The Anatomy Of A Broken Heart

June 22, 2017
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I have yet to meet a heart that has not had its share of breaking. It is an inevitable consequence of something so powerful and fulfilling and overwhelming as love that it should also contain within it the capacity to be as debilitating, mournful, and suffering as a broken heart can be.

In my experience, the breaking of a heart comes in stages. There is the initial shock to body and mind, the slow physical and mental separation that follows, the equally slow approach towards recovery from the loss and the final stage of closure.

I have exercised great artistic license in naming and describing these stages, as I think love and loss demands something ornamental and poetic in describing it, but these stages seem consistently represented to some degree in everything I have read and talked about with others about their broken hearts.

Take it for what it’s worth. Read it how you will. But most of all, I hope there is something in it that can help anyone who has felt the breaking of a heart as deeply as I seem to feel it when it comes.

The Breaking

That initial breaking of a heart is a very real trauma to the mind and body. There are studies that point to a similarity between how our brain lights up during sensory pain and how they light up when they experience the pain of rejection that comes from a broken heart.

I can not imagine anyone who has suffered a substantial loss of love denying the real physical manifestations of it in the body. The nausea. The lingering tightness in the chest as though your heart were literally breaking. You can feel the impending separation in your body as real as something being physically cut away from you.

There are the first gasping breaths of your heart that come when you are hit with the sudden shock of loss that comes from the breaking. Like being plunged into ice-cold water, your body tries to catch up with the momentary loss of heat that you had inside you and everything in you screams for warmth and release from the strangling terror that is your sudden drowning.

And after you find a moment to catch your breath, the incessant pounding of your heart – aching to punch through your chest and flee towards a safer place – rattles your head and obscures your ability to hear anything but that thump that signals your hearts dying.

There is a swelling inside of you. Like a thing ready to burst. You can feel the tensing of muscles and the ripping of your soul. Your stomach twists and knots and turns over on itself and you feel ready to let out whatever is inside of you just so you don’t have to keep swallowing the poison of it.

Along with all of these physical maladies of a broken heart comes the far worse and instant afflictions of the mind.

There is the smothering sadness. A sudden black cloud in your mind that allows no light to seep through. And a driftless anxiety settles over you like a fog refusing to lift, obscuring your vision and leaving everything in view ashen and pale. The world loses its color because you lose the ability to see it’s brightness through the dark onslaught of memories and thoughts that come at you in the swirling mental storm.

The Scattering

After that initial physical and mental shock of shattering there is the scattering of the broken pieces and the dawning realization of what it means to no longer have the person you loved in your life.

You will spend lost hours combing over the arguments you had and what things you might have said that could have smoothed them over and avoided the extremity of the severing you two have made.

Memories, both good and bad, will flow through your head like a river uncontrolled and it will erode the boundaries of work and school and friends and family – and everything will be washed in the rushing water of your loss and everything will be a little touched and damaged by it.

You will find yourself pulling away from the world and retreating to places inside that can still be with the person you lost. You will catch their perfume or cologne on the bus and your heart will stagger as if broken anew. You will hear a song – a song that once was your song together – and it will be like an alcoholic smelling alcohol – something wanted so much for the familiarity but something that hurts as soon as it’s had.

In your lonely moments of separation, you will think towards the future as well. That temporality is not spared the shadow of a broken heart. You will think to plans you made together. The future family events where their absence will be a beacon of your failure. Birthdays and parties and trips and all the things of life that become intertwined and expected when you come to love someone.

And all those things will be empty because the future you can imagine where all these events will happen does not contain the one you lost, and therefore it contains nothing. It can not possibly contain another person that might fulfill you more deeply or love you more fully. No. It holds no one. As though the future were only possible through that one person that is now gone.

Because broken hearts can not contain any of the things that must be carried to see the future. They can not carry hope and trust and faith and happiness and excitement. They are broken vessels that carry only an emptiness that is as heavy as any burden that can be carried.

And this is the lowest stretch of heartache. The gut-wrenching hours you spend alone mulling over imagined scenarios where your heart isn’t broken and the world isn’t ending. You sit alone among all the scattered, broken pieces of your heart, like shards of mirrored glass lying at your feet, and you see all the million tiny reflections of your failure, and you can’t imagine ever having the strength or understanding to pick all this shit up and put it all together again.

The Gathering

But you will.

As the days and weeks slip past, you will realize that you can not continue on with all the broken things at your feet – walking across them every day and feeling the sharp bite of their presence in every step you take.

You will wake up some days and not feel the instant pain of absence. You will, in fact, begin to go long stretches where your life begins to normalize and the loss will only creep up on you in the few dark moments when you purposely go seeking out the memory of it.

And this is when we get on our hands and knees and begin gathering up the broken things of our heart and start to put it all together again. We put all the pieces in a pile and we begin by sorting out the larger pieces that are still mostly intact.

Those larger pieces that symbolize our love for friends and family. These are the edges of the puzzle of our broken heart that frames the rest. We put those pieces down and use them to begin to place the smaller pieces that may have shattered more. We use these pieces because they are the anchor of our hearts and they help us refocus on the image of ourselves.

And as we begin to collect and place all the things inside of us that we thought would never be whole again, we see the patterns of our life return. Those things that we enjoyed begin to once again take shape and find themselves in our life. The hobbies we pursued, the activities we sought out, the dreams we once had. They will slowly reveal themselves again and you will place them alongside the other pieces as they are found.

What’s more, if you look hard enough, you find new pieces that fit better in your heart then those that were broke. You will take up a new hobby. A new diet. A new exercise routine. If you do the gathering right, you will be able to replace the badly damaged pieces of your heart with new pieces that make you better than you were.

And when you are done with all the collecting you will realize that there are still pieces missing. Things that were so equally shared with the one you lost that they can never be fully pieced together because some of it was taken from you when they left. Those little holes are ok though. They will hurt when you run your fingers over them but they do not last forever.

The Mending

Because one day you will wake up and you will check the shape of your heart and you will realize the little holes aren’t there anymore. They have fused with the larger pieces of your heart and, though they are still tender things, they are also clean, untouched things that can be colored with anything you want.

And that one day, when the memories have faded enough to become shimmering scenes, like landmarks in the distance of a heat fueled air, you will find that your heart has become whole again. You held the broken pieces together long enough for them to find themselves and reunite.

The world will return to full and radiant color. The future will lose its bleakness and the past will approach a fondness. You will look out over the horizon of those memories of the one you lost and you will be able to smile because somewhere in that distance you remember being loved. It will not matter by who you were loved or that they left. You were loved and you were capable of loving and that is a thing of constant hope.

Yes, a thin trickle of pain will still occasionally spill through between the pinhole cracks that never fully healed, but it will be the sort of pain that is easily ignored. The sort of pain that promises a reward if you just push through it. A pain that makes you stronger.

And that is when you will realize you are ready to give your heart again. A little cracked, a little flawed but put together in a better way and an entirely new gift to give to someone who might better appreciate it.

What’s more, you will realize the capacity and compassion to receive the broken hearts of others with a deeper recognition for the way that they were able to piece together the broken things of their own heart. You will find yourself running fingers more gently over the rough spots because you recognize the same in your own heart.

Sure, your heart might break again, but that is what a heart is for. It is a breakable thing on purpose. It is not a fragile thing, though, to those that understand it. It is breakable in the same way a puzzle is breakable. It can be taken apart but everything is there to put it back together if you are careful and you look hard enough. A heart is a thing of pieces and as many times as it is taken apart it can always be reassembled.

Yes, an often broken heart may be a thing of smaller, seemingly incongruent, pieces and it might require more effort to piece it back together, but it can be done and must be done, because it’s the only one you have and to leave it broken and lying at your feet is to remove the possibility of ever finding the pieces that might just make it complete someday.

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