A University of Michigan Study has concluded that the feeling of a broken heart is real, experienced as intense physical agony that hurts “even more than pain”, complete with brain chemistry and electrical changes. Ethan Kross, lead author of the Michigan experiment summary, says research points to increased brain activity in the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula. Others suggest the vagas nerve becomes overstimulated, causing pain, nausea or muscle tightness in the chest region. Regardless of the causes, loss triggers these responses, with real and sometimes significant physical outcomes.
What all of this medical jargon really means is that loss of love hurts.
It isn’t a phantom pain, it is as real as it gets, as bereaved parents can testify to.
Studying people after romantic breakups, researchers conclude that loss of love resembles, to the brain, a pain similar to the sensations of burning or searing in the heart. And the death of a child can literally cripple parents.
This grief can trigger the deepest pain we humans are able to tolerate – both emotional and physical — and sometimes it hurts more than we believe we can bear. Harvard researchers have discovered that, on average, one in 10 heart attack survivors had lost a loved one within the previous six months. The risk of heart attack was 21 times higher the first day after a death, eight times higher the week after, and four times higher a month after.
Time is grief’s aspirin. I think of my own grief now like a phantom pain, because I suffered an emotional amputation, and a part of my core self died with my son. I was left to stumble on without my legs, to see without my eyes, to feel without my heart — that is the way I felt. Today, I can walk again, and I can see — though there are a million holes in this sidewalk that I am expected to walk down without him. Sometimes I stumble, but mostly I avoid the cracks and the path gets a little smoother year by year.
There are coping suggestions in many of the other blogs posted on this site, so I’m going to briefly highlight a little well-intentioned concern:
Let go. If you are fighting tears, find a private place and shed them. Crying sheds stress hormones and helps restore brain chemistry balance, in addition to helping you focus again. Fighting tears means you have a buildup of stress hormones and yes, real men cry, too. It’s healthy.
Forgive your crazy thoughts. Forgive your outbursts. Forgive you lapses. You aren’t a bad person for questioning faith, your sanity, or for flashes of anger or high emotionality. It’s time to get emotional support if these behaviors are hurtful to others, but don’t label yourself. Become your own best friend when other friends fail or stumble or avoid you.
Purposefully seek out a way to remember your child that is healthy for you and respectful of their memory. Honestly, that wouldn’t really include drug addiction or self mutilation…. This is a time for honesty, and I well understand that both “escapes” can be tempting, but getting drunk or trying to off yourself only creates problems for other people — it won’t bring your child back or change things for the better. While it really sucks to be you right now, you can do this a minute at a time, which becomes an hour, which becomes a day. You can do this.
My thoughts and prayers are with you all as you make your way. You are not alone. Legions of bereaved parents, who understand and send love and support your way, walk in the shadows of this blog to help prop you up.