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Posted By Opening the Heart

I had not seen Richard in my therapy office for over 3 years. He called, in tears, asking to see me that afternoon. When he came in, his eyes were red and he looked like he had not slept in a long time. I asked him to talk to me. He told me that 4 nights ago he had said an early good night to his wife of 21 years who had not felt well in the early evening. He sat by her bedside, held her hand and she said she was sure she would be all right in the morning. They talked a while, remembering sweet memories of their early time together. They laughed and cried a bit, kissed good night and he turned out the light.

Richard, in his early 50's, told me that in the morning, he found his wife not breathing and cold to the touch. He was devastated. But what he could not get out of his mind was that 4 days earlier, he and his wife had had a bad argument, and in a moment of frsutration and rage, he said to her "I wish you were dead! And the sooner the better!" Even though the autopsy revealed that she had died of a massive heart attack (and there was a family history of heart disease), he was absolutely convinced that it was his hard words that had cut deeply and broken her heart. He told me that he and his wife had had a good and loving marriage, but, like all couples, they'd had dark times, arguments, harsh words, but he'd never, ever before, wished her dead.

Though I really wanted to reassure him, I found myself doubting and I actually did a search on whether, in fact, one could die of a broken heart. The answer, I learned, was that yes, people did die of a broken heart. I read case after case of couples in close long term relationships, where one partner died within hours or days of losing their "other half". But, these examples were different from a partner in a relationship dying from cruel or abusive words. Yet, I also remembered all the people I had seen in my office who still, decades later, remembered the crippling words delivered by an unskillful parent or family member- words that, when repeated over long periods of time, may not "kill", but did leave people wounded, scarred, broken.

So I think, how ironic that the coin of trade in my professional and personal life is a practice of mindful speech- attempting to use words that heal wounds caused by hurtful speech. Buddhism's concept of Right Speech consists of answering 3 questions: 1) Is it true?; 2) Is it kind?; 3) Is it necessary? I believe that we, literally, create who we are by the words we choose to use with others. It is loving words, aligned with a loving heart, that save lives. Kabir, a 15th century Sufi poet said "Love cuts a lot of arguments short". Love cuts right through the rightness or wrongness of a position and it heals.

A patient, a woman racked by a lifetime of shame over her body image and her eating disorder married a man who was quite judgmental of her weight until he decided to go to therapy himself to try to "get some things right". One night he woke and walked downstairs to find his wife sitting in the dark with an empty ice cream carton on the coffee table. She was weeping. He came over to her, put a hand on her shoulder, held her and said "I love you". Her shame dissolved in the presence of his kindness and love.

So, I told Richard what I believed: that his wife had died of a major coronary because her time had come and that his harsh words contributed not at all to her death. I also told him that he now had an opportunity to be a better, more mindful, chooser of the words he used with others in his life.

With Love and Respect, JonJon