Touched by loss. Empowered through community.

When the Heart Breaks Open

Date: 
Monday, March 23, 2015
Posted By: 
Jeannine Love

Hearts are stretchy things. When they are exercised properly, they can expand to allow lots of folks in. There is no limit to the love we can give. But, when they are traumatized, they lose their elasticity. Worse they become frail and brittle, falling to pieces with the slightest bump or tug.

This is what grief does to the heart. It turns something warm and elastic into a frozen and brittle shell. This creates a tendency to shut down and retreat. The feeling of brokenness is overwhelming and there seems little hope that the spark of life and love might return. That the heart might eventually mend, that elasticity might return and that love might be given and received once again.

What’s more, for those of us who have been widowed, there is often an adamant refusal of the possibility of new love. For some, the thought of loving and losing another partner is too much. For others, the thought of loving someone else feels like a betrayal. Indeed, the idea of dating after losing a spouse is downright terrifying for many – for a variety of reasons.

For me, the idea of betrayal was strong for a very long time. This was not a rational feeling; Aric is gone, and I am single. And, unlike many, I was lucky in the sense that Aric and I knew he was sick and we had had the chance to talk about his feelings about me loving again should he die. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted me to find someone who would love me and care for me as I had loved and cared for him. He felt guilty for the hardships we endured due to his illnesses and he wanted me to love again, to live, to thrive.

But, even with that blessing, and even though intellectually I knew my heart could stretch to let in someone else without letting go of Aric, the reality is that my heart has remained a very damaged, delicate and brittle thing. And I have kept it carefully tucked away for the past two years. Beyond simply fearing betraying Aric, there was fear of judgment. As a society, we collectively seem so good at judging others, and we widowed folks and our dating lives certainly seem to be an item folks love to judge. The thought of opening myself to that scrutiny is frightening—in many ways it’s much safer to remain the devoted widow.

And, of course, there is fear of dating itself. The last time I truly considered myself “single,” I had just turned twenty. That was eighteen years ago. That was a lifetime ago. So, in truth, I’ve been dancing around the edges of considering dating again for a while, but never able to fully connect to the possibility. Open to the idea, but not the reality, and with very little ability to conceptualize what that reality could even look like.

Thus, for the past two years I have kept my heart hidden away, safely swaddled in memories and cherished mementos. By no means has that been wasted time just hiding away. I’ve had a lot of work to do in reconnecting with myself after the trauma of losing Aric, including learning to live completely on my own for the first time. And in the process of introspection and figuring out who I am in this new life, that carefully guarded heart has slowly been building scar tissue below the cracks and rebuilding the inner space with more pliable stuff, even while the exterior remained hard and inelastic.

Then a not long ago I spent some time with an old friend. It was one of those nights where you hang out with a friend you haven’t seen in years and you just instantly reconnect. We had a lovely time hanging out, and then afterward we texted back and forth late into the night.

It was an innocent exchange, but even so I felt connected. Cared about. Special. There was knot in my stomach and a fluttering in my heart—a feeling that I had not had in a very long time. It was I feeling I had completely forgotten. And, even as I felt that slightly nauseating butterfly feeling that made me feel both foolish and somewhat terrified, from within that long frozen and brittle shell, that still raw but newly healing heart took a deep breath and sighed.

And with that sigh, my heart broke open. Not broken in the way a brittle heart falls apart. But broken open in the way a hatchling breaks through its protective shell. Breaking through the damaged, dead, brittle exterior to reveal the still deeply scarred but newly healing heart within. Open to possibility. Open to whatever new adventures life has in store. And, open once again to love.

I still have a way to go. There is still a lot of healing left ahead of me, and my heart is still a delicate thing, but it is no longer the brittle fragility of new grief. No, it is the delicateness of new growth. Within my heart there is finally the potential of stretching to make room for someone else, of giving and receiving love again. And that is a welcome feeling.

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