Broken-Open Hearts

“The most remarkable thing about broken hearts is that they are also open hearts. Broken hearts are soft and malleable. The locks protecting broken hearts have fallen to the floor - they are left unguarded. Broken hearts are easy to enter. Where the broken parts have fallen away, there is open space. Nothing is held too tightly anymore. My broken heart allows me to see the way other’s hearts are broken too. I am developing more compassion as others suffering becomes clear to me. No matter how hard and unpredictable this path is, I want to keep sitting here with Grief.”  Anna Hodges Oginsky, My New Friend, Grief, Reflections on Loss and Life

Hearts are one of my talismans. Like butterflies and birds and flowers, the heart symbolizes everlasting love and continued life, and has come to stand as a comforting sign of my mother’s spirit. The paragraph above from Anna Oginsky’s book (My New Friend, Grief) spoke volumes to me as I continue learning about living with loss and the reformation it’s creating in my life.

“Broken hearts are open hearts,” Oginsky writes. During this time, I've been thinking of my poor heart as broken and shattered, never to be mended again. But those words offered me the opportunity to shift perspective and think of my heart being opened instead, wiser and more accepting of new feelings, and also more wiling to let go of things that don’t serve me. 


 While I still mourn the loss of my mother’s presence on earth, lately it feels almost as if she has entered into some of that open space in my heart, as if she comforting and guiding me from within as she always did so well in the realm of the real world. I am gaining a sense of her presence that is almost stronger than that devastating sense of absence that set me reeling in those early weeks. I find great comfort in so many small things these days: tending the flowers in my yard, feeding the birds, sitting with coffee on the deck and watching the clouds in the sky. There is a stillness that settles around me when I do everyday things, but at the same time, a sense of comfortable urgency that reminds me to savor each moment because they accumulate and pass so quickly. The “waves of grief” that wash over me now are less like a tsunami, and more like the gentle, consistent lapping of water against the sandy shore, a rhythmic background to life in general.

I sense that this all part of learning to live in grief. That’s the way I now think of it, rather than as something I will pass through and come out clean and done on the other side. “Real grief is not healed by time,” writes philosopher Henri Nouwen. “If time does anything, it deepens our grief. The longer we live, the more fully we become aware of who she was for us, and the more intimately we experience what her love meant to us.” 

Grief for my mother will always have a presence in my life, in my heart. I will live with it forever. But I’m not as afraid of that as I once was. In our culture, the word grief carries such negative connotations. We know we’ll experience it at some point in our lives, but hope to avoid it as much as possible. When it comes to us, we think we must “get through it” somehow so we can return to our regular life as soon as possible. I’m beginning to understand the complete fallacy of this concept. I will never “get over” my mother’s death. I don’t want to "get over" it. Though she isn’t here with me physically any longer, she continues to guide me as I feel myself and my vision of life changing, becoming stronger, wiser, deeper. “Real, deep love is very unobtrusive, seemingly easy and obvious,” Nouwen continues, "and so present that we take it for granted. It is often only in retrospect - or better, in memory - that we fully realize its power and depth. Yes, indeed, love often makes itself visible in pain."


There have been many opportunities to see the pain and grief of others this week, and the airwaves have been filled with it. My broken-open heart hurts for the nation in general, and for the families of those directly affected in particular. In a new book titled Becoming Wise, journalist Krista Tippet writes: “There are windows in public life, every now and again, when we wake up to the reality of our bond to each other, even to hurting strangers far away, and keep attending through our sorrow.” This past week may be such a moment. As a nation, we grieve for our ancient hope of unity, for the “one nation with liberty and justice for all” that seems so fragile and far away these days. Can we as a people, can find a softer, wiser place in our collective hearts, a place for compassion and love to take root and begin to replace the overgrowth of fear and mistrust that runs rampant in the world today? A place where hearts can be not only broken open, but changed deeply and lastingly?

“Love often makes itself visible in pain,” Nouwen wrote. It becomes visible when we recognize the face of suffering in those around us and know we are all connected by loss and pain. Poet Marie Howe says of grief, “I did know...that I could either let this crack my heart open or closed. But the good news about open is, I turned around and there were the billion other people who have lost a person they love so much. There they all were. It was so great to be in their company.” 

Let us be in the company of one another with our broken-open hearts.