Choosing to Keep the Heart Open

Grief is universal.  As human beings we are fortunate that we can feel the emotion of love so strongly, but tightly bound to this intense love is the incredible grief we feel when one we love dies.  Some of you may know that my son, Nick, died of a rare form of cancer in 2001 when he was just 14 years old.  I was both humbled and honored when I was recently asked to deliver a speech at the 20th annual Pediatric Memorial Service at Massachusetts General Hospital to honor the children who had died and the parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and healthcare providers who they left behind.  A large part of my professional life is spent as a public speaker, so I am comfortable expressing myself before a large audience.  However, as you can imagine, this speech didn't come easily to me. As I worked on what I wanted to say to the audience gathered at Massachusetts General Hospital, it became clear that perhaps these words needed to travel further, so I am posting them here, in my blog, in hopes that someone who may find comfort in them will find them here.  It is with compassion, peace and hope that I offer these words to each of you ~ Pam
Sunday, November 6, 2011 ~ Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA

"The only whole heart is a broken 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.

I wish each of you peace, hope, and healing on your journeys.