Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

How to treat a broken heart: An instruction guide

Kate Baggott
Ontario, Canada


Glitter heart for article on self care

Human beings are callous creatures. We pursue our own agendas, desires, and happiness at the expense of those who would love us. We have all done it. We have all disputed the purity of another’s love. We have all had our hearts broken in turn. We all know this state; of mourning, of guarded weakness, of despair when the substances of joy are suddenly withdrawn. Heartbreak leaves its initials carved on all of our souls.

We are diagnosed, first, with the condition of being human and all the vulnerabilities that being and doing with other humans introduces into the complex and varied experiences of life. And then we have names and symptom lists for broken-heartedness:

“Broken heart syndrome is a temporary heart condition that’s often brought on by stressful situations, such as the death of a loved one,” says the Mayo Clinic’s web site. “The condition can also be triggered by a serious physical illness or surgery. People with broken heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they’re having a heart attack.” (The Mayo Clinic)

Causes, causes, so many ways the organ is triggered to react, or to make us believe it is reacting:

“The condition is thought to be triggered by a surge of hormones,” writes Dr. Samy-Claude Elayi (Elayi, 2017). “This surge of hormones can be caused by stressful events such as an unexpected death of a loved one, news of a serious medical diagnosis, domestic abuse, losing or winning a large amount of money, loss of a job or even a divorce.”

And here, in the midst of this medical phenomenon, the lifelong student of humanities—not the physician—must define the treatment. To you, my patient, my victim of heartbreak, take your treatment from the masterpieces of our shared cultures. Accept this prescription:

Recovery from heartbreak knows instruction. Those afflicted by heartbreak are people of hope’s persistence. For them—for you—these quiet wishes are offerings. They are made to acknowledge your disappointed expectations, your lost emotional investment, and your spent energies.

It is not the time, not yet, to remember all the lessons you have been taught about the flawed humanity we share. No. Instead you must remember yourself. Your own boundaries of skin, your own circuitry of vessels were designed to sustain you independently of others. Nurture that system. Drink clean water, eat healthy food, and sleep dreamlessly.

Most importantly: move on foot through the neighborhood in search of something beautiful.

If you do not recognize beauty, retrain your senses to see it:

Name the style and period of the architecture. Note the color variances and comforting symmetry of brick and tile.

Study vegetation: Trunk and bark, stem and leaf, petal and blossom, stamen and pistel. In winter, turn your attention instead to icicles and frost patterns, the puff steam of your own miraculous exhaled breath leaving your body entering the great outside air.

Do not walk past a library, a book store, a shop that sells candles or runes or greeting cards with comic messages. Go in. Go in to discover authors and poets you did not read in school, or in a hammock, or under assignment from anyone. Contemplate the difference between new age and old witchcraft. Smell pages, sniff at other people’s perfumes, smell wool coats heating when their wearers come in from the cold.

Sit not at your computer without searching an image from Basquiat, Melozzo da Flori, Dana Simpson, or Ernest Watson. Remember every painting, every sculpture, every drawing and stained glass that has ever affected you enough to draw out a sigh, a smile, or a moment of connection. Make a list and search out those images here and now.

These nourishments will repair your shocked physical system.

Emotional balance might be more difficult.

Try not to cry, try not to brood, try not to wallow. Every tear that you do not shed helps you to resist the temptations of cynicism. Every ray of light you allow to break up a dark mood warms your mind to the idea that this experience, too, is full of some grand and important learning. When you refuse to treat misery as a plaything you learn to respect the power of emotion itself. With this respect, you teach yourself to control your feelings.

Practice this self-care and nourishment. Continue to search for beauty. Learn to respect and control your emotions. Do these things gently and with great love for who you are and who you are becoming. That is how you get over a broken heart.



KATE BAGGOTT, B.A., M.F.A., is a Canadian author and research consultant. Her work ranges from technology journalism to creative nonfiction and from chick lit to experimental fiction. Links to recently published pieces can be found at https://www.katebaggott.com.


Winter 2018  |  Sections  |  Personal Narratives

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.