A Little Advice From the Heartbroken Club

Hearts shatter. Hearts heal. And love helps us through – wherever it comes from.

Ah, love.

I’d say it was our theme of the month but considering grief really stems from love, and not knowing exactly where to put it any longer (one of my favorite Fleabag scenes, incidentally), you could argue that love is incorporated into every issue of this newsletter.

As such, grief can do weird things to those of us left behind with regard to how we treat the people we love. After my parents’ deaths, I’m full of new quirks (when your mom dies in a car accident, you can easily become someone who demands people you care about check in every time they travel).

But of course, this Valentine’s Day weekend, the concept of romantic love is on many minds. It’s yet another Hallmark holiday underscoring a specific person (or people) in your life upon whom you are supposed to lavish particular attention and appreciation.

And for a lot of people, that stings. Because their person is, you know, dead.

So this month, we are bringing you survivor stories from those moving through the long arc of romantic grief, with its particular theft of intimacy and closeness and X factors that just can’t be put into words, and some solid advice from the trenches (hint: nothing is tied up neatly with a bow, and that’s OK).

First, an interview with 32-year-old Anjali Pinto, a Chicago-based photographer and writer. Her Instagram account transfixed, gutted and inspired the thousands of us who have followed her journey through the aftermath of the sudden death of her brand-new husband, Jacob, who suddenly died in 2016 from an undiagnosed aortic dissection. A man with whom she shared a passionate romance and dreams for a future that neither realized she’d be creating without him.

We also have RoseAnna Cyr’s pitch-perfect guide to giving yourself what you deserve on a pandemic Valentine’s Day (or any year, really).

As always, we have many more nuanced pieces on our website. A few of my favorites:

  • Living through a new virus while grieving a husband who died from an older one, by Melissa Gould

  • The admission that a miscarriage might have actually saved her marriage, by Courtney Maum

  • Finding solace in the YA section on Valentine’s Day (aka your dead best friend’s birthday), by Renata Sancken

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Wishing you a weekend full of love, if even in the form of memory.

And if you’re at a loss for a response to anyone who dares ask if you have a date for this weekend, consider the immortal words of Dwight Schrute: “Yes. February 14.”

Rebecca Soffer

Anjali Pinto on On Young Widowhood, Folding Loss into New Love, and the Liberating Nature of Casual Sex

Rebecca Soffer: Your husband, Jacob, died suddenly at home on New Year's Eve in 2016. He was 30 and healthy.

From your Instagram account, it’s clear the person you are mourning is someone you were very much in love with. How have your expectations of partnership shifted in any way in the wake of Jacob's death?

Anjali Pinto: It's interesting to go through this pandemic and realize my relationship with Jacob was four-and-a-half years, but I don't think we spent an entire week at home together ever. Our time like that was always on trips and vacations or visiting family for holidays and that kind of stuff.

“[Once my dad said] you mourn him as like this pedestal of what a husband should be. But you guys didn't really get to have the boring part of marriage." And sometimes I wonder, "Are you ever going to feel satisfied if that's what you hold up a relationship to because you were still in the honeymoon period?"

It's been a struggle for me to not feel resentful or to just kind of accept that my life probably won't ever look like that again. To just be young and free and in love and really naïve to what grief looks like and what loss can be. So it definitely has informed my relationship and my [current] partnership, and I can't say that it's always for the best. It's not easy to love somebody who's hurting all the time.

RS: Are any patterns of beliefs or rituals you've chosen to carry forward that you associate with Jacob? 

AP: After he died, I started celebrating Día De Las Muertos. Which is not my culture but still a beautiful multi-generational tradition we can do as a family. We watch Coco and make an altar and make sweets and set them out. 

That day, I usually have some sort of dream with Jacob in it leading up to it or shortly after it. And I don't know if the barrier between the living and the dead is actually thinner then, or if it's just having that day to anticipate and to remember him beyond just the sadness and the tragedy of losing him is really nice.

RS: That's beautiful. 

RS: Soooo...can we talk about sex for a minute? A lot of our readers whose partners die have shared this urgent need for physical connection, to feel something in their bodies but not necessarily in their hearts. Can you relate to that at all?

AP: Absolutely. Laying in a cold bed alone the night we got back from the hospital announcing that Jacob was dead unexpectedly, that's what I wanted most – to be held and to be comforted. And it wasn't for six months that I actually had sex with someone else.

Laying in a cold bed alone the night we got back from the hospital announcing that Jacob was dead unexpectedly, that's what I wanted most – to be held and to be comforted.

But there were probably three months prior to actually acting on it that it felt like obsessive-compulsive planning in my head. Like, "Well, who am I going to do it with and when am I going to do it? Should it be someone I know that feels pity for me that will be soft and gentle or should it be a stranger that I pick up at a bar or should they know about my husband or should it be a secret?" 

And then I went out with someone [on a trip to New York City] and got really scared. I was like, "Okay, if I get murdered by this person or raped, then everyone in my life is going to be like, you fucking idiot. You went to a neighborhood you don't know and a house you don't know and you were staying alone and you invited a stranger in and you don't know anything about this person."

So I ditched the date and went home and basically had a panic attack because I was like, "I'm never going to be ready to do this." But two weeks later, I was like, "Okay, I just need to get over the fact that this is my home with my late husband and we have so many beautiful memories in this space, but I live here alone now and I'm going to have to figure out what works for me."

I think having my environment be safe and knowing how to escape, knowing where my neighbors are, all these things, made me feel safer inviting strangers into my house for sex. I ended up having sort of sexual only relationships with three or four people that I preferred to strangers over time. But it wasn't until like a year and a half that I felt like, "Okay, I'm ready to entertain the idea of being something more to someone."

[goes to get her baby, Ndidi, from her nap, and brings her back]

AP to baby: Mommy's talking about her hoe days.

RS: Everyone's got them. Though, oh my goodness, I'm melting right now. She's like a perfect child. And she has a father; your new partner, Uche. What about him made you say, "Okay, I'll try it"? 

AP: He brought so much joy into my life. He brings so much joy into my life. His willingness to be like, "I've been through hard things and I still really know what I want for myself and I'm not afraid to get it," was very attractive.

And from the get-go, he was like, "I want kids, I want a family. I love love." You don't meet many men that are open-hearted like that.

RS: Do you and Uche talk about Jacob? Does he have a role in your partnership or does Jacob just have a role with you? Is it a threesome in some ways?

AP: We're still figuring it out. I've learned there are appropriate times to bring him up and there are times that can just be seen as hurtful or kind of irreverent to the moment. But this is the relationship that I want to make work. And that means putting Uche's feelings first.

[Now] I lean more towards my friends and my family when I want to dive deep into my feelings about my loss or Jacob and our relationship because Uche doesn't want to see me in pain and wants to be there for me. But it's an awkward or difficult thing to do.

He can't really console me about losing my love.

RS: I get that part, right. It’s weird. In theory, it would kind of negate him.

AP: Yeah. We were watching a movie and there was this period where the character could time travel and go back and talk to her husband. I was like, "Oh, what I would give to time travel." And that hurt Uche's feelings. Because in his mind it was like, "Oh, if [she] could go back [she] would do this all over and still be with Jacob." In my mind, it was like, "Who wouldn't want more conversation with their loved one?" 

RS: Speaking of wishing for one more conversation, my mom died suddenly — in a car accident — and to this day, I need like anybody I even remotely care about to check in with me to let me know they've arrived safely somewhere. Has the way in which Jacob died created any new fears that you direct toward the people you care about?

AP: Well, Jacob died immediately after us having sex. So it's actually created this sort of trauma around intimacy, because those moments where you're glassy-eyed and basking in the feel goodness of being close to someone was like that, immediately followed by tragedy.

That's part of why casual sex felt so liberating, because it didn't have that. There was no fear of loss because it was set up to be lost.

For me, it's very hard to settle into that feeling because it feels like if I think about it too long then something terrible is about to happen. And that's part of why casual sex felt so liberating because it didn't have that. There was no fear of loss because it was set up to be lost.

RS: Oh my god, what a thing to contend with. One of the most beautiful gifts a person can enjoy – that feeling of intimacy – and to have a feeling of dread injected into it.

AP: Yeah. That's what therapy's for.

A post shared by anjali pinto (@anjalipinto)

RS: Did anyone rub you the wrong way by opining about what you should do or not do or when you should do it?

AP: When I started talking about sex and dating one of Jacob's friends was like, "You can't possibly be thinking about that. It'll happen eventually, but, like, now?" And it was three or four months after he died. I was like, "Okay, when is it an appropriate time?"

RS: Like, “right, you tell me. You let me know when I'm allowed to do that.”

AP: Yeah.

RS: Which is interesting considering...do you think that men are treated a little differently in these grief situations?

AP: I feel like if I died there would be a line of women ready to console Jacob like, "Cry on my shoulder and let’s fuck." 

RS: It wouldn’t surprise me. Have you thought about how you will share Jacob with Ndidi?

AP: We talked about it on his death anniversary this year...I want her to think of him as like a great uncle that she never got to meet. Someone who would have been really fun to play with and always looked out for other people.

RS: You're a photographer. But your loss has impacted your career direction.

AP: I am in the midst of getting prerequisites done to apply for an MSN, a master's of science in nursing, in hopes that I can become a nurse practitioner. I reached the pinnacle of what I thought my talent and creativity could professionally do within the field [of photography. And for so long I felt like I wasn't smart enough to do something science related.

RS: What changed?

AP: Realizing that the limitations I set on myself or that other people set on me are complete bullshit and we can do hard things.

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.


A Surviving Partner’s Guide to Surviving a Pandemic Hallmark Holiday

5 ways to give yourself what you deserve on Valentine’s Day — and every day — when you’re missing a dead partner.

By RoseAnna Cyr

Valentine’s Day is upon us.

The magical day of love and romance, when smug couples traditionally walk, hand-in-hand, through candlelit restaurants to feast on overpriced red wine and juicy cow flanks. We are bombarded with messages of romantic expectation. Solitude in the media sea of mashing lips and happy endings. A relentless reminder to the all sad, lonely people of the world that we have failed at meeting the basic human need of love.   

This will be my second Valentine’s Day without Tim, my love of 12 years. Red jelly hearts cling to a window framing the fringed mid-February landscape. The heart-shaped décor that adorns supermarket entrances and doctor’s waiting rooms are a reminder of the heart attack that mercilessly ripped him from this world at 34. Hearts love. Hearts beat. Hearts stop, dead muscle manually pumped by sweaty EMTs on the floor of your best friend’s Brooklyn living room.  

Hearts shatter. Hearts heal.

Twenty-two months out from catastrophe I am slowly learning to navigate the post-loss world. The pain has softened its edges and tucked itself into the corners of my day-to-day existence. A constant companion, quietly reminding me of the life I had. Encouraging transition into the life ahead.

My concept of love has broadened and expanded with the vacuum that Tim’s death created. But you know what? Valentine’s Day still effin’ sucks.

Twenty-two months out, I have crumbled and burned and birthed myself into a new existence. My concept of love has broadened and expanded with the vacuum that Tim’s death created. But you know what? Valentine’s Day still effin’ sucks.

So with the authority, I have earned as a bad-ass young widow lady, I offer you the following unsolicited advice:

  1. Be your own damn Valentine. Order those fancy chocolates. Pick out the flowers that you want to display grandly on your dining room table for one. Get the notebook she would have given you. Bake that cake he always made. Set yourself a candlelit take-out dinner and put on the playlist that makes you feel OK.

    You’ve learned to take care of yourself. You’ve learned just how strong a person needs to be. Embrace that. On Valentines Day, you get what you want, sweetheart.

  2. Wallow in the endless sorrow. It’s OK to be sad, my friend. The heavy weight in your gut just before a grief wave. The flashbacks that trap you in torturous memories. The sensory reminders of who you were then, before the bleak realities that hit when life tore away the protective curtains. You might feel that today.

    It’s OK if when you go on social media, your “heart” reacts to all the adorable couple pics while secretly wondering which one will die first.

    It’s OK to indulge yourself in self-soothing behaviors and may or may not be super excellent for your health. It’s ok to listen to rage music in your open cubical, with dark sunglasses on under fluorescent lights, angrily flipping off your co-workers. They might judge you, but I won’t.

    It’s OK to be pissed. It’s OK to be heartbroken. It’s OK to just feel generally bummed out about today. To feel a catch in your throat at the sight of a bouquet or valentine.

    And it’s totally OK to feel fine too. Let it in. But let it out. 

Read the rest of the piece on our website.

Thank you to our founding members: 

The Dougy Center

Good Grief

Uplift Center for Grieving Children