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‘Wild’ Author Cheryl Strayed Knows the Secret to Finding Love After Loss

I really, really, really, really grieved the loss of my first marriage, even though I was the one who said, “I don’t want to be married anymore. Let’s end this.” But it was a different kind of grief than the grief I had for my mom. I’ll always grieve my mom. It’ll be a loss that will always be a hard one for me. The loss of my first marriage was a temporary grief; it was a temporary loss.

There shouldn’t be this timeline for grief. I think pathologizing pain is something that our culture does quite well. You should be sad if somebody you love deeply dies. That’s a normal response to a really sad, hard thing that happened. The first [step to healing] is to accept that sorrow is real and it’s going to take some time for it to lift. And then once it does lift a bit, to accept that—to accept that that’s not a sign of your lack of love, or commitment, or dedication to that person, but that it’s really that your loss is shifting into something a little deeper, where you’re starting to say, “I realize that this thing is true. This is a fact. My dad isn’t going to reappear like a magic genie and be there in my life again, ever again,” or, “My mom isn’t.”

We have to carry it—to say that the person is gone forever, but at the same time will always be present, so that in the absence of the beloved, there is a profound presence that we can make manifest in our lives by the things we do, and live, and believe, and say.

I love my kids the same way my mother loved me, and perhaps that’s the most powerful way I’ve carried her; I’ve carried that full-throttle-wild-abandon-imperfect-but-without-any-question-it’s-there love that I got from my mom, and I give it to my kids and they carry it forward. They’ll carry it onward. She’s alive in them; she’s alive in their spirits even though they never met her.

The power of vulnerability is also truly magic. Vulnerability, I’ve become convinced, is the way to get love. And of course, many of us decide not to be vulnerable because we’re afraid. But vulnerability is the way to get love, romantic or otherwise. The minute you’re the one who says, “I’m afraid right now,” or, “I’m missing my mom,” or, “I am in the midst of a divorce,” the minute you simply say what’s true, people open themselves up to you, and they offer you consolation—an essential connection.

I think that so much of loving well is about courage. It’s about telling the truth as soon as possible, as often as you can. That’s the secret to a good life, and that’s about vulnerability. Vulnerability is simply telling the truth about who you are, as often as you can, in any given situation. And nobody said any of this was going to be easy. If you’re looking for love again, there’s just no way around the fact that you have to be vulnerable in order to connect with others. Nobody’s going to love a cardboard-box version of you. Nobody wants to feel like they’re knocking at a closed door when they’re in a relationship with you. We want the real, juicy, meaty you. We want the tender stuff on the inside.

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