I woke up from an intense dream some years ago. It was long and involved, and I’ll spare you the details, except for this one passage:
I was with a doctor friend of mine, and we were about to do some more surgery on my heart. My heart, by the way, was in a box, propped up on the work surface. She told me I could make the incision if I wanted to. I do everything, so I jumped at the chance. We were looking at my heart, there in the box, sharing our hesitation about finding the place where Matt’s death ripped into me. We found a small scar, both noticing it at the same time. Phew. We both breathed in relief: it’s definitely still there, but it looks alright.
And then, we turned the heart over.
That little mark we saw? That was nothing. Turning it over revealed the actual wound. The mark left on my heart from Matt’s death nearly cleaved my heart in half. It was healing, the wound was no longer gushing. But it was wide. It left the whole back side of my heart looking like a butterflied steak.
It flustered me. I walked away. The doctor had asked me to go measure out the rope we’d use to stitch up the new incision, and as I tried to do this, I realized I couldn’t count. I could barely hold the rope in my hands. She told me we’d need “the whole nine yards,” but I couldn’t remember what a “yard” meant. Nothing made sense again.
I suddenly became so conscious of the wound, so afraid to do anything that might tax my heart. That wound was so deep, so visceral. Even though my heart was clearly functional, seeing the scars paralyzed me. Made me afraid to jostle my heart.
I walked back to the doctor, and told her I couldn’t figure out how to measure the rope.
I told her I couldn’t do the incision, the one that would start the new work on my heart. She would need to take over.
I was so shaken by what I saw.
All of this comes as I spend more and more time in the journals I wrote in those early days. As I poke around in the wreckage of my heart, I am often stunned into silence. To see that person I was. To look back at what I lived. To become wary of doing anything that would tax that heart, working so hard despite the giant cleaving it’s sustained.
That wound. I know it’s there. Sometimes I am thrilled to poke around and explore. Sometimes the new territory of the heart is exciting, and I’m all ready to go. And sometimes, I am knocked to the floor with the depth and width of that wound. I am wary of jostling my heart by poking around in there.
If you are new here on this grief path, you are living inside that intense wound every second of every day. There’s too much pain to even begin to see the actual wound, to sketch out all the damage that’s been done. That pain is what is.
It’s exhausting and all-consuming.
Some days, some moments, you will be able to hold your gaze on your own broken heart, and some days, some moments, that gaze will be impossible.
What I want you to know is that it’s okay to turn away when you need to.
Sometimes the visceral, gaping reality of that wound is too much, and you stagger under its weight.
Having compassion for yourself in those moments when you witness your own pain also includes having the kindness to drop your gaze when it gets to be too much.
It’s okay to feel yourself numb out. Numbness is part of grief. Needing to avert your gaze when the loss has you reeling – that is normal. It’s healthy, even. It’s a kindness.
Seeing your own broken heart – hurts. Be gentle with yourself as you wander through this life, whatever that gentleness looks like.
How about you? How have you seen your own pain from a distance, and how has that affected you? Let us know in the comments.