12 Ways Healing the Heart is like Healing the BodyJun 06, 2023
By Kim English Hanlon
Content warning: Mention of skin cancer and surgery, but without graphic descriptions.
Most adults have an idea of what to do if they are injured, whether it is some basic home first aid, a trip to the emergency room, or a doctor’s visit. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know what to do with a broken heart, and the tools we are taught to navigate this emotional pain are usually temporary bandaids or distractions, not actual healing. We have written other blogs on these grief myths, but one common grief myth is “give it time” because “time heals all wounds”.
We frequently tell clients that if they broke their leg they wouldn’t wait to get treatment, and the same should go for a broken heart. Yes, sometimes it is a long while before a broken leg feels back to normal, but there is a lot that someone has done in that time to heal - it was not time itself.
I have been reflecting on other ways a physical injury or illness can be analogous to an “emotional injury”, i.e. grieving a loss. A broken body and a broken heart both need time and care for: treatment, recovery, and maintenance. I made a list of some of my reflections, and will use a couple personal examples to help illustrate these connections.
Deciding Treatment Can Be Difficult
- 1) Pain is information. It provides insight into what was injured, in what way, and how badly. A doctor examining a hurt ankle asks the person to move it in certain ways and try exerting force to evaluate the injury. A person grieving a loved one may feel sharper pain around regrets than when remembering happy memories - and this provides insight into where they are emotionally incomplete or most hurt in the loss.
- 2) There can be layers of feelings that arise. With my foot surgery there was the apprehension and worry, as well as frustration that I was once again injured and unable to easily walk my child to school, keep up with housework temporarily, and that I needed to change plans. And with loss, there can be even more conflicting feelings from relief that someone is no longer suffering, to deep sadness in missing them, to wishing things had been different.
- 3) Treatment will look different depending on severity of the injury or loss. Just as a scratch may just need a bandaid, a smaller loss may feel adequately supported after a good talk with a caring friend. However, a broken leg will need more care just as a major loss would.
- 4) Treatment will look different depending on individual needs. I was diagnosed with skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, in 2015. The common treatment is surgery, however I happened to be pregnant so my dermatologist and obstetrician discussed the best timing and approach for surgery to minimize potential harm to the baby. Sometimes we have to do this with grief as well - determine when it makes sense to make room for it and treat it. One person may be ready for grief support soon after their loss, while another person may first need support for PTSD.
- 5) Sometimes the treatment itself is scary. I was anxious ahead of my recent minor foot surgery as I am a little squeamish about injuries. Ilana and I help clients work through their own apprehensions about grief support, as we understand being vulnerable and allowing certain feelings we have otherwise kept at bay can be daunting.
- 6) There might be different options for treatment to consider. My podiatry surgeon recommended surgery for my toe, but also discussed the option of the “wait and see” approach to see how my toe healed on its own. I also considered acupuncture to help alleviate the pain and promote healing. There are many different grief support options as well. Yoga for grief, therapy, a support group at a church, The Grief Recovery Method, and grief coaching are examples. Some options are more helpful for others, and to some extent it depends on the individual.
- 7) It is possible to worsen an injury with inadequate healing or incorrect treatment. I had three doctors tell me my concerning mole was nothing before I finally, three years later, gained a dermatologist referral and learned it was indeed cancer. Waiting longer may have resulted in the cancer spreading even closer to my eye and being more difficult to remove surgically. Neglected heartbreak can also spread like cancer in someone, affecting health, relationships, personality, and enjoyment of life.
Recovery is a Process
- 8) Recovery and healing are also a consideration. Surgery and The Grief Recovery Method may be the first step in removing skin cancer or healing a heart, but there will still be “post-op” work to continue the healing process. Just as a surgery may be followed with additional appointments and physical therapy, grief may be an iterative process to help someone through layers of loss.
- 9) You might heal faster with time off of work. I have taken short-term disability for injuries in the past, and many find it helpful to take time off after a major life event or loss as well. This can help you rest while things are most painful, as well as focus on recovery.
Maintenance Work Sustains Healing
- 10) You might need maintenance work; the injury/grief may be sensitive for a while. The surgery removed my skin cancer, just as The Grief Recovery Method healed my heart after my brother, Steven, died. However, both required maintenance work. The surgery wound was sensitive and it took approximately 6 months for the scar to not hurt when I massaged it or put on makeup. And massage was a part of the maintenance care so as to break up the scar tissue and help the area heal. Similarly, my heart needed maintenance care as I processed and integrated what I was learning about grief. I did feel such relief knowing I had the tools moving forward. My dermatologist also advised me to be extra careful to protect my scar from the sun, and grief also requires some tenderness and mindfulness. Like how I prefer to not watch shows about addiction after losing my brother to his.
- 11) You might have to avoid certain activities for a while. I had two weeks of elevating my foot after surgery, and after my brother died I also avoided certain things that felt difficult in grief. I was mindful about social activities and media consumption while I felt particularly tender.
- 12) The journey of healing will likely be non-linear - some days will be easier than others. It is helpful to have a plan for difficult days. When my toe hurts, I know I can elevate and ice it as well as ask for help so I can avoid walking on it for a day. Sometimes we can anticipate a difficult grief day such as a loved one’s birthday, and have a plan for support to help us navigate it. Other times we are caught off guard and song or conversation can trigger a grief wave. It helps to have tools for these times as well - be it calling a trusted friend or going to bed early to journal and rest.
Healing an injured toe and healing a heartbreak may be tedious and a non-linear healing process. Sometimes it is easier to “justify” seeing a doctor for a sprain, and harder to allow ourselves time to deal with emotional pain. Myths such as “don’t feel bad” or “just keep busy” contribute to this. However, emotional pain can be just as debilitating.
We are able to compassionately advise and guide you through these three stages of healing a heart - deciding what treatment meets the needs of your heart, how to plan for recovery, and what actions will help you maintain the healing process. You do not have to do this alone, and having someone who has been there and knows the pain as well as the treatment can help you get back to yourself more wholly and healthfully, sooner. We are just a call or an email away.
Some blogs linked above as well as others we feel could be helpful:
Develop your personalized grief support action plan with our "Grief & Gratitude" workbook.
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