Words and images by Marit E Lovaas
When I was little I would imagine certain parts of my body divided up into sections. My stomach had certain compartments for the foods I liked. My brain had sections for the memories I had. And my heart had special sections for the things and people I loved. Everything in my heart had its own place. My mom would tell me, “Sometimes you can move your heart sections around to make room for new things. You can adjust.”
As I grew older, I learned that this was not how the body works but this naive childlike idea always stuck with me. However, I never imagined what it would feel like to have one of those sections break off, literal heartbreak, after losing someone forever. I did assume I would feel sadness, but was that heartbreak? Didn’t seem like it. Can heartbreak happen if you aren’t breaking up with your significant other? Obviously not. Move things around, readjust, I could do that. Things happen and I’m adaptable. But imagine my heart broken and scarred? Never. Not me. Not my family. We were happy.
I will never forget when I felt a piece of my heart break off for the first time. I had just moved into a new apartment and was sitting on the couch laughing while waiting for my roommate, we were going to see Whiplash. I just bought my own furniture for the first time. I was happy. I felt my phone ring and it was my Mom calling to tell me that my brother, 29, had hung himself.
The piece of my heart that was saved for family? I still remember it breaking off. Dangling there in my chest as my world spun around me. I can still feel it shattering as I remember pulling up to my parents’ pitch black house that night.
I was sitting in a small room with my mom while she planned my brother’s memorial service with our church. I was staring at my hands knowing if I looked at my mom I would cry. Fidgeting my hands like Ben always did. We were so alike. If it was him in this room how would he push forward? Be strong for Mom, I told myself. The priest talking to my mom told us something that has never left my mind. “The pain will always be there but it will lessen,” he said. “Yeah, right,” I thought to my 20-something-knows-all-about-the-world self.
The little breaks continued as time went on. Seeing my parents crying when I got home that night. The pity food. The funeral. Holidays forever without my older brother. Would they always continue? My wedding? Learning to be an “adult” but also dealing with grief? The anxiety I developed? Adjusting to new jobs? Friendships fading away? Everything that I imagine him being a part of. The little breaks continued on and I know they always will but we learn to adapt.
I still remember the feeling of learning one of my closest friends was minutes away from dying. I was standing in my apartment that finally seemed to be coming to life again. I was happy. I got another phone call that forever altered my life. The piece of my heart that was saved for friendship? I still remember it breaking off. Dangling there in my chest as I sat down in my bedroom thinking, “Why her?” I can still feel it shattering as I remember getting onto a plane going to visit her in the hospital. (She is alive, thriving, beautiful and as strong as ever.)
As time has passed, the pain has lessened and I realized that when a heart breaks it can be put back together through steps. The first step in putting my heart back together was understanding. I dove into anything I could regarding understanding death, as well as mental illness. I read books, I talked to people about their experiences, I raised money for mental illnesses in my brother’s name. Mental health was thrust into the front of my mind and gained a new piece of my brain, heart, and stomach (if we are talking about grief food).
The second step I took was focusing on others. Volunteering with kids who witnessed heart break before an age I believed they could even understand what emotions were. Reaching out to friends to let them know they are valued and appreciated. Calling my family and always emphasizing - I love you. And of course, showing up to dinner after work to my parents’ house invited or not.
The third step I took was acceptance. Acceptance of what my life was and what it will be from here on out. A little broken but happy. Acceptance for people for who they are no matter if they are struggling in ways I can’t always understand. And yes, I finally moved on and out of that apartment.
Sometimes there are days when my heart feels more broken than ever. Stitched together with experiences and strength but barely holding itself together. Days when I know it is okay to cry on the CTA, but still feel embarrassed. It is days like these that I remind myself you can readjust what is in your heart. Things are different and they hurt but I can move forward. I have learned to mend the broken parts, look forward to the new parts, and appreciate what has been jostled.
Heartbreak comes in many forms for everyone, but what I have learned from my experience is the pain, though always there, will lessen. You can adjust. Your heart will adapt.
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Marit is happily living in Chicago and works in digital marketing. She spends her time reading, trying new places to eat, and learning to laugh through the tough stuff. She is thankful for her family and friends and will never let them forget that.