When my beloved eight year old Bichon Frise pup Grendel died unexpectedly, my heart was broken. I cried almost all day, every day, for over a week, feeling as if the pain would never end. I woke up in the middle of the night with my pillow wet with tears. I prayed the whole thing was a nightmare. I wished I could turn back time, if only for a few minutes, so I could hold Grendel just a few more moments, treasure her just a little while longer. When you’re rolling in grief, you wonder if you’ll ever come out the other side. The pain is visceral. The void is palpable. It hurts so much you pray you’ll never have to feel it again. In fact, you feel like you’d do almost anything to avoid such abject misery.
But as I told Siena when she was mourning her friend Vivien, who had to return to Chicago after an extended visit, and as I warned her when she took in two baby rat-coons who died soon after, when we fall in love – whether it’s with pets, parents, lovers, or dear friends – we must give those we love permission to break our hearts. Otherwise, we can’t really fully experience the gifts of love and life.
Permission To Break My Heart
When I married Kirk at 24 – and we later divorced – I felt so lost, so hurt, so profoundly alone and woefully unlovable that I found myself tempted to shut down, to close my heart, to make myself less vulnerable, to protect myself from ever feeling so much pain again.
Then when I took a chance, opening my heart and marrying rebellious, tattooed, sexy bad boy Paul at 30, I once again gave a man permission to break my heart. This time, when the relationship ended in the worst possible way and I decided to walk away from the marriage, the heartbreak was even more traumatic. I’ll never forget sobbing on the dock of the marina where we kept our boat, after Paul stopped coming to our marriage counseling session and I realized the marriage was over, feeling the jagged jolts of raw nerve exposed in every body part. After that divorce, the temptation to lock the doors of my heart was even greater.
Then Matt came along, with his wild tenderness and exceptional emotional availability, right as I was ready to write off men for good. Somehow, he managed to pry open the creaky closing doors of my heart, and I took an even greater risk, not only marrying him, but choosing to have a child with him – the ultimate exercise in giving someone permission to break your heart.
As if marriage doesn’t feel risky enough, the minute you become a parent, you also become profoundly aware of how much you have to lose. The idea of having your child die before you becomes impossible to even conceptualize, much less indulge. I’ve never felt so vulnerable in my life as when they handed me my baby girl in the recovery room after my C-section.
Matt and I have now been together for ten years, and yet, even still, I know nothing in life is guaranteed. He could stop loving me. He could leave me. He could even die.
So could Siena.
But it’s a risk I know I have to take.
Giving My Heart Away – Again
As an exercise in heart opening, I have also just brought into my family’s life a new puppy. For over a year, we have been searching animal shelters, trying to find a hypoallergenic rescue dog (Siena and I are both allergic to some breeds) to bring into our home, first as a companion for Grendel, and then after Grendel died, as a new dog to bring light and love to our home. But we have been unsuccessful in finding an older dog that needs a home. The local shelters tell us that cute little poodles, bichons, malteses, yorkies, and other such fur-free, hypoallergenic pets simply get swooped up the minute they show up, on the rare occasion when they show up at all.
So since Siena and I have been summering in Ohio with my family, when we met an Ohio puppy who walked right into our wide open, still grieving hearts, we decided to take a risk – to bring home another dog and, knowing we will probably outlive her, give her permission to break our hearts.
Siena and I have spent the past three days falling in love with a Maltese-Yorkie mix we named Bezoar (medical lingo for “hairball,” as in the kind that form in stomachs when girls chew on – and swallow – their hair). Bezoar is a bundle of snuggly, nippy, bouncy, puppy-breathed joy who has won us over already. The bubbling up in my chest feeling of falling in love – which feels exactly the way I felt when I fell in love with Kirk and Paul, when I first met Grendel, when I finally gave my heart to Matt, and when I brought Siena home from the hospital – is a now familiar, deliciously giddy, admittedly terrifying feeling.
I know exactly what comes with such a feeling – guaranteed heartbreak.
One of these days, at least statistically speaking, Matt will leave me a widow. Siena will leave me with an empty nest. And we will bury Bezoar like we buried Grendel.
But between now and then, Matt and I can dance in the rapture of true love, Siena and I can fully explore the sacred mother-daughter bond, in all its juicy complexities, and Bezoar will hopefully spend the next 15+ years keeping me company while I write, the way Grendel did so devotedly.
It’s Worth The Risk
When you lose who you love, the pain is so deep it feels like it will sweep you down, like undertow, to shadows you may never escape. You may worry that light will never replace the darkness, that you won’t be able to handle yet another loss, that you might – dramatic though it might sound – even die. Closing your heart feels like protection, like your heart’s way of ensuring that it can still keep beating, even amidst the rubble of loss.
But closing your heart only ensures that you will lose, not just one day in the unknowable future, but for the rest of your life. Closing your heart is a guaranteed recipe for loneliness, depression, and the painful absence of intimate connection.
When you’re brave enough to open your heart, even when you’re still grieving a loss, you open the door to the full experience of human emotions – joy, elation, anger, sadness, grief, excitement, fear, faith. And isn’t that what we truly want?
The Gift Of Feeling Radically Alive
We seek not just joy, but the experience of feeling radically alive. There’s a reason we cry both happy and sad tears. Tears show up when we feel alive, fully present, and cracked wide open to our emotional experience. Tears remind us we are human, not automatons numb to emotion, but warm-blooded, warm-hearted people who crave nothing so much as self-actualization. Laughter reminds us of the same, that we are here to experience pleasure, to feel good, to know love and joy and bliss, which we can only recognize because we’ve also felt pain.
The full range of the human experience is what we truly crave – not some sheltered, guarded, protected life that keeps us “safe” but robs us of the blessing of living courageously, but all the rollercoaster ups and downs of a life well lived.
Are You Brave Enough To Open Your Heart?
It’s a radical act. You might get hurt. Hell – you will get hurt.
But I promise you this. You will also experience joy beyond your wildest imaginings, just as I am right now, while Bezoar snuggles beside me, moving closer and closer to me as if trying to merge her tiny warm body with mine, while trying to bite my fingers as I type.
Will you grant permission to break your heart?
With my heart swelling,