Keep Your Heart Open to Love When Life Knocks You Down

Heart in Hands

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” ~Pema Chodron

I was nineteen weeks pregnant when my husband and I went for a routine ultrasound. We were to confirm that our child’s anatomy was as it should be, and we were to discover our child’s sex.

We were choosing names in the waiting room. We ran into the receptionist at the fertility clinic and exchanged hugs. We had graduated from the clinic. The tuition was expensive and the education detailed and grueling. But we were a success story.

As the technician began the ultrasound she got really quiet. I knew something was wrong.

I have tried to write about what followed. I really have. But I still can’t. What you need to know is this: three days later, on August 2, 2013, our son Zachary was stillborn.  

I remember standing in the hall of the hospital waiting outside the Quiet Room to see him. Sobbing in a way I didn’t know I could sob. I remember a nurse putting her hand on my back and me saying to her through my sobs, in shock, “Life is so hard, isn’t it?”

“Oh yes,” she replied.  That nurse was the first person to mirror to me that I was not insane. Life really was this bad sometimes.

This wasn’t the first loss of my life, although it was the most consciously heart breaking (I mean that literally: heart-breaking.)

Zachary’s death sat on top of a list of other losses: divorce, financial loss, job loss, loss of safety and security, loss of basic well-being. And eight months later I lost another child after just ten weeks.

This second loss almost ended me. I breathed pain. Once in a while I would come up for air, flailing my arms around and gasping, but before I knew it I would be pulled under again. I just couldn’t make anything stick. Nothing was moving forward.

I felt like everyone was passing me by—growing in their careers, becoming parents. One woman I know had three babies in the time I lost two.  

I couldn’t stop the feelings of unfairness. Even writing this today I can feel the shame and unworthiness flooding back. Every time I thought I was gaining ground something would happen—something small like the grocery store being out of cilantro—and I would fall right back into despair.

This lasted for months. Don’t let anyone kid you—life can be painful. Devastatingly so. Life can take what you love from you and ask you for a response. There is nothing easy about it. Life can ask everything of us.

Throughout this time I insisted on trying to recover. I went for walks. I saw friends. We bought a cottage. I worked. I even  tried to stop trying. None of this felt right. It felt against the grain.  And it was. But I kept acting as if there was hope.

I kept making plans. I kept trying to put my pain into words.

It became clear that I had no control over my grief. It was going to take the time it took. I had to surrender to it and trust that one day something might look beautiful again.  

Surrender wasn’t something that happened all at once. Sometimes I would think, “I’ve given in now,” only to wake up fighting again the next morning. But layer by layer, revelation by revelation, I finally allowed myself to have lost my son. To recognize that there was nothing I could do to get him back.  And nothing I could do to ensure I had another child.

I didn’t like it. It didn’t feel good. But I existed, breathed, lived with that truth.

And then, all in one week, three friends held me up. They said, in effect, “I am not going anywhere and you are going to make it through this.” And they said, “I can bear this pain with you.”

I could say I was lucky to have these three people in my life. And I am. But these friendships were co-created. Over many months of talking to each other about our lives. And I had to be vulnerable to them and show them my pain so they could see it and respond.

How did I make it through the nightmare of losing my child? By refusing to give up expressing the pain that I was feeling.

It is a paradox, I realize. I had to keep working hard at showing myself in order to give up. But surrender is not a moment—it is a working through, with a context.  It is a moment of grace surrounded on either side by days of showing up.

Here is what I learned from going to hell and back. This is my personal list of thoughts and reflections and I hope something here will resonate for someone else who is going through hell.

Invest in yourself.

This is the time to give yourself the environment you need to mourn and heal. Anxiety makes the body tense. Have a steam/sauna, massage, or cranial sacral therapy. As your mental state allows, find a restorative yoga class or practice meditation. Perhaps try therapy or dance or running.

Follow your intuition and invest time and money in the care of you.

Let life be terrible for a while.

You won’t get anywhere with affirmations when you are in the throes of grief. Respect that part of you that doesn’t want to go on. Listen to it for a little while. Give it some space.

Lean into life even when it hurts like hell.

Make plans. Self-care activities, lunch/coffee/dinner with friends old and new. Go for a walk even when you don’t feel like it. Do things you enjoy; find a new computer game, take a course.

Don’t overbook yourself but make sure you are engaging with life in some way outside of your work. It is through this engagement that something new can arise.

Take risks.

Tell people what is happening for you. This can be difficult when you are obliterated by life, because our culture expects us to put on a positive face. You will be surprised at how many people in the world can identify with pain.

Answer questions honestly rather than hiding things. Sometimes when people ask me if I have children I say, “not living.” It lets them in to my life in a deep way and often builds our connection.

Let the people who love you help you.

When I was able to share my feelings with the people I love, they listened. They responded with love and with commitment to be there with me through this. I received great gifts from my loved ones because I let them see my pain.

What if you feel that no one loves you?

  • Find a therapist. If money is an issue, sometimes student clinics provide therapy with therapists in training for low cost. The love and compassion of your therapist can be a foundation in difficult times.
  • Find a support group. My group of bereaved mothers saved me in those early months. It was so powerful to be with others who knew the particulars of my pain. There are many powerful support groups out there. They are low cost and are often run by passionate people—many of whom have been through something. If you can’t find one, start one yourself. The internet makes this easy.
  • Participate in online forums. There are some very supportive communities supporting all different kinds of people. Of course, you have to choose carefully who you share yourself with, particularly on the internet. A good one is well moderated and supportive.
  • Finally, and this can be difficult to hear when you feel unloved (I know this from experience), realize the idea that no one loves you is a misconception. You just haven’t found the people who love you in the way you need to yet. Or you haven’t opened to them yet. But you are loved. And that love will grow as you seek it out and honestly give of yourself to the process of growth and change.

Love Is Always Possible

Not in every relationship. Not in every moment. But love is always possible.

My job is to keep my heart soft. To keep feeling through what life throws at me and what life takes away. Because eventually joy will come round.

Love is the act of keeping your heart open no matter what comes. Love is the care for yourself and the world to keep it open despite fear, rage, grief, humiliation. To keep living.

That is what I have learned from my son. That is what I have learned from life. Love is possible. We need each other. And we can always love.

Heart in hands image via Shutterstock

About Alison Crosthwait

Alison Crosthwait is a stock trader turned psychotherapist in Toronto, Canada. She writes about what it is like to change, to learn, and to feel.

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