After the death of her partner, Syrian-born writer Rayya Elias, in January, Elizabeth Gilbert has learnt that the only way to deal with her loss is by using her imagination.
In 2016, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with a woman. Rayya Elias, a 57-year-old Syrian-born writer, was Gilbert’s best friend for 15 years, a relationship Gilbert once described as “not your sister… not your love… not your BFF, there isn’t really an identifier for it.”
But when Elias was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer, Gilbert realised that she didn’t want to see this force in her life disappear without revealing her true feelings. The author left her husband José Nunes – the man she met in the ‘love’ portion of her bestselling memoir Eat Pray Love – in July and announced her relationship with Elias in September, 2016.
“I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya,” Gilbert wrote in a beautiful essay on Facebook. “And I have no more time for denying that truth.” In June 2017 they were bonded together in a commitment ceremony. “Today was precious and perfect,” Gilbert wrote on Instagram. “A simple and spontaneous ceremony of love… More difficult days are to come. It doesn’t get easier from here. Her illness is grave. But our love is strong.”
When Elias died on 5 January this year, Gilbert shared a deeply personal tribute to the woman she called her soulmate on Instagram. “Thank you for letting me walk with you right to the edge of the river,” she wrote. “It has been the greatest honour of my life. I would tell you to rest in peace, but I know that you always found peace boring. May you rest in excitement. I will always love you.”
This weekend, Gilbert once again used social media to share with her 651,000 followers how she continues to process the grief of Elias’ death. The author posted a screenshot of the Voice Memos app on her iPhone which featured note after note, around 30 minutes long, of recordings titled “Talking to Rayya”.
“This is a practice I started last spring, because I missed talking to her so much that it was killing me. I NEEDED to talk to her,” Gilbert explained. “Then I discovered that the act of leaving her a ‘message’ on my phone makes me feel like I’m in communication with her. Something about the fact that the message is being recorded makes me feel like it’s being received.”
Gilbert leaves these messages whenever she wants to “talk to her, laugh with her, cry with her,” she wrote. “Talking to her in this way brings her near to me.” She has recorded dozens of these since springtime, she said.
Her other methods of coping with the agony of living without the woman she has called “my love, my heart… my surprise, my gift, my comet, my liberator” include asking Elias to pick a song, hitting shuffle and dancing to whatever music comes on. “Sometimes it’s AC/DC,” she wrote, “sometimes it’s Mozart. It’s always perfect. This is how I get to dance with her, and dance out my grief.” She’s also writing to her, reams and reams of messages on her laptop typed out after uttering the words: “I need you Rayya.”
For Gilbert, creativity and creation is not only the response to grief, but its solution, too. “If ever there is a circumstance in life in which we NEED imagination,” she explains, “it is while we are grieving. Never have I needed my creativity more than as I navigate this devastating loss.”
“For anyone who is suffering loss, I encourage you: Be creative. Be INVENTIVE. Be strange. Demand union. Find ways. This is the art form that I am mastering right now: The art of eternal connection. Nothing matters more. You can do this, too. Love wants you to reach out. Your beloved is RIGHT THERE. Keep them near. Create, create, create.”