“The timing,” he said, “is hardly ideal.”

Nine days before Thanksgiving.

Two weeks after surgery.

Days after the election.

The breakup came out of nowhere.

“Something is missing,” he said, some magic secret sauce that he couldn’t quite define and that he had expected to develop organically. Though I lobbied long and hard for it not to happen, it happened anyway, and with a tender kiss on my forehead, he was gone.

When I’d felt heartbreak in my earliest relationships, my tendency had been to throw all the blame his way and get lost in why it didn’t work out (but should have) until all that pain crystallized into bitterness.

More recently, I’d taken something of a boot camp approach. I’d launch myself into work or exercise with an “I’ll show him” attitude, crank up my “Get Over It Already” playlist, and mentally yell at myself anytime I showed signs of what I perceived to be a weakness, like crying, or missing him. I erected reinforced steel armor around my heart that, while it kept me safe, also kept me isolated and emotionally detached.

This had been the relationship where I’d finally peeled off that armor and opened my heart again.

Hobbled from my recent surgery, this time I just surrendered. I allowed all the feelings to come. Forget the so-called “cycle” of grief. Denial, anger, depression, bargaining all tore into me at once, an emotional feeding frenzy. I heaped blame on both of us like second helpings of mashed potatoes, and for a time, that felt good. It allowed me to construct a narrative and piece things together in a way that made sense to my wounded ego.

While my emotions ran amok, something else bubbled up that seemed completely at odds with the story I was creating: I had known that something was missing too. I’d felt it, or, rather, I hadn’t felt “it.”

The fact was that I’d grown comfortable being in a relationship. This one was far better in many ways than the ones that had come before. All the lovely, yummy bits and pieces were satisfying, and I didn’t want to give them up to go back to being single. Again.

The sense of security I had from being in a pretty good relationship meant that I sidelined my own growth (and kept me unavailable for a really great one).

I’m a veteran of self-help books and articles, years of therapy, even an intensive workshop, all of which revolve around the concept of self-love. I could understand the concept, but repeating affirmations in the mirror felt insincere. My rational mind wanted a formula to follow, the way I’d follow a recipe in the kitchen. Follow these six steps, cook for thirty minutes, and voilà!

About three weeks after the breakup, as I meditated—probably the only thing I do consistently, more than exercise or eating right—I saw myself cradling a girl in my lap, the way a mother will hold a small child who’s come to her for comfort. I just held her. I whispered to her how lovable she is, and told her how much I loved her. These weren’t the harsh, defiant words of someone who didn’t believe them, but desperately wanted them to be true. They were words of unconditional love from someone who believed it, someone who felt it. Me.

What had been elusive before was now true down to a cellular level. When my meditation session ended, I felt softer, my head and heart clearer than it had been for weeks.

The fog of my pain is lifting, and I am starting to see some of the lasting gifts of this relationship. I was able to heal some of the wounds leftover from my previous relationship. It provided sexual healing, opening my sexuality in a way I could never have even imagined. It gave me a safe space to be vulnerable, and to begin to explore what a conscious, mature relationship can feel like, one in which I can set boundaries and have difficult conversations. The gut punch of the breakup shocked me back to myself in the most painful way possible, highlighting the fact that I had, at some point, stalled my own growth for the comfort of being part of a couple.

Ultimately, neither of us is at fault, “wrong,” too much or not enough. Understanding this allows me to feel at home in myself and to let him go with grace and love.

It’s often said that great growth comes out of great pain. Would I have arrived at this healing, both in handling the breakup and in my own path to self-love, if the timing had been better? I doubt it. I had to face all of it at once, when I was physically vulnerable, even when it felt overwhelming. I had to learn to be gentle with myself. The timing, in fact, was perfect.

Jennifer DeRuff is a freelance artist, writer, baker and cat lover living in San Francisco. She frequently craves road trips and travel in general and can often be found dreaming about or planning the next trip. She finds beauty and offers a quiet whisper (or an enthusiastic shout) of gratitude in small, everyday things.

Image courtesy of trinhkien91.