing horror stories from the past with friends, do you feel compelled to share the story of how so-and-so hurt you?
  • Do you find yourself unable to trust and connect with people for fear that a previous hurt will repeat itself?
  • When you think of your life story, do you find yourself defining it by moments others have hurt you?

Once you’ve identified your hurt, let yourself feel it. No matter how silly or embarrassing the emotions, let yourself feel them fully. Typically, hurt feelings are trying to tell you something about yourself, and you can’t move on until you acknowledge the lesson.

Admitting what you’re truly feeling can be painful, but those who experience less pain in the long run. In a study of sixty people with mood disorders, researchers found those who were put through a painful experience and accepted their hurt feelings suffered less long-term emotional pain than those who did not accept their pain.

Forgive them without forgetting

Forgive doesn’t mean forget, and it doesn’t mean ‘become friends with.’ Let’s consult the American Heritage dictionary on the word forgive:

forgive (fər-gĭvˈ, fôr-)
v. To excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon.
v. To renounce anger or resentment against.
v. To absolve from payment of (a debt, for example).

In this case, I don’t mean the first definition. Ultimately, there’s no excuse for hurting someone else.

What I do mean is the second and third definitions. We need to forgive who hurt us. We need to renounce our anger and resentment against them and stop holding them accountable for what they’ve done. They hurt us; it’s over. Letting it continue in our minds doesn’t make it not have happened, and it doesn’t make them any more sorry or remorseful. All it does is make us more hurt.

This forgiveness can’t be conditional, either. It can’t be dependent on whether the other person feels sorry or not. The simple fact of the matter is that a lot of people who hurt you are never going to feel sorry. Many people will either think that they did nothing wrong, feel churlish and unwilling to apologize, or forget that whatever happened between you even took place at all. If you wait for anyone who hurts you to feel sorry to move on, you will never move on. Plain as that.

The power of forgiveness isn’t just emotional woo-woo. In a study of women who were victims of domestic abuse, researchers found the participants who practiced forgiveness therapy experienced significantly more healing than those who participated in anger validation, assertiveness, and skill-building therapy. In the words of the researchers:

[Forgiveness therapy participants] experienced significantly greater improvement than [anger validation therapy] participants in depression, trait anxiety, posttraumatic stress symptoms, self-esteem, forgiveness, environmental mastery, and finding meaning in suffering, with gains maintained at follow-up.

Forgiveness is so powerful that clinicians sometimes use it to treat drug addiction. In a study of fourteen patients at a drug rehabilitation facility, researchers found, “Participants who completed [forgiveness therapy] had significantly more improvement in… anger, depression… anxiety, self-esteem, forgiveness, and vulnerability to drug use than did the alternative treatment group. Most benefits of [forgiveness therapy] remained significant at 4-month follow-up.”

Say goodbye

It can be hard to find closure when you know the other person is out there in the world with a totally different perspective on what happened than you. The fact that two people can have such vastly different understandings of what happened can make moving on feel pointless.

Or perhaps you’re not in a position to say final words. Perhaps the person who hurt you left your life decades ago, or perhaps they passed away. Even if you can’t say your closing thoughts to them, you can still say them.

My new favorite way to do this is to “eulogize the relationship.” I honestly assess the positives and negatives of a relationship with objectivity only time can provide. Then I provide a summary of the relationship, usually a page or two long. At the end of this eulogy, I determine a closing attitude towards the relationship I will have from that point forward. Ideally, that closing attitude is a peaceful one, ensuring that thoughts about the relationship won’t plague you from that point forward.

Footnotes

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Self-help writer with 3M+ views on Medium and Quora. Covering personal growth, relationship skills, and career growth.

Columbus, OH
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