End of a relationship. Moving. Losing our job or home. Stopping addiction to drugs and alcohol and learning to live clean and sober. Discovering we’re codependent and redefining ourselves and our relationships — including our relationship with ourselves.
From being diagnosed with a serious illness to experiencing empty nest syndrome, we wake up one day and before we go to bed that night, our lives change. Irrevocably. They’ll never be the same again.
Sometimes we lose all the important parts of our life (or almost all of them) at once. A friend from years back woke up one morning. That day he discovered that his wife of 15 years had been cheating on him from the first day of their marriage, that neither the son nor daughter he thought belonged to him were his, and his accountant informed him that his business had gone bankrupt.
Some people call it reorganization. Others, a new beginning. Most of the time I hear it described this way: “Sigh. I’m starting over. Again.”
I hate new beginnings, at least at first. It feels like too much, more than I can handle. I feel weary from all the start-overs I’ve already experienced. I don’t want to do it one more time.
When we start over, we’re walking in the dark, living in the mystery without a clue about what’s next. Sometimes we may feel like we’re dying, and harbor a sense o imminent doom. That’s because the change or transformation is so profound that the experience resembles a death.
If loss of a loved one triggers the starting over, it may feel like our heart has been broken but if we tell people that, they may look at us like we’re overplaying the drama queen hand. Not true.
Recently the Mayo Clinic identified “Broken Heart Syndrome” as a legitimate physical malady. Broken Heart Syndrome can be caused by the loss of a loved one or stress overload and it’s more than something that’s just in our head. The Syndrome presents, according to information from Mayo Clinic, with symptoms similar to those of an actual heart attack and may include: heart pain that worsens with each beat of the heart; difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; and nausea or vomiting.
I went out to do errands. Around lunch-time, I decided to find someplace to eat. I had driven out of my usual neighborhoods and didn’t recognize the mall I pulled into, at least not at first. Then I saw it – the restaurant where we celebrated my son, Shane’s last birthday – the one two days before the date of his death.
The pain hit hard and fast – right in my chest. I felt paralyzed. My hands gripped the steering wheel. I couldn’t move them to rummage around in my purse and find my cell phone. Movement of any kind hurt too much. I couldn’t even roll down my window and yell, “Help.” I’d rate the pain as a ten on the pain scale from one to ten.
For just over one hour I sat in the same position, leaning forward, clutching the steering wheel, stopped in my tracks by this pain in my heart. Then slowly the debilitating pain began to subside. I didn’t get out of the car; I went home instead. A week later I went to my doctor. (This was before the identification of Broken Heart Syndrome as an actual physical illness.) The doctors made me stay overnight.
“It’s the strangest thing,” the doctors said. “For all purposes, it looks like you had a myocardial infarction (heart attack). But then, it also doesn’t appear as though you actually suffered from a heart attack. It left the doctors scratching their heads but I’d known from the minute – the second – the nurse at the Emergency Room asked me if I had someone I could call after Shane’s accident that his death had broken my heart.
Don’t rely on self-diagnosis. If your heart hurts, get a checkup. During times of transition or grief, we’re more vulnerable to any kind of illness. See your doctor if you suspect any problems.
For a while we’ll feel like Someone pulled the rug out from under us and we’re in the air – upside down. Disorientation has a positive side. It leaves us open to new ideas, new people and new ways of living.
When we stabilize, which we will, we’ll get on with the business of Starting Over Again (SOA). One idea that may be helpful: although it feels like you’re starting over again, you’re not really starting over. Life is a continuum. You’re either jolted or sliding into the next experience. You’re moving on.
Here are a few tips for those of you in that uncomfortable place of SOA when you thought the last time you started over would be the last.
- Let yourself grieve your losses. You don’t need to be so stoic. Give yourself room to be human. What you’re going through may be extremely difficult and it may hurt. But you will get through it.
- Remind yourself that what you’re going through won’t last forever. If you have to leave post-it notes around the house, then do it. Remember other times you had to reorganize after a loss. Recall the behaviors that helped you get through it. Draw from what you learned, including the knowledge that you did survive that devastating time.
- Give yourself time to cocoon. You’re not isolating. You’re resting, giving your body a chance to adapt to the change.
- Tell your story often. Tell it to people who will listen and care. While some people may accuse us of obsessiveness, telling our story repeatedly is part of how we incorporate the unthinkable into our life story.
- Set goals. In the beginning, start by writing a list of what you want or need to accomplish just that day. Take life in small chunks. After some time passes, begin writing goal lists that go further into the future. For now, while you’re in shock, a list for today is enough.
- Be kind to yourself. There may be days when all you accomplish is getting out of bed and taking a shower. Instead of focusing on how little you did, tell yourself you did great – because you did.
- Slowly, as new people and interests come into your life, be willing to say “yes” to opportunities. Often a person or an interest that I think is just a “time killer” slowly becomes a major part of the next part of my life.
- If you need to cry or get angry, cry or get angry. You may even be furious with your Higher Power. That’s okay. You’ll work it out later.
- Know there is no one right way to start over. We have tools, not rules. Now is the time to dig into your toolbox and use what you’ve learned: living in the present moment; prayer; meditation; exercise (when your body can handle it); detachment (which involves feeling all your emotions); and sometimes Acting As If. Know that if the emotions become too intense, you can shut them down for a while without going into denial. Something as simple as taking a shower, going into another room, or going to the grocery store can help you stop falling deeper into what feels like a bottomless pit of pain.
- Beginnings are delicate, sacred events. Even when you’re in pain, take time to acknowledge that this is a new beginning. You’ll likely find yourself trying to recreate your old life from time to time. That’s okay. It’s part of the process of letting go but we can still honor the sacredness of this time. Later we’ll see how holy this junction really was.
Although I wrote earlier that there aren’t any rules, there are three hard and fast ones that have no exceptions: 1) don’t let anyone hurt you; 2) don’t hurt anyone else; and 3) don’t hurt yourself. Even if you’re someone who never tolerated abuse, you may feel that God is punishing you (not true) so you can be more prone to allowing someone to abuse you.
You will get through this, although maybe not as quickly as you want. One morning you’ll wake up and find yourself living in the next part of your life, a part that feels as comfortable and normal as your old life (in most situations). Instead of opening your eyes and feeling a blast of pain, you’ll be at peace. Your new life will be there — fully formed. You’ll be living it even if you’re still dealing with remnants of your grief.
Congratulations. You did it. You started over again, whether you wanted to or not. Now the next time you need to start over, you’ll know what to do.
From the Desk of Melody Beattie
Original article on Broken Heart System available at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/broken-heart-syndrome/DS01135