Jews take mourning to the next level. Name an act more dramatic than shoveling dirt onto the casket of someone you love. Enjoy anxiety with your devastation? You’ve got two days to pull together a funeral. Feel like holding yourself in the fetal position for a week after the burial? Too bad; everyone you’ve ever met is going to pay their respects, in person, during the next week.
The pages of our rulebook for grieving always seemed unnecessarily brutal to me. I only understood the benefit of Jewish mourning when, at thirty-two years old, I came face-to-face with real heartbreak.
I’ve loved devastating music since before I had anything to be devastated about. When I finally had something to mourn — the abrupt end of my marriage in 2016 — I looked back in order to move forward. Some might say I ruminated. Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” became my anthem. The song is full of visceral, honest moments of a relationship — a relationship that ended in one-sided heartbreak. The lyrics gave me permission to grieve the loss of my own marriage, shamelessly.
A handful of weeks after I filed for divorce, I took a plane to New York City. I made my way toward our old apartment on 57th between 8th and 9th, the place where we brought our son home from the hospital after he was born. “Dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light” blared through my headphones and drowned out a bustling West Midtown. I watched our doorman greet a young couple with a cheery smile. That used to be Us; there is no Us anymore. It was the most devastating walk of my life, and I did it on purpose. “I was there, I remember it all too well,” Taylor sang, as I scooped up Earth and dropped it onto Our casket. Each plea of “I was there” — totaling five — twisted the knife further as I walked back to my parents’ apartment with The Best of Us behind me.
I was there.
I ruminated because I needed the confirmation, no matter how painful, that We once existed. Love Happened Here.I let the memories that once held me tightly cut me open when I was already bleeding. Taylor Swift sat shiva with me. She gave me permission to press play on grief.
I ruminated because I needed the confirmation, no matter how painful, that We once existed.
I originally wrote my novel, Bad Luck Bridesmaid, as a short story in 2019, with Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” on repeat in the background. As I expanded it into a novel, I relived my grief so I could give it to my main character, Zoey Marks, a confident woman facing a stunning breakup. Only then, while navigating fictional heartbreak, did I fully appreciate how I survived the worst year of my life. To borrow one of Taylor’s favorite word couplings, Jewish mourning isn’t “casually cruel,” not as I had once thought. It’s purposefully painful. I use this analogy in my novel: We pour hydrogen peroxide into an open wound so it can heal the right way.
This past November, Taylor Swift released the now-iconic ten-minute version of “All Too Well,” in which I count over thirty echoes of “I was there.” She’s buried the relationship that broke her heart, but still, a decade later, she’s reminding us that it happened — she didn’t dance in the glow of the refrigerator light by herself.
There is no official shiva for the end of a relationship. But in Jewish tradition, we remember so we can heal. “I was there, I was there …” Taylor repeats in the haunting outro. It’s a plea to all those navigating heartbreak: Embrace grief, press play, walk the streets that might destroy you.
Alison Rose Greenberg is a screenwriter and the author of Bad Luck Bridesmaid, and the forthcoming Maybe Once, Maybe Twice. She lives in Atlanta but is quick to say she was born in New York City, as any nice Jewish girl would be. Alison speaks fluent rom-com and is a proud single mom to her two incredible kids.