A survivor friend once wrote to me about feeling “half-hearted” as she moved through her days a few years after her son’s suicide. I knew what she meant: the listless hours, the guilt or regret, the sense of detachment from purpose and pleasure. But I believe that over time, attending to and expressing our grief can ultimately allow us to revitalize our hearts.
My son’s suicide in 2013 wrenched open my heart. I’d never felt it to be such a vulnerable physical organ--bruised, shattered, deflated—as I did in the first year or two after the suicide. I needed to restore my heart through whatever healing practices and support I could find. “Let the heart lead the way!” a yoga teacher urged and I was desperate to follow. My heart is newly attuned to people who are suffering and more ready to reach out to them. Through meditation, study, and prayer, I’ve been cultivating compassion and lovingkindness in a way I might never have done without the trauma of this loss. And I’m trying to grow a renewed capacity for joy.
You may know the line from Psalm 126, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” It inspired a moving heart visualization exercise that I’d like to share with my fellow survivors or anyone who is grieving. It was taught at an online meditation session this month by chaplain Sabrina Sojourner, who began by suggesting that we bring in our grief and give it our attention like one of the guests in Rumi’s guesthouse. Then she had us picture the heart as a pocket, see what we find within it, and ask what that object has to teach us. (You may want to try the exercise with the steps listed at the end of this post before reading on.)
This practice was revelatory for me. I envisioned a dark cave with a deep red velvet pocket covered by a curtain. I reached in past the curtain to grasp a large heart-shaped stone like the one I keep by a photo of Noah in our home shrine. Why is a stone in the pocket of my heart, I wondered? Is it because I hardened my heart towards Noah when we were estranged and I couldn’t face or understand the full extent of his suffering? Is it that I still can’t quite penetrate to the heart of my failure to reach him in his darkest time—or to self-forgiveness? Maybe all that, I thought. But this object also reminds me that my love for Noah is as solid and enduring as a stone. And that my grief for him still lodges in the innermost part of my heart. I thought of the many times since Noah’s death that I’ve found or been given heart-shaped stones. When I hold this cool, cream-colored, delicately veined stone in my palm and rub it against my heart, it soothes me. This outward symbol of love in touch with my own reconstructed heart.
To my fellow survivors: What does your heart pocket look like and what might you find inside? I encourage you to try the visualization when you have a quiet moment. (I’ve listed the steps as I recall them; you might want to first audio record them for yourself with pauses between each one):
- Find a comfortable seated position and begin a series of long deep breaths.
- Sit in calm silence for a while. Settle into the stillness.
- Now imagine that your heart is a deep pocket.
- Reach your hand into your heart. What is the first thing you find there?
- Visualize taking the object out of your heart and holding it in your hand. How does it feel?
- What is this thing trying to teach you?
- Sit with that lesson for a while.
- Then slowly return the object to your heart and let it fill your body.
- Put your dominant hand on your heart and give it a little massage. Then take your other hand and cover the hand that is already resting on your heart.