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Broken Hearts and the Art of Kintsugi

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How do we think about what grief does to the human heart? In many cases, it brings unbearable heartbreak. In others, it can bring relief. It is when the heart breaks or shatters that we believe that it is irreparable.

In ancient times, if an ordinary porcelain bowl or pottery broke, it wasn’t thrown away. Instead it would be expertly repaired, making it not only useful once again, but more valuable and beautiful than its original condition. This is known as Kintsugi, an ancient Japanese art of fusing the broken pieces with glue and gold. It is also known as Kintsukuroi, translated as “golden joinery.” Kintsugi stems from the traditional Japanese aesthetics of Wabi-Sabi, centered on the world view of the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetics is sometimes described as appreciating beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete in nature.

Metaphorically speaking, kintsugi offers hope in the act of fusing the broken pieces — the hope that the brokenness is salvageable by putting it back together in some semblance of its former self. Kintsugi embraces the breakage as part of the object’s history, instead of something unacceptable to be hidden or thrown away. This is the opposite of the belief embedded in our culture: if something is broken, toss it out; if something is flawed, hide it.

There are three types of Kintsugi repair. The first is when all pieces are available and the cracks are filled with gold to restore the piece. The second type is when small pieces are missing. Those areas are completely filled with gold. Third, when large areas of the piece are missing or shattered beyond repair, the artisan will take fragments from unrelated pieces to create a patchwork design.

When our hearts are wounded or broken, they end up in all stages of disrepair. Then slowly, painstakingly, each piece of our heart has to be examined, evaluated and assessed. Going through the rubble and effects of what remains will help determine the journey forward.

In a limited focus group of adult grievers of varying ages and stages of grief, including a couple of HOPE Connection Alumni, men and women shared their very personal responses to a grief questionnaire about their heart experience. They knew nothing else about the article being written. Here are the questions and some representative examples of their heartfelt responses:

1.Which would best describe what happened to your heart when your loved one died?

  • Crushed
  • Paralyzed
  • Relieved

2. If your heart could have spoken, what would it have said to you when your loved one died?

  • I’m broken and will never mend.
  • I will never love anyone again.
  • I know you are in pain right now but it will get better.
  • Life as you know it will never be the same.

3. What was your initial outlook about your future while grieving?

  • Nothing will ever be the same. I’m going to lose my business, my home and I’m going to be alone. Am I making all the right decisions?
  • Stuck. Was not sure nor did I care about the future.
  • I knew that staying alone the rest of my life wasn’t going to work well for me but I didn’t want to ever have to deal with losing someone again.
  • I was still hurt over the loss of my loved one but I knew that they would want what’s best for me so I had to go on with my future.

4. How did your loved one’s death change the way you loved, lived?

  • Tell your friends you love them. Don’t settle for seconds. Live each day like it’s your last. Everything can change in one minute.
  • Shut down. Cared less for others and myself. Turned to work to disappear.
  • I learned to love again but the fear of loss always stays in the background. I am always aware that life is very fragile.
  • It just made me appreciate every moment with them. It changed the way I live because it made me realize that our time here isn’t guaranteed and I should value every moment.

5. When and how did you recognize your heart was beginning to mend?

  • After realizing she is really gone and life must go on.
  • Years later. Time healed or lessened the pain. Therapy helped. I didn’t have any initially for years. I didn’t immediately grieve.
  • I knew that my heart was mending when I felt hopeful and started enjoying life again.
  • I don’t feel my heart has even mended. I feel that I’ve just learned to live with a piece of it missing. The void is bigger than the person who left it.

6. What was the most helpful thing that helped your heart to heal?

  • The solace that death is a part of life.
  • Time, the love and support of my friends, therapy and not being afraid to say I need help.
  • Talking to someone. Realizing it was their time. Hearing they didn’t or wouldn’t want me to suffer because they were gone.
  • A combination of emptying 50 years of memories and moving to a new life in a new place, as well as the support of family, friends, HOPE Connection along with individual therapy, and volunteering with young people with disabilities who were part of a drama troupe.

7. What is the most significant lesson that your broken heart taught you?

  • Love is not forever, because everything that starts ends, stops or dies.
  • No matter how significant and crushed your heart, it will heal. Just give it some time.
  • You don’t lose your ability to live and love when someone you love dies. Even though it does not feel like you can survive, you learn to live with the pain and it becomes a part of you as you rebuild your life.
  • I had a deep heart wound, not a break. The lesson from my heart has always been to give and receive love fully for it is what makes life worth living no matter what the circumstances.

8. What would you want to tell the future bereaved about letting your heart break?

  • Feel it, talk about the broken effect. You will survive. Do not make any major decisions for a few months if possible.
  • Give yourself permission to miss them and add more time for self care. Keep reaching out to talk, to get nourishment in all ways from friends and loved ones.
  • I would tell them what people didn’t tell me when I went through my grief — that it doesn’t ever go away… the pain doesn’t “get better.” It just becomes a part of you and that’s not always a bad thing. Almost 10 years later and it still can feel like it happened yesterday. You just learn to cope and understand that loving someone comes with the pain of losing them and that’s just life. You have to live with that pain and work with it.

Kintsugi can be a metaphor for hope. It is the opportunity to reframe, reconstruct and redefine. Your heart, your life will not be as it was before. However, the breakage of your former self and life creates a chance for new possibilities. Once shrouded in overwhelming darkness and suffering, the grieving heart can be transformed into a repurposed heart, with its brokenness and all its beautiful imperfect scars where the human spirit and the cellular memory still retains its indomitable hope. The condition of your heart tells the story of how you live and love. May it be a well used heart.

By Sheila Newton, LMFT