What do we have that still works when it is broken?
What do we have that is shattered, yet carries on behaving the same way as before?
What remains open and functioning, despite the pain of loss?
I speak of the heart, the powerhouse pump on which we all rely for every moment of our lives. And even before our lives have fully begun, our hearts beat secure in our mothers’ wombs, with tiny, fluttering movements that gradually strengthen in readiness for our arrival in the world.
Is it really any wonder then, that each time we lose a loved one we feel we have lost a portion of our own heart?
In the case of losing a child, we have been irrevocably separated from the individual for whom we would unconditionally lay down our own life.
What could cause a greater trauma to the heart, than that?
Losing a parent, spouse, sibling, peer, grandparent, cousin, aunt, uncle, friend, colleague, neighbour … all these cause appalling jolts to the heart – and yet on it beats, uncaring, oblivious to our plight, autonomously working to move the blood around our bodies to keep us going for another second, minute, hour, day, week, month, year … and so it goes. From that dark, mad place of early loss we have to keep our hearts open despite the pain, and seek out the sanity of living in the light again.
When James died, the knowledge rushed in and thumped my heart like a physical punch; more accurately, I felt as though I had been hit in the solar plexus and all the breath had been knocked out of me. That deflated feeling stayed with me for some while, but today, nine and a half years later, I can joyously fill my lungs properly with air, and take nourishing, deep breaths.
I maintain that the bereaved lose the ability to breathe fully whilst their hardworking, stunned hearts are trying to mend.
It is true that a broken heart aches, throbs with loss, trembles with fear and skips beats with anxiety. All those things I have felt in the pain of bereavement.
The writer Ann Lamott says,
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
Learning to live with loss is vital to any form of progress or recovery … I hesitate to use the word ‘acceptance’ as I do not believe it ever applies to child loss. I prefer to say that assimilation is key to moving forward. Each of my losses, but especially losing James, stretched the endurance of my human spirit to its limit; nothing will ever challenge me more, physically or mentally but my remarkable heart still beats steadily. That is a massive tribute to the heart’s indomitability and I should thank it for not letting me down.
We associate the heart less prosaically with its ability to maintain life than we do romantically with love, in particular with Saint Valentine. Much myth and legend surrounds this sanctified priest, who was martyred at Rome centuries ago. It is said that on the eve of his death, he penned a farewell note to his jailer’s daughter, signing it “from your Valentine”. One can imagine then, that this young girl lived with the heartache of loss too, for the remainder of her life.
There is nothing new in the profound insult to the heart that comes with the loss of someone beloved.
If my heart could speak, I wonder what it would say?… perhaps,
“I hurt when you hurt. I cried when you cried. I railed at the fates and despaired in the darkness. I lay down on the earth with you and felt your pain and anguish. I shared your fear that this could defeat you, if you allowed it to.
Yet… after a time of grieving, I saw you get up and choose to walk forward. You rightly hold your head high in pride that you are surviving this; you are living with it and you are sharing it and you are bearing it and you are feeling it. You can breathe and laugh and feel love and joy and friendship again. You can rejoice in the light of the days of your life. You are strong and powerful and resilient and I will not fail you”.
Thank you, heart.