A few months after we began a new grief group at the church, an elegant gentleman joined us. He was heartbroken because of the recent death of his wife. He was perceptive and intelligent, retired from a successful career as a clothing executive. He shared that in their loving marriage the roles were clearly defined – he earned the living, his wife took care of him and their children. In that context, he knew how life went. And then Nancy got sick and died. Dick found himself suddenly alone, his heart broken by the absence of his beloved wife. He was clueless about how to make a meal for himself or how to get clean socks.
Dick joined the group because of his unaccustomed helplessness and crushing loneliness, hoping to find friends who truly understood his loss and would listen to his story. He attended faithfully and over time participated with interesting insights about his personal experience of sorrow. We listened, we cared, we formed a community around him and each person in the group. We were all suffering from what seemed like terminal heartbreak.
Unbeknown to any of us, Dick also had a problem with his physical heart. One day someone called to say he was in the hospital so I went to visit him. His situation seemed especially sad because no one was with him - he was quite alone. In the course of our conversation he shared that a concerned staff member from the church had called to check on him. She asked whether the stress of his grief might be contributing to his condition. This was a new thought – he never connected emotional heartache to the possibility of a heart attack. Dick recovered and moved to a retirement community where he had regular meal service, made many new friends, and became a leader of the resident’s board.
In truth, the stress of grief can affect our heart in very real ways. If we’re honest, sometimes we’re acutely aware that it’s beating faster than normal. We sense a rise in our blood pressure, we feel the knots in our back and neck from sheer muscle tension, perhaps we feel irritable and out of sorts. Have you ever had one of those grief-induced panic attacks (I call them stress attacks) that feel for all the world like a heart attack?
After Leighton died I had them with unexpected regularity. I realized after a while what caused them – the things and places and people that triggered strong associations with his life and illness and death. For several months I was utterly powerless to overcome the attacks whenever and wherever they happened – they assaulted my unremitting pain and the ache in my heart at home, at work, at church, and every place in between. But with something as simple as a drink of cold water I managed to interrupt some of the attacks and their familiar symptoms - spontaneous, uncontrollable tears, shortness of breath, pounding of my head and heart – before they blossomed into a complete emotional and physical meltdown. Over time the attacks subsided, yet when we grieve the death of one we love, our body responds in real physical ways to our heart break, “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me” (Psalm 55:4 NRSV).
In our heart we find our inmost spiritual connection to God, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18 NRSV). We’re assured that God is near and cares about our broken heart. In our grief God guards our heart with peace, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 NRSV). God pumps the life-giving oxygen of love and comfort through every fiber of our emotional and physical being to heal our broken heart and strengthen the very substance of our soul, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever” Psalm 73:26 NRSV). We have only to breathe through our heart.
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.
Proverbs 4:23 NLT
Keep me this day, O God, in the care of your heart. Amen.