A Broken Heart

I don’t remember where I first heard the quote “a broken heart is an open heart” but I’ve been reflecting on it a lot this past week.

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s suicides are heartbreaking – they both left behind young children, and thinking about them, about how they are going to cope with losing a parent in such a tragic way, takes my breath away.  

I have nothing but empathy for both of their struggles – like so many people I know, I struggled with clinical depression in my early 20s.  I remember too well the feelings of utter hopelessness, the sense that nothing would get better and that I would be better off not living.  I remember walking by a river in Lyon, France where I was studying abroad and thinking I should end it all – which gives me chills today, to remember how dark things had become, that I actually believed there was no hope, that things would never get better.

By the grace of God, with the love and support of family and friends, a lot of really good therapy and medication, I got better.  I got better and I am deeply thankful – that there is hope and that depression doesn’t have to be a life sentence. There is always hope.

I talked to a colleague this week who got a cancer diagnosis two months after graduating college and starting her new job at Google.  She studied public health in college, and she talked about how going through chemo opened her eyes to what it’s like to be a patient, and gave her new wells of empathy and understanding she never would have had otherwise.  I was stunned by her ability to view her experience that way, and told her so. That capacity to find the hope and the beauty in tragedy, to open your heart to more deeply care for those around you instead of shutting it down out of fear or anger or bitterness at the hand life has dealt you – that is the most brave and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

I’ve come to realize over the years that the most beautiful people I know are the ones who have been through the most heartbreaking tragedies.

My best friend lost her mom when she was two years old.  She grew up without a mom, and now to watch her parent her three children is to be in the presence of the most loving, patient, gracious mama I’ve ever seen.  I watch her as she talks to her kids, listens to them with love and kindness and a truly divine amount of patience [I love those munchkins but they are a handful!!] and it is a beautiful thing.  Those kids will never know a day of their lives that they aren’t sure, deep in the marrow of their bones, that they are loved unconditionally, unequivocally, forever and always.  They are loved and delighted in the way God intended for us all to be loved – and I don’t know what greater gift a parent can give, what greater gift any of us can give to one another.  She is giving her children what she didn’t have – a mother’s fierce and tender love – and it is a beautiful thing to bear witness to.

My dear friend Liz lost her mom to cancer when she was 16 – she had to walk through an experience that would break most adults when she was just a teenager.  To be with her is to experience Life with a capital L. She is a fount of “Lizdom,” deep and wise and hilarious and joyful – every time I talk to her there is both laughter and tears – the hallmark of the very best kind of conversations. She was the one who initiated me into the Dead Parents Club [our motto is “you laugh so you don’t cry”] and was my guide navigating the weird and hard realities of losing a parent at a young age.  Together we brainstormed how to respond to the question “where do your parents live?” and how not to punch someone in the face when they complained about their [loving, kind and very much alive] parents wanting to spend time with them.  Liz is a radiant, deep, wonderful person not in spite of her loss but in many ways because of it – it has shaped and molded her into this beautiful person I am blessed to call my friend.

My mom cared for her mom [my grandma] for over 10 years as she struggled w/ Alzheimer’s, flying up to Washington state twice a year to take her to her doctor’s appointments, until she passed away in 2003.   My dad was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2008, and died later that year from a heart attack, leaving my mom without her husband of 28 years.  A few years later, after flying back and forth often to upstate NY to help care for him, she lost her brother.  These losses didn’t make her bitter – if anything they only increased the depth of her love, her ability to care for those around her. My mom is one of the most loving, kind, generous-of-spirit people I know. She is always looking for opportunities to give of herself – her time, her attention, her energy, her hard work.  She gives and gives and when she’s done she gives some more. People tell me often that I look like her or sound like her – I pray w/ all my heart I’ll be as generous as her someday, giving without a second thought.

I could keep going, listing people I love who have struggled with miscarriages and losing children and abusive family relationships and sexual assault and all sorts of grief and loss and pain – and have chosen to keep their hearts open, to grieve and rage and feel all of the feelings, yes absolutely, and also to allow their hearts to be enlarged by suffering, not made smaller.

They say you become like the people you spend the most time with, and when I look around at the people in my life, I pray to God that’s true.  Because I am surrounded by people who have endured great loss and pain, and have emerged from it stronger and more tender, beautiful of spirit, with a deep empathy and love for those around them and a deep compassion for the world.

Life is short and precious, and weeks like these, with headlines of tragic deaths and lives cut short too soon, are reminders of that.

Father’s Day is this Sunday, and I know I’m not the only one who approaches this day with a heavy heart.  I know so many people who are missing their dads this week, who were deeply blessed to have a loving, close relationship with them,  and that the hole that leaves brings pain.  I know many others whose father is still living, but they mourn all the same – for a father who couldn’t or didn’t love them the way they deserved, who wasn’t there, present in their loves, cheering them on.  That wound, that pain, of what could have been but wasn’t, stings too.

As much as it hurts, I’m trying to remember that the blessing of a broken heart is that it’s an open one-  open to dwelling more deeply with the suffering of others, open to deeply treasuring the beauty of the world all the more because there is also pain, open to loving with more courage and boldness because we know the days are short, and that tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.  So instead of running away from the pain, I’m going to lean into it, and let the brokenness become a conduit for more grace, more gratitude, and most of all for more love.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *