There are some relationships that redefine us, change who we are fundamentally and set us on new paths we never thought we’d go down. Those are the best ones, the relationships that challenge us and transform us, strengthen us and light us up.
For Elizabeth Gilbert, Rayya Elias changed everything.
The wildly successful author of—among other books—Eat, Pray, Love was for a long time known by the narrative of that memoir. Divorce husband, travel, meet dreamy new husband, live happily ever after. But in 2016 Gilbert shook up her life for love once more, and announced she was leaving her husband.
A few months later, she revealed she was in love with her long-time best friend Rayya Elias, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Gilbert, always one to follow her heart and seize every moment, said the news of Elias’s diagnosis opened a “trap door” in her heart that her “entire existence fell straight through”.
“Death—or the prospect of death—has a way of clearing away everything that is not real, and in that space of stark and utter realness, I was faced with this truth: I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya. And I have no more time for denying that truth.”
In the year and a bit that followed, Gilbert and Elias regularly shared their love with Gilbert’s large and loyal social media following. Theirs was a generous, contagious, joyous love. One that could make even the biggest cynic believe fairytale romance could be real.
Listen to Mia Freedman’s No Filter with Elizabeth Gilbert. Post continues after audio.
From the outside, we can never know for sure what a relationship is really like. We can only take the word of the people in it that it is what it appears to be. Sometimes the façade is just that, a façade, and other times, it’s a solid foundation upon which entire lives are built and enriched.
Certainly, we can slot Gilbert and Elias into that second category.
They were confidants, partners, lovers, friends. They anchored each other and made the good times sublime and the bad times bearable. Together, it seemed, they gave each other the courage to be their truest, realest selves.
Taking risks for the person you love isn’t easy. Attitudes towards same sex relationships have come a long, long way, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think Gilbert and Elias never paused and wondered how people would react to their happy news.
But, true to Gilbert’s full disclosure persona, they shared their love story with the world anyway. Yes, it’s 2018 and same sex relationships don’t come with the stigma attached to them that they used to, but in part that’s because people like Gilbert and Elias—and all the activists and pioneers who came before—are visible proof that love is what matters. Love, not gender. Love, not convention or expectations, or how you’ve always lived. Love is transformative and rare. Grab it when you find it and hold on tight.
That’s what Gilbert and Elias did, and they surely inspired many other women to live their lives on their own terms and love fearlessly and without compromise. In finding each other and sharing their story they showed that what matters is not what you think your path might be, but listening to yourself and being true to who you are deep down.
What a gift their love was to each other, and to everyone they touched.
Gilbert shared the news of Elias’s death on social media on Friday, saying, “May you rest in excitement. I will always love you.”
She was my love, my heart, my best friend, my teacher, my rebel, my angel, my protector, my challenger, my partner, my muse, my wizard, my surprise, my gift, my comet, my liberator, my rock star, my completely impossible non-cooperator, my otherworldly visitor, my spiritual portal, and my baby. I loved you so much, Rayya. Thank you for letting me walk with you right to the edge of the river. It has been the greatest honor 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.
Saying goodbye to the love of your life is possibly one of the hardest things a person will ever do. Doing it publicly must be excruciating. But what is left behind in a trail of social media missives is an honest, brave, beautiful, love story that is a testament to both of these remarkable women.
So rest in excitement, Rayya Elias and thank you for sharing your life, and your love, with the world. We are all richer for it.