Psychotherapy and Counselling In Brighton and Hove Steffi Bednarek   MA   BA   MBACP

The beauty and the medicine of a broken heart

The beauty and the medicine of a broken heart

A few years back, when I had just finished reading my 4 year old daughter a bedtime story, she suddenly looked very serious, grabbed my face and said: ‘Mummy I love you sooo much. I don’t ever want to be without you… but you will die before me, won’t you?’ In this moment I felt this tug in my heart that reminded me that our love for each other and the inevitability of heartbreak are intertwined; the knowledge that if we make ourselves fully open to each other, we also make ourselves vulnerable to the excruciating pain of loss.

We are soft, fallible, sentient beings that are deeply relational and embedded in the world around us. We long for connection and a life free from suffering and yet, our hearts keep being broken. This is what leads many people to seek counselling or psychotherapy. People are looking for support in tending to their broken hearts. 

In ‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’ Francis Weller (2015) writes: ‘Grief and love are sisters, woven together from the beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held close. (p.16)

Heartbreak is an inevitable part of life. Nobody is exempt from it. Whether doctor or patient, counsellor or client, teacher or pupil, no matter how rich or poor we are, life will find a way to remind us of our shared vulnerable human nature. We are all fellow travellers. The question is not whether or not our hearts will get broken, the question is what meaning we ascribe to a broken heart. Do we follow our desire to fix things, to patch the pieces together and to guard this vulnerable heart with vigilance, or do we build up our muscle of the heart in order for it to grow and expand? Do we seek ways to avoid suffering or do we learn to bear the pain? Can we dare to allow ourselves to find out what lies on the other side of heartbreak? Will we survive it?

Birth, this first rite of passage into this world and into motherhood,  comes with excruciating pain and a great deal of risk. Thankfully, modern medicine has done wonders to reduce the risks of childbirth and to administer drugs and procedures that minimise the pain. I wonder however if there is another dimension to this magical process of giving life. Is it possible that this level of pain at the threshold of life teaches us something about our capacity to grow into an ability we never thought possible? Could a certain level of pain and our ability to bear it be the vehicle that allows us to cross threshold moments?

People in my psychotherapy practice often apologise for their tears and feel guilty for feeling sad. Happiness has become the new stick to beat ourselves up with. Anything short of easy going cheerfulness leaves us feeling that we are failing to live up to the perceived and perpetuated norm of ‘just being happy’. 

For the most part the grief of a broken heart is not a problem to be solved, not a condition to be medicated, but an encounter with a deep experience of being human. Grief only becomes problematic if the conditions needed for it to run its course are absent, for example when there is a lack of support in the environment or there is pressure to quickly return to ‘normal’.This forces sorrow and pain underground. 

Our fear of being outside the norm often leads us to deny or suppress feelings that don’t fit in with our idea of how we ‘should’ be feeling. The paradox is that we often do this in order to belong. Most of us live by shared rules and are willing to give up the same kinds of freedom in return for security. But there are times in each of our lives when our feelings are far too wild and raw to fit into the tame confinement we deem acceptable for example when we experience a bereavement, the ending of a relationship, redundancy, retirement etc.

The cost of splitting off from the wild force of our feelings is all too often the loss of our ability to truly engage with others and the world. What we sacrifice is our life force and our ability to love deeply. As our wilderness is driven underground, what remains is numbness, a narrow band of emotions that promises to feel safe and civilised. In the name of staying safe, many of us allow a part of us to die before we do. We become a narrow version of what it is to be alive as a sentient vulnerable human being. All too often we anaesthetise ourselves by bathing in a culture that delivers us imagery and stories that are devoid of depth, either violent, sickly sweet or overtly sexual but without connection.

I have come to see my role as a psychotherapist more and more as taking into account the shared human despair behind these manifestations and to distinguish between living and surviving. Once I allow myself to stay open to the pain without trying to fix it, something truly wonderful happens. It seems like this human connection in a dark moment, this bearing of the pain, this going into the darkness, opens up a process of transformation. Once we feel supported and safe enough to allow our hearts to break open, we connect deeply and see the world differently as a result.

The poet Wendell Berry writes this about our relationship to dark times:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings

and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.

I believe that our broken hearts have the potential to open us to a wider sense of self, one capable of seeing through the confinements that keep us separate from others and the world. If we dare to move through our despair to acceptance of the way things are, then we are no longer governed by our fear of pain. 

At times the pain that life confronts us with can be overwhelming and our heart freezes into shock and trauma. If softness, space and movement can be brought into this contraction, our heart can break open into life and become big enough to embrace life in it’s darkness as well as it’s fullness. If we dare to live with loss and death as an adviser instead of the enemy, heartbreak will travel with us each step of the way, but we are empowered to experience life fully - including the coming of death.

‘We are not meant to live shallow lives, pocked by meaningless routines and the secondary satisfactions of happy hour. We are the inheritors of an amazing lineage, rippling with memories of life lived intimately with {the natural world around us}. We are designed to encounter this life with amazement and wonder, not resignation and endurance.” (Weller 2015, p.21).

To be human is to taste both, the unspeakable beauty of human relationship and the excruciating pain that comes with exposing ourselves to the risk of loss. There is grace, beauty and power hidden in our sorrow. This is why I see it as an act of soul activism to speak in favour of the broken heart. I am a fellow traveller that keeps learning from each heartbreak, big or small. 

I will finish with a poem by one of my favourite poets. In this poem Mary Oliver invites us into heartbreak, not because she wants us to suffer but because she tells us that on the other side of suffering lies a bigger and fuller experience of the world - not in spite of the pain, but because of it.

Lead - (Mary Oliver)

Here is a story

to break your heart.

Are you willing?

This winter

the loons came to our harbor

and died, one by one,

of nothing we could see.

A friend told me

of one on the shore

that lifted its head and opened

the elegant beak and cried out

in the long, sweet savoring of its life

which, if you have heard it,

you know is a sacred thing,

and for which, if you have not heard it,

you had better hurry to where

they still sing.

And, believe me, tell no one

just where that is.

The next morning

this loon, speckled

and iridescent and with a plan

to fly home

to some hidden lake,

was dead on the shore.

I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world.

~ Mary Oliver ~




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