For a long stretch of years, heartache sat on my Germantown doorstep so often it threatened to leave a dent in the stone. Surgeries, family disputes, and a loved one’s mental illness all came knocking. Then, one night in 2002, a policewoman stood on the steps and told me that a massive heart attack had killed my husband—from whom I was separated—ending all hope of salvaging our marriage.
Heartache hit hard around the first Valentine’s Day of my widowhood, but I had lots of company, according to Elizabeth Lesser, 67, author of Broken Open, How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, and co-founder of New York’s Omega Institute, an education center offering workshops on holistic health and spirituality. “Many of us have bought into the myth of a perfect soulmate,” Lesser said. “It’s a fairy tale. It sets us up for disappointment.”
Valentine’s Day raises a lot of romantic fantasies a la Hallmark-inspired celebrations of love, along with bitter rejections of romance. But this year I want to take a new look at the holiday: a celebration, not just of love, but of heartache.
That’s an approach taken by Robert Carter, a social worker who co-directs the Men’s Center for Growth and Change in Philadelphia. While humans naturally recoil from hurt, Carter — who at age 14 suffered burns so severe that he remained hospitalized for almost five years — believes we should learn to view pain as a gift. “With my experience of tremendous physical pain for a long time, I realize that pain has a purpose,” said Carter, who also lectures at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “It’s like the red light in a car that tells you something’s wrong with the engine. It’s a warning. You’ve got to get cleaned off, which hurts, then the wound can heal.”
Instead, “often people try to convince themselves that they’re not hurting,” Carter said. “Say, a man insists, ‘My divorce was no big deal,’ but you can see he’s missing his wife.” Fessing up to rather than suppressing these feelings lets you not just recover, but mature: “Empathy and growth can come from heartache,” Carter said.
Pain can also help build community, as I learned from now-retired prison social worker Victoria Greene. In 1995, her son Emir was shot in the back and killed at age 20 in a drug deal gone wrong. “I stayed in bed for a month,” Greene said. “At one point I was suicidal.” But then Greene joined a support group — “Whatever your issue, join a support group,” she said — that “met near the Medical Examiner’s Office, of all places.” She found that talking through her anger and grief with others helped her work through it.
To help other struggling people, she founded the Every Murder is Real (EMIR) Healing Center. The Germantown-based nonprofit just celebrated 20 years of helping family members of murder victims by offering distinct support groups for men, women, and children, along with other services. “It took time,” Green said, “but I turned my pain into power.”
My own heartache left me as shaky as a Jello-Woman on a trampoline. I wanted to fast-track myself through the ruins of my marriage. But as Carter, Greene, and others have noted, it doesn’t work that way.
To live through the pain—which I found especially tough around holidays—I had to act. I got counseling, joined a support group, started meditating, and attended healing services at the Germantown Jewish Centre, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and other houses of worship.
Of course, surviving heartache takes work. Other tips from therapists and social workers I spoke with: taking care of yourself through exercise, a good diet, careful entertainment consumption (e.g. maybe not watching that Lifetime movie about violent romantic betrayal), and getting out into nature. You can also call VITAS Healthcare, a hospice group with locations in Philly and Mount Laurel, which will host a Valentine’s Day helpline to connect individuals with bereavement specialists. And maybe the most surprising recommendation I got: You can take pride in the hurt.
“Grief is proof of how much you loved someone,” Lesser said. “Be proud that you cared so much.”
At this point in my life, I embrace mellowing and having gratitude for good moments I’ve found on the other side of grief. If your heart specifically aches around Valentine’s Day: Remember you have company. “The most helpful way I’ve found to get over the losses in life is to know I’m not alone,” Lesser says. “Heartache is part of the human adventure.”