• Hazelden Renewal Center

Tending and Mending a Wounded Heart

broken heart

Many years ago on February 13, a first year representative to the New York state assembly received an urgent telegram at his Albany, N.Y., office containing a single three-word sentence: Come home now!

The day before, his wife had given birth to a baby girl. Now, as the train made the five-hour trip back to his home in New York City, the new father wondered if something had gone wrong. As he read and reread the telegram, he prayed that all would be well in his household.

Walking into his home, the man’s brother greeted him with this sad lament: There’s a curse on this house.

The new father dashed up the stairs to his bedroom where he found his wife, Alice, dying. Holding her, he could be heard pleading, “Let her live, let her live.” At one point during that long night, someone slipped into the bedroom and whispered into the man’s ear, “If you want to see your mother, Martha, before she dies, you should come downstairs now.” The man slipped away from his bedroom and walked down a flight of stairs into his mother’s room where he held her until she died at 3 a.m.

Returning upstairs, the man then held his wife, Alice, until she also died at 2 that afternoon. The grief in the air of that household was periodically punctuated by the cries of a 2 day-old mother-less baby.

Before the man went to bed that night, he opened his daily diary and slashed a huge “X” across that day’s page and scribbled, “The light has gone out in my life.” The date was February 14, 1884, Valentine’s Day.

Two days later, the man followed identical rosewood caskets down the center aisle of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church where he had married Alice four years earlier. Friends described the man as being in a “dazed, stunned state.” Others said, “He does not know what he does or says.” Many concluded that the twin blows of death would leave him permanently emotionally damaged.

Yet, the man who experienced such a devastating Valentine’s Day did recover from those losses. Over time, his wounded heart was healed. He would continue on, marrying again, serving as assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, Govenor of New York and becoming president of the United States.

Teddy Roosevelt is an excellent example of the truth that all of us can rise above suffering; that wounded hearts can be mended; that we can be whole again; that life can be good in spite of harsh blows.

Here are some effective ways to tend—and mend—a wounded heart.

  • Remember that all progress takes place one step at a time. A building is constructed one floor at a time. A business is grown one customer at a time. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” noted the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tse. When you have been hurt and are in need of healing, often the best course of action is to simply move forward one step at a time. This principle actually saved the life of Eric Sevareid, the well known author and television news correspondent. During World War II, he and several others had to bail out of an army transport plane which was experiencing mechanical problems. They parachuted deep into the mountainous jungles of the Burma-India border. Once on the ground, they had to begin a painful, plodding march out of the jungles to meet up with friendly forces. “We were faced by a 140 mile trek, over mountains, in August heat and monsoon rains,” Sevareid recalls. During the first hour of the march, he stepped on a nail, which punctured a hole deep into one foot. By evening he had bleeding blisters on both feet the size of a half dollar. “Could I hobble 140 miles? Could the others, some in worse shape than I, complete such a distance?” he wondered. “We were convinced we could not. But we could hobble to that ridge, we could make the next friendly village for the night, and that, of course, was all we had to do.” When the heart is wounded, guide your recovery by the principle of the next step. The journey through grief and on to healing takes place one step at a time.
  • Release resentment. When someone wounds us, it is natural to feel angry and resentful. Even though these are powerful emotions, work to release them. Harboring hostility only leads to more inner turmoil and anxiety. Remind yourself that you do have emotional choices. You can curse, nurse and rehearse hurts. Or you can reverse them by letting them go and forgiving those who have hurt you. Doing so frees you from the vicious cycle of being re-victimized by your wounds.
  • Alter your life by altering your attitude. The mind is a powerful tool, noted the 17th century writer John Milton. It can “make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” What we think profoundly affects our outlook and response. When the facts can’t be changed, we need to change our attitude. Author Arthur Gordon recalls the bleakest period of his life was the winter of 1942 to 1943. He was with the 8th Air Force in England. The base he lived at was carved out of the sodden English countryside and was a sea of mud. “On the ground, people were cold, miserable, and homesick. In the air, people were getting shot. Replacements were few; morale was low,” he remembers. However, there was one sergeant who was always cheerful, good humored and smiling. Gordon watched him one day as he struggled in the freezing rain to salvage a plane that had skidded off the runway into a seemingly endless mire of mud.  The sergeant was happily whistling as he worked. “Sergeant, how can you whistle in a mess like this?” Gordon asked. Responding with a mud-caked grin, the sergeant replied simply but eloquently, “Lieutenant, when the facts won’t budge, you have to bend your attitudes to fit them, that’s all!”
  • Look for the positive in the negative. Every hurt, every wound, every failure has within it, the presence of something beneficial. Look carefully at your circumstances. Ask yourself: What can I learn from this experience? How can I grow from it? Are there changes I need to make in my life? Where do I go from here? Raising these questions opens the eye to spot the gold in the lead. “I would never have amounted to anything were it not for adversity. I was forced to come up the hard way,” recalls chain store founder J.C.Penney.
  • Let the love of others lift and heal your spirit. When we experience a wounding, the temptation is to retreat and isolate our selves. Do all you can to remain connected and in touch with the wider circle of family, friends, colleagues and even strangers. Love is life’s healing agent. Shakespeare astutely wrote, “Love comforteth like sunshine after rain.”

Writer Linda Ross Swanson tells a fascinating story in an article titled Sit Downwind From the Flowers.” A few years ago in Seattle, Washington, there lived a 52-year-old Tibetan refugee named Tenzin. Although he was diagnosed with lymphoma, his was one of the more easily curable cases.

However, after the first chemotherapy treatment, Tenzin, normally a gentle man, ripped the I.V. from his arm and argued with everyone who came near him. He even shouted at the nurses who were trying to care for him.

By speaking with his wife, the staff learned Tenzin had been a political prisoner in China where he was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese for more than 17 years. Tenzin’s wife explained that the hospital rules and regulations combined with chemotherapy treatments, gave Tenzin terrible flashbacks of what he was forced to endure in prison.

“I know you mean well,” his wife said, “but your treatments are causing my husband to feel the same hatred he felt toward the Chinese. He would rather die than have to live with these feelings. He needs to be able to pray and cleanse his heart.”

The doctors discharged him and a hospice team visited him at his home. One of those hospice workers visited regularly and gradually gained Tenzin’s confidence so she felt free to ask him how people in Tibet heal from their wounds, both emotional and physical. “They sit downwind from flowers,” he said matter-of-factly. She took him poetically but his comment was literal and had its roots in natural medicine. People in Tibet sit downwind from flowers so they can be dusted with the new blossoms’ pollen, knowing that pollen has healing properties.

Excited at the open door to helping Tenzin, the hospice worker called numerous nurseries until she finally found one willing to help her. So, one sunny afternoon she picked up Tenzin and his wife along with their afternoon provisions traditional to Tibetans: black tea, yak butter, salt, cups and cookies. She dropped Tenzin and his wife off at the nursery. While curious employees watched, the couple wandered from one area to another until they found just the right spot. Then they sat down wind from the flowers and enjoyed their afternoon tea. They did the same the following week at another nursery.

As word of this lovely Tibetan custom spread, soon nurseries all over Seattle were vying for Tenzin’s presence, calling him whenever they had new plants and flowers arriving. Throughout the days of the week, Tenzin and his wife would sit downwind from flowers at nurseries around Seattle. Nursery workers placed their chairs to match the wind direction and provided afternoon tea. Customers who had their flats filled with plants, carefully put them around Tenzin. Some began calling the nurseries to ask how the Tibetan gentleman was doing.

At the end of the summer, Tenzin returned to his doctors for a follow-up C.T. scan. The test showed no trace of cancer. The doctor, somewhat dumfounded, told Tenzin he could not explain the miraculous change.

Gently, Tenzin lifted his finger as if in thought and said, “I know why the cancer left. It can’t live in a body filled with love. When I began to feel all the compassion from the hospice team, from the nursery employees, from all of the people who wanted to know about me, I began to change inside. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to heal in this way.”

So, when searching for ways to heal a wounded heart, remember to “sit downwind from the flowers.” Allow people to reach out and touch you with their love, care, concern and compassion. Accept love and love others back. Be guided by this insight from psychiatrist Karl Menninger; “Love cures people, both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.”


Victor Parachin is a minister, freelance journalist and the author of several books.

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