Healing the Broken Hearts in Newtown

As news of the horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut unfolded on Friday and over the weekend; 20 first grade students and 6 school staff murdered by a mentally ill young adult, my thoughts turned to those left behind...the families, friends and classmates. How will they begin to heal after suffering such unimaginable pain? I don't have any profound answers; I am without adequate words to comfort or explain such loss. After the memorial services have been held and the news media have moved on to new disasters, how will the broken hearts in Newtown begin to heal?

As one who has experienced every parent's worst nightmare, the loss of a child (my son Nick), perhaps this reflection, which I shared at last year's Pediatric Memorial Service at Massachusetts General Hospital and have also shared previously on this blog, may provide some hope for those beginning their journey of healing.

Sunday, November 6, 2011 ~ Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA

"The only whole heart is a broken one...it lets the light in" ~Rabbi David Wolpe

"There are few choices afforded to us in how to survive the loss of a child.  Well meaning friends, relatives and professionals may advise us "not to let this tragedy define who we are", but I will have to respectfully disagree with this advice.  The tragedy of losing a child is a life changing event like no other: We are confronted with not only the loss of one we deeply love, but with the loss of our future as we had envisioned.  We are shaken to the very core of our existence and essence. Yes, this event will define us for the rest of our lives whether we want it to or not.

When our loss is new, it is unfamiliar and terrifying in its intensity.  I vividly remember waking up the morning after Nick died and being absolutely amazed and incredulous that the sun had the audacity to rise, that the school bus continued on its scheduled route down my street, that  people went to the grocery store, commuted to work and  that the mail was delivered...the outside world continued to function as if nothing had occurred.  It was a surreal scene.  Because for me it was as if a nuclear bomb had been detonated.  The world as I had known it had been destroyed with the death of my son.  My world now was defined as a new normal even though I wished desperately for the old normal to return. 

Rabbi and author, David Wolpe, aptly describes the feeling of new loss in this way  "When we experience a loss, a hole opens up inside of us. It is almost as if the loss itself plows right through us, leaving us gasping for air" and we bleed profusely through this opening. During the early days, months and years after our loss, we focus on how to slow down this  hemorrhage, this continuous emptying of grief.  But then something begins to change, very, very slowly; the immediate agony subsides. Around the edges of that opening, things begin to heal and scar tissue begins to form.  This is the point at which we can choose how the tragedy of our loss will continue to define our lives...we can choose  to allow the scar tissue to continue to form and thicken, closing the hole within us -- hardening us to the world with the unfairness and unjustness of our loss; or we can choose to allow the hole to remain open, allowing not only the stream of grief to flow out but permitting light, hope and meaning to enter.  I have chosen to allow the hole within me to remain open and this is one of the gifts my son has given me. 

Rabbi Wolpe suggests that "The only whole heart is a broken one, it lets the light shine in."  Allowing the hole to remain open, has allowed me to be a more compassionate person to others and myself, perhaps a bit less judgmental and more empathetic than I was in my old normal.  Keeping the hole open has made it easier for me to prioritize what really matters and not what I think should matter -- it now OK to say no to mundane tasks and yes to things that feed my soul.  I do not fear many things now -- after all the worst has happened to me, so what do I have to be fearful of now?  And most important, by keeping the hole open, continuing to allow the grief out and the light in, I am able to hold Nick and the meaning of his life close.  

So, perhaps I have what the professionals call a "maladaptive coping strategy", but I embrace the notion that yes, I have let this tragedy define me in a way I never imaged would be possible; by allowing my heart to remain broken, and open, it is, in my new normal, whole once more."