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Introduction

A broken heart. All my life I have heard those words used to describe the emotional fallout a person experiences when life falls apart and comes crashing to the ground.

A junior high boy is brokenhearted when his girlfriend dumps him. How in the world can he go on living after such a devastating loss? Will he ever be able to find true love again? Those questions seem almost amusing when viewed from an adult’s perspective. But to that junior high boy, the pain and heartache and uncertainty of life at that moment are no laughing matter.

A little girl’s heart breaks when she learns that her precious kitty has run away from home. Two days later her dad discovers that the cat has been run over by a car. That little girl cannot comprehend the thought of kitty being nothing more than a flattened mess of fur and blood and guts in the middle of Main Street. And she certainly cannot bear the pain of never again being able to hold her precious kitty and stroke its soft coat and listen to its gentle purr. How can she go on living with such bitter sorrow in her heart?

A young man’s world falls apart when his father dies suddenly and unexpectedly from a rare and fast-growing form of cancer. His hero has fallen. His mentor is gone. The man to whom he was supposed to be able to turn for the answers to life’s many challenges is no longer available for that much-needed counsel and advice. Suddenly the abstract concept of a broken heart becomes painfully real.

A young couple’s lives are turned upside down when their preteen daughter is diagnosed with a brain tumor. She fights bravely for her life. In time, it looks as though she has beaten the cancer monster. The harsh treatments, which were almost worse than the disease itself, seem to have worked. There appears to be a faint, glimmering light at the end of the long, hellish tunnel through which they have been traveling.

Then, just as their lives are beginning to return to normal, the unthinkable happens. The monster returns, this time much stronger and more determined than before. Within a couple of months their beautiful, bright, precious daughter—now barely a teenager—is stolen from them by death as they stand by and watch helplessly. Never before have their hearts felt this broken, this unmendable. How can such indescribable pain possibly be endured, or even survived?

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

Life is not fair. Mom warned us about that harsh reality when we were just kids. In the words of the Shirelles, “Mama said there’d be days like this.” Mama was right! Life has a way of knocking you down, throwing you a sucker punch, yanking the rug right out from under your feet. Sometimes you fall so hard that it seems impossible to ever get back up. Often these knock-downs produce an emptiness and a sense of pain that reach to the very core of your being—an emotional state that we often describe as being brokenhearted.

Every one of us will experience these difficult times as we journey through life; times when the heart feels like it is literally broken in two. This brokenness seems to be most intense, and the accompanying emptiness deepest, when someone we love dies.

The question posed musically by the Bee Gees deserves our thoughtful consideration: “How can you mend a broken heart?” Or, even more fundamentally, can you mend a broken heart? That is what we will be considering in this book. Particularly, we will explore the concept of grief, and how to survive this gut-wrenching, life-altering experience.

This book is not intended to be a scholarly dissertation on the grief process. I have no credentials in grief counseling and have not done any clinical research into the subject.

I do, however, know grief. I do not just know about it. I know it personally and intimately. I have experienced grief on a level so intense that I would not wish such on my worst enemy. I have journeyed into the pit of utter despair, of unspeakable grief... and I have survived.

That is why I have written this book, because I know that grief is survivable. I know that you can make it through even the most debilitating heartbreak. My purpose here is simply to share with you my thoughts and my experiences on living with a broken heart, and to give you an encouraging pat on the shoulder and a gentle, reassuring hug as you struggle daily to find your own way through life with your own broken heart.

The Four Cornerstones

When my daughter Ashley died at age fourteen from recurring brain tumors, my world slipped into a tailspin. My heart had never before been so completely broken; life had never before seemed so hopelessly empty. For me and my family, this was virgin territory; these were uncharted waters. Yes, countless people before us had traveled the winding road of grief, but for us this was a new experience.

As we navigated the murky waters that engulfed us on all sides, I realized that there was no roadmap for this journey. Grief grabbed hold of my heart and took me wherever it wanted me to go. There were many days when grief was completely in control, and all I could do was blindly follow its lead.

As the journey unfolded, I found myself surprised at the unpredictable nature of my grief. I had always thought there were certain stages of grief that were common to all grievers, and that these stages were somewhat clinical and even predictable. I had always thought that grief was a process from which the griever “emerged” or “graduated” after a certain amount of time. I had often heard people talk about “closure,” and I interpreted that to mean that grief had some definable end point.

I soon learned that many of these preconceptions about grief were completely inaccurate; or at least they were not proving true in my own personal journey. As I struggled to make sense of it all, I discovered some basic truths about grief that caught me by surprise, but that also gave me encouragement and hope. These basic truths provide the philosophical underpinning for this book. They can be thought of as the four cornerstones for Living with a Broken Heart.

1. Hearts broken by grief cannot be fixed.
2. Each person grieves in their own way.
3. Grief and Happiness can peacefully coexist.
4. “All things work together for good to those who love God.”

The title of this book reflects the reality of the first premise. A heart that is broken by grief simply cannot be fixed. You cannot “get over it and get on with your life.” The emptiness does not go away. The pain and heartache do not magically disappear after a prescribed amount of grieving time. “Getting over it” is simply not an option.

You can, however, learn to live with a broken heart. You can learn to incorporate that pain and emptiness into your life in some very real and very positive ways. You cannot “get over it,” but you certainly can—and should—“get on with your life.”

My Prayer for You

If you have picked up this book because you have a friend or loved one whose heart is broken, thank you. Brokenhearted people need the love and understanding of gentle, caring people like you. I do not know that I can answer all of your questions about how to help someone grieve, but I will share with you some of my thoughts concerning things that I have found to be helpful.

What I do know is that your simple presence and your genuine love and concern are of far greater value than any words you will speak. Your job is not to help your friend or loved one find healing or overcome their grief. Healing is an elusive process that can only come with time, and even then it is incomplete. There are no “right words” that can be spoken to fix broken hearts because hearts broken by grief cannot be fixed. Your job is simply to love. Sometimes you do not even have to say anything. Just love us and hug us and pray for us, and God will help us figure out the rest.

If you are reading this book because you are in the middle of a broken heart, my prayers are with you. I know something of the road you are traveling. I understand the frustration of other people’s expectations concerning your grief. I am well acquainted with the unspeakable pain that arises unbidden in your heart, sometimes with no advance warning and without being specifically provoked. I have experienced the same deep sense of hopelessness that you sometimes find weighing heavily on your soul. There have been times when the heartache has been so intense and the pain so overwhelming, it did not even seem possible that my heart could go on beating within my chest.

My prayer for you is not that your pain will go away, because I believe that such a wish is unrealistic, perhaps even impossible. My prayer is not that God will heal your broken heart, because I am not sure such healing is even attainable. My prayer for you is the same as my prayer for me. I pray that God will grant you peace in the midst of heartache, blessings in the midst of trials, and hope in the midst of despair. I wish you only the best in life, and I hope that you will be able to learn, as I have, to live and to love and to laugh and to enjoy life—with a broken heart.

Whatever your reason for reading this book, thank you for assuming that I have something worthwhile to say. I hope I do not let you down.

Ten Years

One final important note, and then we will jump right in. This book was written over a ten-year period. I started writing it shortly after Ashley’s death. Within a couple of years, I had about half of it finished. Then I hit a brick wall.

Over the next few years I pulled out the manuscript several times, dusted it off, and made another run at it; but the words simply would not come. During this time I showed my incomplete manuscript to some close friends, and they encouraged me to finish writing the book because its message needed to be heard. So I tried several more times, but it was an exercise in futility. Then in early 2012, a little more than ten years after Ashley’s death, I decided it was time to finish this project.

I ended up in the hospital a couple of days before Valentine’s Day with a serious infection. While lying in my hospital bed with very little to constructively occupy my time, I pulled out my laptop and started writing. This time, the words flowed! Within a couple of days, I had written a completely new chapter that was not even in my original outline. Within a few weeks, the book was finished.

I believe the ten-year time frame is significant because the thoughts presented in this book are not all born out of fresh, raw grief. Even the content that was written during those first few months and years has had time to settle and mature. I went back and re-read all of that early content from the vantage point of ten years down the road, and found that it was all still relevant and timely.

I say all of that to say this. The ideas and philosophies presented here have passed the test of time. They are as relevant from the perspective of mature grief as they are from the perspective of fresh, raw grief.

As you read this book, there will be a few places where you will easily discern whether a particular passage was written in the early days, or whether it was written ten years down the road. Beyond that I have intentionally chosen not to separate the earlier writings from the later, or in any other way designate what was written when. I believe this is a valid approach because it honors the timelessness of these principles of grief.