First Aid for Broken Hearts
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
“Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it.”
— Tori Amos
We meet here, on this page, because your heart is broken.
You’re hurting. You’re suffering life’s most painful experience: loss.
Whatever your loss may be, please know that I am genuinely sorry.
I’ve been a grief counselor and educator for a long time now. Doing what I can to offer compassion and hope to people who are grieving is my passion and life’s work.
As you well know, your grief is real.
I hope this article helps you honor your unique grief and begin to understand how to mend your heart.
Does mending seem impossible to you right now? If so, that’s OK. You are where you are.
Yet I assure you that not only is mending possible, it can transform you.
Life is both wonderful and devastating.
It graces us with joy, and it breaks our hearts.
Why are our hearts so breakable? Because human hearts are made to grow attached.
If we’re lucky, that is.
If we’re lucky, we love. If we’re fortunate, we become attached.
Our loves and attachments are what give our fleeting, challenging lives meaning and joy.
But—and this may be the biggest Catch-22 in all of human existence!—there’s an unavoidable flipside to the joy of connection: Whenever our loves and attachments are threatened, torn, or broken, our hearts begin to break.
When we love someone and they die, our hearts break.
When we love someone and we become separated from them, our hearts break.
When we love someone and they get seriously sick, our hearts break.
When we are powerfully attached to a place or a home, a career or a situation, that we must transition away from, our hearts break.
In the course of our decades of life, that’s an awful lot of brokenheartedness for each of us to bear.
Degrees of brokenness
How badly our hearts break each time we lose something is generally a measure of two things: the strength of the attachment bond, and the severity of the threat to the bond.
Of course, brokenheartedness can’t actually be quantified. As with all emotional and spiritual experiences, there is no objective unit of measure. We can’t weigh it on a scale or wrap it with a measuring tape.
Yet even though we can’t assign our brokenheartedness a precise number, we instinctively know how broken we feel inside. Those of us who’ve been on this earth for a while know that sometimes our hearts sustain more damage than at other times.
Some losses hurt just a twinge.
Some losses are painful but manageable.
And some losses knock us to the ground and rip our hearts from our chests.
If your loss was especially damaging and perhaps recent, you may even be wondering if you’ll survive. As my friend and colleague Earl Grollman once said, “The worst grief is the one you are going through right now.”
Yet no matter how badly broken your heart is at this moment, your heart can mend. That is my promise.
Life is change
Love and attachment are indeed wonderful, but the circumstances of life are impermanent.
No matter how devotedly we love and try to safeguard our attachments, the globe spins. The years pass. And things change.
People get sick.
People betray us.
We betray ourselves.
Passions ebb and flow.
Fortunes rise and fall.
And no matter what happens, the world just keeps turning.
Life is like a river. We are floating down a river that twists and turns. We can never see very far ahead. Sometimes the going is smooth; sometimes the rapids are rocky and dangerous. And sometimes a waterfall plunges us over the edge.
Life is constant change, which means the circumstances in which we love and are attached are also constantly changing. No matter how hard we try to manage risk and control our destinies, things inevitably happen that turn our lives upside-down.
Anytime we gain something new, we give something else up.
Sometimes we choose the things or people to give up. Other times they’re torn away from us against our will. Either way, we’re bound to suffer loss.
The longer we live, the more the losses pile up. It’s unavoidable.
Unless we don’t love or grow attached at all, of course. But what kind of life would that be?
The wound of loss
When someone or something we love leaves or is taken away from us, our hearts break.
Since your loss, maybe you’ve felt as if your heart has been torn down the middle. That’s what loss often feels like. A wrenching, ragged tear. A gaping wound.
It hurts. It throbs. It aches. It bleeds.
In a very real sense, you’ve been wounded by loss.
You have sustained an injury. But—and this is also important!—you are not ill. Grief is not a disease or sickness. It is also not a disorder. There is nothing intrinsically “wrong” with you. Instead, something from the outside has impacted you.
You are wounded, not ill. You are injured, not sick. You are broken, not diseased.
Human hearts break for many reasons. All are real, valid, and painful.
- Death of a loved one
- Illness (yourself or someone you care about)
- Emotional estrangement from a loved one
- Physical separation from a loved one
- Loss of a pet
- “Burst bubbles” (realizations that cherished people or things were not what you believed, hoped, or dreamed them to be)
- Lost or broken dreams
- Traumatic accidents or events
- Leaving a home
- Financial losses
- Job change or loss
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course. Whatever has broken your heart, it also belongs on this page.
My own heart has been broken many times in my life, by the deaths of beloved people, by significant relationships ending, by health crises, and by my family’s house burning down.
So tell me, what has broken your heart?
A note on ambivalence
Here at the outset, let’s also agree that our hearts can be both broken and happy at the same time.
Some losses are simultaneously gains. For example, a divorce may be both a heartbreaking loss and a hopeful fresh start.
And sometimes a significant loss occurs alongside a profound joy, such as when a family experiences the death of an elder and the birth of a baby in the same month.
The word “ambivalence” means to feel two opposing ways at the same time.
If you are ambivalent right now, if your heart is both grief-stricken and glad, you also need and deserve first aid.
First aid for broken hearts
OK, so you’ve been seriously wounded. Now what?
Now you need first aid. Now you need immediate, practical, hands-on care.
Let’s say you fall from a ladder and break your arm. You hear the sickening crunch. You feel the excruciating pain. You see that your arm now bends the wrong way.
What do you do?
Do you ignore the injury and continue on with your day and your life as best you can? Do you pretend nothing happened?
Of course not!
You head to urgent care because it’s urgent. Or you rush to the emergency room because it’s an emergency.
Yet many people with broken hearts try to ignore their injuries and continue on with their lives as best they can. They don’t get immediate care. They don’t seek first aid.
It’s a mistake that often costs them the fullness of life. If this article had warning alarms, they would be sounding here.
But here you are, seeking first aid. You are not making the mistake of neglecting your wound. You are wise.
I’m so glad you’re here.
About the author
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is a respected author and educator on the topics of companioning others and healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many bestselling books on healing in grief, including First Aid for Broken Hearts, from which this article was excerpted. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about grief and loss and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.