February 15, 2007
Sitting relationship shiva
The voice on the other end of the cell phone stopped me cold: "I'm engaged."
I couldn't breathe. My worst nightmare was happening. My ex-girlfriend -- the one I still hadn't gotten over, the one I still imagined having kids with -- was getting married. How could I not have seen it coming? It had been a year and a half since our breakup, and I didn't want to see it. She loved someone else.
I went into a tailspin: nonstop tears, no sleep, breakup grief all over again.
But this was worse than before, much worse. This was the real deal. She was gone. Off the market. No way to rationalize my way out of the heartache.
I was desperate. So I called my rabbi.
Now, I'm not religious. My rabbi is a great guy, but I'm not one to call him for this kind of stuff. I have a therapist and the bleeding ears of my friends for that. But nothing had helped me get over her. I thought maybe the rabbi could give me something different, some tidbit of spiritual wisdom that would get me back on track. Something besides the "If it's beshert" speech my dad always gives.
The rabbi was sure he could help me. He met me at a deli and without delay smacked me with some tough love: "Shep, it's simple. You're unhappy because she's happy."
Woah, Rabbi, ouch, man!
"Am not!" I said, on the defensive, "I love her, I want her to be happy... I do!"
The Rabbi dismissed this with a chuckle and shook his head: "You're human. If she were miserable without you, you'd feel better right now. Problem is, she's moved on and you're left with a big void. You need to fill up the void with things in your life that make you happy."
OK, so it wasn't revolutionary therapy here, but I had to admit it was pretty unbearable to think of her doing bridal showers and florists while I was ordering in pizza and beer. I also had to admit the joy-o-meter had kind of hit rock-bottom levels in the last year. Could the cure be so simple? Do things, lots of things, that make me happy. Paint, go to movies, write, hike.
Fill up the void. That would help, sure.
But what about the regret, the overwhelming guilt? I was tormented by the feeling that if I had only done things differently, if I had only been a better boyfriend, if I had only asked her to marry me two years ago, things could have worked out for us.
The rabbi was having none of it: "She wasn't right for you. Know how I know? If she were, she'd be sitting here with you now, a ring on her finger and a baby on the way. But, Shep, let's be honest. You dragged your feet. Maybe you did have an opportunity to marry her. But you didn't ask her."
Oh, the sting of it.
"You have to trust that you both didn't move forward because it wasn't meant to be," he said.
Aha. The ol' beshert. I knew it'd find a way in there.
Truth be told, the pain had been lingering so long, it never occurred to me that our breakup had actually been the right decision. Maybe there really was an inner wisdom at work, stopping us both from taking the next step. We loved each other deeply, but it had been a volatile mix from the get-go. The relationship took so much effort. We had worked our butts off in counseling and still couldn't save the thing.
"If she had come back to you it still wouldn't have worked," the rabbi said, "She's not the one."
The "one." That was it. That was the heartache. In my mind she had never stopped being the one, my soulmate, even after she was long gone.
In Judaism, we sit shiva after a death. We grieve, confront and try to accept. It's an ancient process, and it helps.
But unlike when my mother died -- which was so devastating but so absolutely final -- this girl was still out there. There had still been a chance. I never sat shiva for our dead relationship because I always thought she might come back.
I couldn't fill the void she left, because I didn't want to believe the void really existed.
But it does exist. And, trite as it may sound, it's up to me to fill it up and be happy in my own company.
So it's time, finally, to sit shiva. Face the loss. And let go of the guilt. My ex and I weren't beshert. She wasn't the one. The case is airtight, the proof is incontrovertible: She's engaged to someone else.
"One more thing," said the rabbi. "Try to be happy for her. You'll heal faster."
Shep Koster is an actor and artist who lives in Los Angeles.