When my brother died by suicide, my heart broke. I felt something inside me shatter. At first I existed in survival-mode. Able to stand, even speak, at the memorial. Though that soon wore off, and in its wake there was a rawness, an ache, an emptiness inside of me, or what was left of me.
My heart literally hurt.
My heart wasn’t actually broken, medically speaking, but a broken heart is a real thing. It’s called Broken Heart Syndrome (also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy). The American Heart Association tells us that: “In broken heart syndrome, a part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of your heart functions normally.” They assure us that broken heart syndrome is “usually treatable.”
Treatable: right. In the beginning nothing about my broken heart felt treatable. It wasn’t a clean break down the middle. It wasn’t the kind of break that heals quickly or perfectly. My heart was shattered. It was covered in fractures and fissures.
As the months turned into years, I found that my heart was healing. In its own way, in its own time. I won’t say I am grateful for the pain I endured, but I am grateful for the gifts and growth that was born from the pain.
When my heart was split open, I began to put things inside of it. I carefully placed a piece of my brother into my heart, so I knew he’d always be there. Into one of the cracks I put gratitude for the life lessons my big brother taught me, then I stitched around it, closing that one fissure. Into one of the fractures I tucked away a kind of compassion I had never known, because I had both endured and witnessed pain no words can describe. I used a cross-stitch to secure the newfound compassion in place, filling in that one fracture.
This process went on. I sewed memories of Joey into my heart. I stitched in a greater ability to let go, some grit and tenacity, the ability to laugh again. I stitched in acceptance, empathy, joy, hope, and as much love as my heart could hold. When I couldn’t get the stitch right, I had friends who would cover sewing duty for me. When the sutures wouldn’t hold, I had friends to give me Dermabond skin glue.
As I put each new thing into my heart, it grew fuller, it began to mend piece-by-piece, fractures and fissures healed. It was no longer broken, though it was permanently altered. It was rebuilt and in some ways stronger than before. But my heart is covered in scars, with some wisdom tucked into the wounds that will never quite heal. It isn’t the same, but it is whole.
We always have an opportunity to make something positive out of even the most horrific situations. We are each on our own grief journey. We will heal in our own way, in our own time. I would never say that we can “move on,” but we can move forward. We can rebuild some of what was broken and we can create something new in the empty spaces.
When my brother died by suicide, my heart broke; but it didn’t just break apart, it broke wide open. Though so much was taken away, space was opened up to add more. Now I try to live my life with presence and intent. I try to live with compassion and kindness. I try to live well as an homage to Joey… because he lives on in my heart.