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Heartbreak Hurts

It seems most of us say at one time in our lives that love isn't worth the heartache, and then someone reassures us that "it is worth it, keep your head up, the right one will come along." I am not so convinced this is always true.


Moms also say they forget the pain of labor and childbirth, that the child is worth it and you'll forget, but at some point they also say, "I've had enough. I don't wanna be pregnant again. I don't want to birth another child. I don't want to go through that again - even for another precious child."



Heartbreak is Physically Painful


I don't really need to dive into the literature to reassure myself of this because I am feeling it first hand as I type. I am sure you've felt it too. I feel sick at my stomach. I could cry non-stop. I haven't slept. I am obsessing over details. I keep checking my phone for texts, facebook for updates. My body hurts. I feel like I am shaking just beneath my skin. I want to crawl into the fetal position and melt into oblivion.


Mothers who have lost their child often speak about pain in their arms, like a phantom pain. I remember this feeling all too well when my son died on his tenth day of life. It was as if my arms ached to hold him. They were crampy, if that makes any sense. I think that's how my heart feels today. Like it is quite literally missing a piece - or even that very little remains. We speak to having a gut feeling about things, an intuitive sense and certainly when we speak about heartache, we speak to how it feels as if half our heart has been severed. Is this physical pain literal or is it just the best way we can articulate our grief and sorrow?


Research has demonstrated that acute grief is closely related to the activation of the physical pain network. Functional MRI studies have shown that the same parts of the brain which are activated in physical pain are also activated when our relationships end. Our brain perceives our being dumped by our partners similar to how we would perceive the pain of a broken limb. Admittedly, I've broken a few limbs, and heartache is astronomically worse.


A study in 2010 found that the same brain regions - the insula and anterior cingulate cortex - light up in individuals who are shown pictures of a past love the same as it would in those who have increasing levels of heat applied to their arms. Social rejection is physically painful.


Another study backed up this idea showing that the brain releases opioids when we are rejected by potential suitors. This study was particularly interesting as participants viewed individuals they had never met before and were asked which of the imaginary people they may have interest in pursuing. They were then told those particular people did not have mutual feelings for them. This rejection was found to cause an endorphin release. Their brain provided pain relief to rejection as if they had been physically hurt.


Loss of our loved ones, someone within our social group, is a threat to us just as is threat of physical harm. It is perceived as a potential threat to your survival. This suggests that our brains have evolved to alert us to threats and when identified, our brains focus our attention on it exclusively - not letting us look away or to get distracted, believing that this will keep us safe. We wouldn't look away from a saber tooth tiger, right?! How clever is it that our bodies do this, and how devastatingly painful too.


"I just think of him all the time," are words often spoken by the grieved. Our minds are consumed by memories, confusion, what-ifs. "When I walk around the house, every turn reminds me of him. I find something of his or am reminded of something I wanted to do for him or something I want to tell him." We are quite literally consumed.


After my son died, I when I was counting my children in the car or when we traveled to assure I hadn't left one behind, I would remind myself, "Oh yeah, I am missing one." This took years upon years to finally let go, longer than he ever experienced life on this earth.


Like physical injuries, some individuals do continue with a sort of chronic pain or a complex pain syndrome following emotional grief, which may be caused by a malfunction within the central nervous system. Fear and anxiety can add to this burden, as can past traumas and triggers. Academics and work performance can suffer, future relationships may be impacted, and longstanding difficulties such as addictions and poor health can result. This isn't always about choosing to hold your chin up.


Heartbreak Hurts Everyone


One of the hardest parts of parenting is having to do so when you are heartbroken. When I was going through my divorce, and certainly after my son died, I was an absent parent mentally. I've heard other mothers speak of family members who "failed to remember she had other children who needed her after she suffered loss." It isn't that we favored the child we lost and now fail to see our love for those that remain, but more that our bodies and minds are consumed completely by grief.


It was a complete impossibility for me to move from the couch after my son died. I couldn't cook for many, many months. I was blamed for not allowing my husband to grieve because he had to return to work while I remained at home, frozen in time. Following my divorce, I remember being in bed for most of the following ten months. Today, I just sit here. Frozen. Nonproductive. Barely alive. Trust me; this is not by choice, but it also doesn't mean I am broken. My body evolved to do just this. I need to trust the process.


Children acquire their own trauma from these experiences, the loss of the loved one as well as the second-hand suffering which occurs by proxy of their remaining parent's grief. Siblings born after the loss of the child for example, often suffer with grief they feel from their parents. Cases are reported of siblings being admitted to chronic pain clinics for in-patient therapy which ultimately was found to be related to grief, sometimes even secondhand.


Grief is a family process. It wrecks our social-emotional functioning. I remember thinking after I returned to work, ten months after my son's loss, that there is no way one should work within that first year - they simply aren't safe. Our minds can not cope with the demands when it is also swimming in the depths of sorrow.


Practitioners too often numb the grieving process through antidepressants and I've even had clients tell me their pastors have shared that they should be beyond the grieving process by this point, that clearly their feelings are pathologic, now more a reflection of depression. Wrong. There is no timeline. Our bodies are meant to feel and we need to allow this process to evolve - at its own pace - in its most raw form.


Biologically, our pain and physiological stresses are triggered by our emotional and environmental exposures and learned pain patterns result. Talk therapy is paramount here. I often thought of this as hiring a best friend so as not to exhaust my actual friends by the repeated realizations. Even today, as I sit here in my mid-forties having suffered a number of tragedies, and fully aware that I am resilient and I will survive this current heartache, I can't help but play over again and again the events of my current circumstance. It is just so hard to believe. How did this happen? What did I miss? What could I have done differently? Why did I react that way? Why can't I get it right?


We Have to Move Through It


These physical metaphors we offer to describe our sorrow do indeed reflect what is happening in our brains. It's quite fascinating to realize that studies are confirming the hypotheses of Sigmund Freud, "Yet it cannot be for nothing that the common usage of speech should have created the notion of internal, mental pain and have treated the feeling of loss of object as equivalent to physical pain." We do have to experience it to ease it or this pain will return at some point later in life and bite us in the butt.


Initially we have the shock to endure, then denial, then the anger. We often bargain and even plead to a higher power. These stages aren't chronological either, in that you can move back and forth between them sadly, multiple times, before you move through grief and find healing. Depression may even settle for a bit, a sort of dark hole like the abyss. Acceptance will come. Hope returns.


Losing someone you love though, is like losing part of your identity. This person had become part of you and a break-up can leave you feeling like you don't even know who you are anymore, or what your role was in the failed relationship. How can you protect yourself into the future or what efforts do you need to focus now - work to fix the relationship? Beg? Wait? Move on? What is the other person really feeling? What am I feeling? What is the truth? Can I trust myself?


Recovering is a reconnection with self, a rebuilding of personal identity. It is an opportunity to reaffirm your authentic self. Journal. Be kind to yourself. Get active. Self soothe. Set boundaries. Know that personal growth is usually associated with break-ups. Some of our healthiest behaviors result from having lost a partner. Social lives can improve, other relationships build, and increased independence results. I am still not convinced another love is worth the heartache, unless that love is for myself.

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