by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Author: Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Hachette Book Group 2009)
Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Hachette Book Group 2015)
Getting Past Your Past Workbook: The Definitive Workbook to Emotional Healing, Health and Happiness (La Bella Vita Publishing 2012)
GPYP Power! Affirmations (La Bella Vita Publishing 2019) 

Backstory to this post:  I post this every year at this time.

Commitment to the World Community

Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander. -Sign in the Holocaust Museum, Washington DC

I’ve posted this every January for the past several years. It’s a rather long post (even by my standards), but I believe it’s an important one and, by writing it and re-writing it once a year, I try to impress upon others how helping others heals your own soul in a way that nothing else can.

I know it’s hard to CARE when you’re broken-hearted, but it’s part of the healing. Caring about others and giving of yourself is PART of the healing journey. A VERY important part.

So if you’re bored, lonely, heartbroken, tired or just restless and feel as if the whole world has someone and you don’t, do some research to see the many causes and organizations who can use your help this year. It will help you feel grateful and being of use to others is to heal faster. As I always say, I never ask my readers or clients to do anything I haven’t done or don’t do, and I know this is a soul-filling opportunity when you extend your hand to others who need it.

As 2020 dawns, it is apparent that no matter where you live or what you believe in, we have work to do and I believe that part of your healing process must include volunteer work and commitment to others.

But even if you don’t want to be involved in major happenings or formal organizations, there is probably someone in your own life who could use some help and encouragement. Just saying, “It will be okay.” or being active in a group and encouraging others, even if it’s to say, “I feel very similar to how you feel.” it’s important to let others know they are not alone and others get where they are. One of the most important part of my initial healing was that there were terms for the way I was feeling (fear of abandonment, grief, unresolved loss) and if there were words for it then others had it too and if others had it too maybe there was a way out. And there was. Sometimes just HEARING that someone identifies with you can mean so much. Can make you feel so less alone.

I am a fairly active participant in charities, causes and rescue organizations. As a former DV victim, I’ve always worked in the area of Domestic Violence and have the GPYB scholarship program and book matching programs for DV shelters (If you don’t know what that is, if you send a book to a DV shelter or organization I match it for either that organization or another of your choosing). 

Lawyers for Causes

I’ve done legal pro bono work for DV victims, for Hurricane Katrina victims, Hurricane Sandy, immigration and others. 

The New York State Bar has a program called Empire State Counsel where it recognizes attorneys who do over a certain amount of pro bono hours each year. I was an honoree a few years in a row. I love pro bono work and if you go to work on behalf of a pro bono client, the judges always thank you for your service even if they’re not finding in your client’s favor.  I did a criminal appeal in front of a panel of judges and they ruled against my client but thanked me for my service to pro bono clients.

But I would have done it even if there were no such program. To those who have been given much, much is expected and I believe that if you are making large sums of money, it’s not only imperative to donate a lot of that money but to donate time and effort. Those two things are more important to the recipients of your volunteer work but are also more important to YOU. The most important aspect of volunteer work is helping others but the benefits to you are ten fold, especially when there is nothing in it for you. Not even an honorary title or a nod in your direction from anyone. It’s probably MOST rewarding when only you know you’ve done a small favor to someone who can never do anything for you.

We have walked for the National Brain Tumor Society every year even though I knew nothing about brain cancer before Michael got sick and the money raised is for others. Losing Michael was the most horrific experience of my life and I work every year for cancer organizations, especially the NBTS, to raise awareness and research money for a cancer that has no cure and affects so many children. Michael’s main concern (as those of you who have read Rope Burns know), was the children. To him, children belong out playing and being kids, not spending time in a radiation unit. When he was in treatment, even though he, himself, was dying, he tried to spend time with the kids and comforting others, many of whom had a much better prognosis than he did.

As many of you who have read my annual NBTS fundraiser page know, Michael once comforted a very young mother of 5 who was undergoing brain surgery to remove a small tumor and then receive treatment. She was so scared and Michael told her he had surgery (he only had it for a biopsy, the tumors were too pervasive to try to remove any) and it would be fine. He never told me about her but I met her one day in the radiation unit and she told me, “God bless your husband, he helped me so much.” I asked him about her and he said, “She’s 35 and has five small children. They can’t lose her. She needed the surgery and was afraid so I told her I had it and it would be fine.” (even though he had no recollection of the biopsy surgey and the decision to do it was made when he was in a medically induced coma). He said to me, “Those kids can’t lose their mom. They just can’t.”

Outwardly I was smiling and patting his hand and saying, “I know honey, don’t worry, she’ll be okay, they won’t lose her.” but inwardly I was screaming, “I CAN’T LOSE YOU. YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE FINE!” I smiled at him, held back my tears, the screaming in my soul and the sound of my heart breaking into a million pieces and was just so grateful to be with such a precious soul for as long as I was. To know such a loving man and to know he loved me the most in his whole life is a honor and on the days I wish he was here, it’s hard to be grateful for that, but when I work with cancer organizations, it helps me to help others because that is what he wanted.  The video I made about Michael’s huge heart and concern for children with cancer is HERE.

Riding Motorcycles for Cancer Cures

Even when he was well and we were riding our Harleys, we did at least one cancer fundraiser run a year. We also did Rolling Thunder on Memorial Day and spending the night at the Wall with other Vietnam Vets was so healing for him and for others.

He always did the Halloween cancer run where the bikers all dressed up, but that was too cold for me to be riding by then (I put my bike away in early September except for when we lived in CA), but he didn’t miss it. We rode many a charity run in the rain or in bad weather, but he never complained. Not when he was well and not when he was sick. And riding a Harley is fun no matter when you’re doing it, so I tried to stay in that frame of mind as that was the frame of mind he was always in.  He was a happy go lucky guy and I loved that about him. 

He never once thought of himself. He said, “I’ve lived a good life, I want the kids to be kids and for the young parents to see their children grow.” He taught me so much in those months and even on my most exhausting days, when I was worn down, the doctors told me it wasn’t really necessary to bring him 5 days for treatments, there was no way I wouldn’t. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t even about him except that he found comfort in comforting others who had much better chances than he did.

He showed me what true love was when I would come to him in the morning with his pills and his breakfast and I would say, “Good morning honey, how are you?” and he would say, even in his raspiest voice on his hardest days, “Good, how are you?” He never failed to be kind and caring toward his caregivers. I can honestly say that from the time of his seizure to the time of his death 11 months later, I never once saw him say a cross word to anyone. I never saw him feel sorry for himself either. I once saw a far away look in his eyes and I said, “Are you okay, honey, is there something you want?” and he said very soft and low, “Yes, I want to get better.” For a man who was so independent and so strong and believed that as the head of the family his needs came last, it was the most he ever said about his illness or feeling sorry for himself. Most days his thoughts were being grateful for his family and his caregivers. He was always in a good mood and tried to stay in good spirits.

The night before he slipped into a coma, I did, as I did every night, give him his medication, kiss him on his forehead, squeeze his hand, and say, “I love you honey.” and he squeezed back even though it was soft and said, “I love you too.” Those would be the last words he ever spoke. But I sat by his side for the next two and half days holding his hand and hoping for a squeeze back, that never came. But I know he knew I was there and right before he passed he opened his eyes and held my gaze until he was gone. He taught me so much about what love is and should be and my greatest gift in life was seeing a dying man continue to give to those he loved as he had when he was a big, brawny tough guy. Nothing took his sweet charm from him and if he could do that, then I can work for the NBTS every year so that other families, especially those with children affected by brain cancer, can one day celebrate in a cure or better treatment options.

Gratitude in Action

To me, doing volunteer work is one of the ways to stay grateful and to get out and to feel as if you are doing something, that you matter to someone and that your efforts in the world make a difference.

If you have the GPYB workbook (links below this article), you know that in the GOALS section, I have encouraged you to have goals that are about volunteer work.  No matter where you are in the program, you can do SOMETHING.

And I encourage people to stay involved in socio-economic and political discourse even if it seems your viewpoint is going against the grain of popular opinion because many times popular opinion is just wacky. I encourage people to find their voice and use their voice. If you commit to something outside yourself with no expectation of repayment, you touch the life of someone else but the real gift is to you.

Since I was 12, I have always been involved in political, social and moral causes. I was a foster kid until the age of 8.  I never felt as if I belonged anywhere. I knew the language of the dispossessed. I knew the language of those who had been shuffled about here and there – never knowing where they belonged and being afraid of the next change to come. I knew what it felt to have no autonomy or agency and how it felt to be acted UPON without a vote in the matter. I knew what it felt like to FIGHT for power or to be told you should be happy for what you have even when what you have is not anything you bargained for or wanted in the first place. I knew this from a young, tender age. 

My parents went completely crazy when I marched for civil rights as a 12 year old. You were WHERE?  Doing WHAT?  (while I was sleeping, they went into my room to retrieve the band with the African colors that someone had given me. I fished it out of the garbage the next day and then they cut it in half). They went even crazier when I marched for women’s rights as a 14 year old and I threatened to burn my bra that I had just managed to fit into. These were not acts of a rebellious teenager, but the acts of someone who felt the injustices deeply, who had felt like an outcast all of her life and tended to identify with these causes on a personal level.

From the age of 12 through my late twenties, I was actively involved in these causes. While this was a good thing, it also worked as another distraction from my deep inner pain.

And worked to help me DENY my own life. I worked on a DV hotline and sold holiday goods for a DV shelter while being in an abusive marriage. Some people said, later on, that maybe I was looking for help but I honestly think I was just in complete denial.

But when my marriage ended in the late 80s, I had to come face to face with the fact that I was a complete and utter mess, I had to step away from the world’s stage and take care of me and my kids. 

But I still learned gratitude. IN FACT, I learned gratitude early, early on.  When my therapist encouraged me to practice gratitude, I said, “I have no job, I have no home and my husband is sleeping with someone else. I have 2 pair of pants that fit.”  She said to write that I was grateful for 2 pair of pants.  Seriously?  If you have the Power! Affirmations booklet (again, link is after this article) you know that I devote an entire chapter to learning gratitude even in your darkest times.  You MUST do that. 

But I did make changes in those first few years. I had to go inward and work out the garbage and worked in the good stuff.  I stopped reading newspapers, I stopped watching TV. I missed entire runs of shows that made television history. My mission in those years was to get my own house in order. It was to do my inner work, do my affirmative work and go to work, therapy and support groups and take care of my kids. I had to learn PERSONAL GRATITUDE and POSITIVITY.

That was my life. Period. No politics, no social causes….for a short while. 

I was waging a war against my past while trying to build a nice present and a successful future. It took up all my time and energy. I was like a person with a toothache. My pain was all I could think about.  My own personal war against my past and learning to be grateful for what I had was all I could do in those early days. 

But, I started to tune back into the political, moral and social issues of the day. But I had to be careful not to get so involved with them I ignored my own stuff (as I had done before) and not to replace taking care of me with taking care of other people. I had to balance it and be vigilant about my altruism versus my codependency. It is sometimes quite the balancing act.

I slowly put the activism back in my life knowing that I had a responsibility to the world community. I learned to balance that with the responsibility I owed to myself and my kids.

Be The Change You Want To See In The World

Gandhi said to be the change you want to see in the world and that is where I had started. I tended to my own back yard to be sure it was healthy and happy and whole. I WAS the change I wanted to see in my life.

But it didn’t end there. I had a responsibility to the world, to care about things that were wrong and to lend my voice and my action to it. I didn’t wait until I was fully healed, as that would be years and years, but I learned to balance my activism and charitable work with my personal journey. It absolutely HAS to be that way.

We also have a duty to pass our moral fiber onto our children. I grew up in the Bronx. I lived in an area where I had exposure and friends of every ethnic and religious background. I was treated well by everyone outside my family. People outside my house made me feel welcome and that I belonged (unlike the people inside my house). I felt a sense of duty to civil rights and to eradicating any type of prejudice from my life.

My parents could be bigots and racists (they tended to vocalize it only when other bigots and racists were around. I honestly do not believe they held anything against anyone, but wanted to “fit in” when bigots were around.).

I railed against racism at the age of 12. I marched, as the only small blonde girl, in a civil rights march. It was emotional and positive and I loved it.

As I was leaving, one man handed me a leather wrist band with the African colors on it. When I wore it home, my parents threw it in the garbage. At night, when everyone was asleep, I snuck outside and retrieved it from the garbage pail. The next day they cut it up.

But I didn’t stop my work. 

Learning About the Blues

One Sunday I went to a Baptist church after leaving my own Catholic Mass, and sang and gave my small allowance money to their church (I had already given my envelope to my own parish’s service). But the next Sunday I ditched my Catholic service all together for the Baptist service and my parents found out (my best friend’s father was an usher at the church and he knew I was missing and told on me.) My parents were livid and looking for me. I found out from several out-of-breath friends who had been running around the various neighborhood houses looking for me. 

Afraid to go home, I went to my friend’s house to wait for her to change her Sunday clothes into play clothes. Her elderly grandfather was sitting in the living room listening to music that touched my heart. I asked him what it was and he said it was Robert Johnson. He told me about Robert Johnson and the blues and played a few more records for me. They were oldm scratchy 78s, but he was very careful with them. By the time my friend was ready, I didn’t want to leave and I returned again and again to learn about the blues and listen to Robert Johnson.  Her grandfather taught me about the blues.  He told me about slavery and sharecroppers and all the things that were left out of our history books.  I went back again and again to visit with him.

A little white girl and an old black man forged a friendship around the blues and he taught me an unforgettable lesson about not forgetting. I’ve never forgotten it and I remain a blues fan to this day.  I think of him every time I hear a blues song. 

When I was 15 I was invited to my first Seder and told about the history of the Hebrews that was not taught in my school or church. I was riveted by the stories which were never taught anywhere where I normally learned things.  I learned about the Holocaust and, though I’d seen actual film footage from concentration camps, I’d never heard about it from those who were related to those who were in the camps. 

I felt an incredible amount of compassion and empathy that I had not been taught at home.  At home, those who were “different” were suspect.  After hearing about my friends’ relatives who were in slavery and those in the Holocaust, how could I ever think anyone was suspect?   Everyone had their own pain. 

As John James, of the Grief Recovery Institute, told me later, “Everyone feels their pain at 100 percent.”  I was learning about everyone else’s 100 percent.  Did I have so much empathy because I, myself, had been displaced?  I don’t know, but I think it might have something to do with it.  I’ve heard that hurt people hurt people, but healed people help heal people.  Know which side of the line you fall on. 

I learned to cook Italian food from a woman who barely spoke English but told me, in halting English, about World War II in Sicily. I learned to cook Spanish dishes from a friend whose mother shared with me the appalling conditions she fled in central America.

In each house I shared a little of what I knew though I felt that, compared to them, it wasn’t much.

In each house I was warmly welcomed and given some knowledge of a culture I would not have otherwise known.

How could I hate anyone because of their ethnic background or color or religion when to hate them would be to cut myself off from what they had to offer and to cut them off from what I had to offer?

My boys, on the other hand, were raised in a small town in Massachusetts where there were not a lot of minorities. I worked in the technology field in central Massachusetts and the small towns that surrounded the tech hubs were mostly upscale and mostly white.

Although we visited New York often, it’s not the same as growing up with diversity. I spent their childhoods preaching acceptance and non-racist, non-sexist, non-bigoted views. It was my duty. I could not ignore that sexism, racism and bigotry exists in the world even though they didn’t encounter very much in very liberal central Massachusetts and certainly were not the target of any of it. But I wanted them to know it was wrong.

I also preached kindness to animals and the importance of charitable works.

I told my kids to care about others. Care about the less fortunate. Share what you have when you can. Care about what happens in the world. Vote. Stay on top of politics. It was my responsibility as a parent to at least try to make them care.  

I taught them not to misappropriate other cultures. I said do not take anything from another culture without a sense of obligation to that culture. I said do not listen to the music, copy fashion styles or the slang of others without a sense of gratitude for that and a duty to give back.

I received so much from other cultures by enjoying the music, the food, the style, the way of talking, dancing, etc etc. It is not JUST about TAKING from other cultures. 

As far as my clients and readers go, I don’t care what organizations you volunteer for or what political group you donate money to or what church you go to. Just have some kind of work that is benefiting the world. Some act of selfless kindness. Altruism is a part of every healthy and functioning individual. 

The GPYB program is for everyone. I wrote the book for EVERYONE.  I don’t care if you’re a woman breaking up with a man, a man breaking up with a woman, a man breaking up with a man, a woman breaking up with a woman. I don’t care if you were married 30 years or dating 30 days.  I don’t care if you’re 90 or 19. I don’t care what color your skin is, what your ethnic background is, what you believe in or don’t believe in (i.e. religion/spirituality), I don’t care where you come from or what political bend you have.   This program is for EVERYONE. 

I spent HOURS rewriting GPYB and GBOT so that I didn’t use pronouns – so that hetero men and people breaking up same sex relationships – though left out of traditional “self help” materials – would feel as if this was for them – because it IS.

I refused to use “they” as a neutral pronoun because it sounded clunky and monotonous – without pronouns and without relying on “they” it wasn’t easy to do, but I did it. I neutralized the whole damn thing…and I did it for INCLUSION, not for EXCLUSION.  It’s SO IMPORTANT to me.  I want EVERYONE to feel welcomed at the GPYB Family Table of Healing.

That is why I ask that religion and politics stay OUT of the groups.  It can be so polarizing. You can talk about what means something to you, but I ask that no one preach their beliefs to others.  GPYB is the house of healing the broken heart.  That’s it.  And hearts have no color, no ethnic background, no religion and no political belief.  A heart is for love and GPYB’s purpose is to help you heal yours. That’s IT.  But healing your heart involves helping others and caring about others. 

Without my personal commitment to altruistic causes, Getting Past Your Breakup would have never been written. I started GPYP classes at night to try to help people who were struggling. I was making a boatload of money as a commercial litigation attorney working for a large, international law firm and my clients were big corporations. I didn’t “have to” give classes on moving on and bettering your life.  In fact, giving those classes cut into my time as an associate on the partnership track. I could have easily said NO, I have no time for this. 

The GPYP/GPYB work started as completely voluntary when I was working as a highly paid lawyer. It has never been about the money or becoming a well-known author or having my own page in Wikipedia. It started out strictly as a way to be a lawyer during the day but continue doing my part to help others in pain when the time I had to devote to many causes was very limited.  Without my commitment to help others, I wouldn’t have done it.  Mind you, I was doing good pro bono work during the day, but had billing hour requirements that needed to be met and pro bono only counted as a percentage. I couldn’t claim all my pro bono hours as billable.  So I was working at a deficit and needed to make up the hours, but I wouldn’t give up giving. 

Had I not started this with a social conscience, I could have easily said I traveled frequently and worked very long hours 7 days a week as an attorney. But had I done that the blog, which led to the book, would have never started.  

Would it have been missed? Probably not. But something in me kept tugging to continue to share my story and to try to help others who were trying to rebuild their lives. I started it as a generic motivational program but most of my seminar attendees (where this all started) were going through a divorce or breakup and eventually the focus shifted almost entirely to breakup recovery and healing.

Although I now count on some of this as an income stream, doing this has never been about the money. I try to keep GPYB boot camps affordable (yes, I know I could charge so much more) and I offer payment plans to those who can’t pay. 

I know that I could be making well over 6 figures as a lawyer, but I’m well under 6 figures as a counselor and most of my speaking and commentary is done free of charge. I have been on television many times, but have never been paid for a single appearance. I have been approached to be an associate producer for shows where people want my name to be on the pitch to the network. I could make a big deal that I’m a big deal, but I’m not and I don’t ever want to be.

I bristle when I see people “make it big” on the backs of others and then brag about how they got there. I rail against those who will take advantage of someone’s broken heart to sell them a program for thousands when they know nothing and have done nothing. You’re not worth that just because you say you are. Still, I speak for free – a lot – and donate books to DV shelters and women’s organizations though not as many as I’d like or as often as I could when I made a huge salary.

This is and always has been primarily about letting others know I’ve been where you’ve been and you can get out. There’s really no other reason for me to do this. It’s always been hard work and takes a lot of time and effort.

I am a best-selling author. I have a life story that would make a riveting movie, but I’m not out there selling it. I do have a Masters degree and a J.D. from a top 10 law school. Instead of doing what I do, I could have a nice, comfortable life as a lawyer, but I feel I cannot keep my message to myself. And I must not. I escaped pain and unhappiness and a destructive lifestyle. I became successful in life and in love. I need to tell others how I did it and coach them to do it too.

If you are following a program or reading a book that does NOT recommend caring about others, passing it on, paying it forward or caring about the world once you have started to make headway, something is terribly wrong with your program.  If the only thing your guru tells you is how to make money from others, you need to find a new guru. It’s not all about making money. 

We must give to others as we have been given.  And this doesn’t mean being a codependent giving to losers.  I hear that all the time.  Why did you lend this guy money? Why did you let that woman move in with you?  “Oh, I have a big heart…” “Oh I’m a giver….” NO NO NO  You are a codependent. If you have a big heart, go to a soup kitchen.  Help the homeless. Volunteer at a DV shelter. Volunteer at an animal rescue.  But don’t throw good money to losers who won’t appreciate it.  That doesn’t make you a good person. That makes you an idiot.  Know the difference. 

Pass It On

If you are reading this, you have been given something and I encourage you to pass some of what you have learned to others even if you just encourage one person to do the “I will be okay no matter what” affirmation several times a day. If someone is hurting, no matter where the hurt is coming from, encouraging them to say that several times a day is giving back and helping someone who needs the encouragement.

It IS important and vital we do our work FIRST. If we are giant, gaping holes it is hard to be of use to anyone else. We MUST go inward and we must do the work of working out the garbage of the past. At the same time we need to affirm and visualize our positive future and act as if we are already there. It IS a three prong process: emotional, cognitive and behavioral. You must do work on all three levels. If anyone tells you otherwise, that is nonsense.

As you do your work stay cognizant of the fact that as you get better, you have a duty to do some good in the world. In addition to GPYP I belong to several charitable organizations, stay involved in social causes and stay active on the world’s issues to NOT be a bystander.

Once you start to feel better in your own skin, you owe it to the world to get out there and make a positive difference.

Do NOT be a victim.
Do NOT be a perpetrator.

But most importantly, do NOT be a bystander.  Not now and not ever. 


Copyright © Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed. GPYB Productions LLC New York, NY USA

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