In the case to prosecute the police officer who murdered George Floyd, the defense attorney said Floyd’s heart was enlarged. That’s why he could not withstand the pressure of a knee on his neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds. The defense attorney blamed George Floyd for his own death. He would not acknowledge the fault of the officer who pressed his weight into Floyd’s body for almost 10 minutes while he lay prone on the pavement, causing him to suffocate. It wasn’t that George Floyd’s heart was too large, the problem is the police officer’s heart was too small.
In a Sunday morning interview, the day before the attorneys in the trial rested their cases in front of the Minneapolis jury, Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the Floyd family said, with some hesitation in his voice, that in the face of the overwhelming evidence presented by the prosecution, he hoped the jury would find the accused guilty of the charges he faced. But he added, “The American legal system has broken my heart many times.”
In the middle of this legal theater, these references to the heart got me thinking about Broken Heart Syndrome. It sounds like a metaphor for sadness, but it is a medically acknowledged condition. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), broken heart syndrome is when the heart reacts to a surge of stress hormones caused by an emotionally stressful event. The stress could be the experience of loss, betrayal, or another emotionally traumatic event. It could be the death of a loved one, a divorce, a forced separation, or the loss of something treasured as in a hurricane or a fire. The result is intense pain that feels like a heart attack.
For African Americans, heartbreak also arises from the trauma we experience in the face of continued police violence, including the killing of unarmed Black men and women and children. Consider how your heart sinks every time you turn on the news and hear of another violent, senseless loss of life. You experience a surge of stress hormones caused by the ongoing, recurrent, and cumulative stress and trauma of racism. When those hormones continue to spike again and again, what kind of heart damage does that cause?
Where do broken hearts go?
So, people can suffer physically and emotionally from broken hearts, the Heart Association tells us. But we did not need science to tell us this. We know it. We’ve seen it.
After Atatiana Jefferson was shot and killed by a police officer while she played video games with her nephew, her father Marquis Jefferson died from cardiac arrest. Family members concluded it was caused by a broken heart.
Eric Garner died when a police officer strangled him using an illegal choke hold. Three years later, his daughter, Erica Garner, who had become a social justice activist, died of a heart attack. She was only 27. She died of a broken heart.
The coroner who examined Martin Luther King Jr.’s heart after his assassination, said that his heart was enlarged and fatigued. King was only 39, but they say he had the heart of a 60 year old.
Broken heart syndrome seems like a metaphor, but it is real and overwhelming. The current wave of violence and injustice toward Black people, along with the dominant culture’s denial of and indifference to the atrocities being committed, cause deep and lasting emotional, psychological, and spiritual wounds, and bring to the surface unhealed wounds from the past. We are more than stressed. We are more than traumatized. We are immersed in what seems like a stream of perpetual grief and mourning. We are heartbroken. Of that there is no doubt.
The stresses associated with daily instances of racial insensitivity, injustice, violence, and discrimination amount to race-based trauma, which is experienced as a heightened sense of fear and anxiety that occurs when you cannot trust the people who have been put in charge to keep you safe. All of this contributes to a sense of alienation, isolation and helplessness—and takes a toll on our physical health and psychological immune system. The daily stressors of simply living in these times further compromises our reserves and places our health and well-being at risk.
Even if it’s not our own loved one who is at the wrong end of a police weapon, we are still deeply affected. The experience of vicarious trauma also has a detrimental impact on our health and well-being. We experience trauma vicariously when we have frequent exposure to violence through graphic videos of shootings of Black people, or from exposure as a first responder, or as a frontline activist. These combine with lived experiences of race-based insensitivity, injustice, and discrimination. We are exposed to these images continually, and like second-hand smoke, second-hand trauma does great harm.
When we are heartbroken we literally ache. The experiences that cause emotional distress sometimes even cause us physical pain. There is an interaction between our mental and emotional states and our body. When our hearts are broken we might feel chest pain, stomach pain, back pain, headaches or more. Your doctor may not find a “cause,” but whatever you’re feeling, you’re not making it up. Emotional pain and physical pain share the same neural pathways, so when you’re hurt emotionally, your brain actually registers it as physical pain.
A cascade of reactions can occur in response to heartbreak that can be overwhelming to us, causing us to contract around the pain of heartache, vowing never to love again, forgetting that love is the deepest longing of our heart. The problem is, no matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid heartbreak. Love and heartbreak go hand in hand. When we close our hearts to love, our hearts harden and become impenetrable. We push people away when they get too close and when we need them the most. We end up friendless, feeling bitter, empty and indifferent to the suffering of others. That’s the cost of vowing to never love again.
An open heart responds to what it is given. Like an orchestra, it can play every octave in the symphony of life and express itself in harmony with whatever reality presents. When there is joy, the heart dances and smiles. When there is tragedy or loss, the heart grieves and cries. When there is danger, the heart is fearful and cautious, or courageous, or both. When there is injustice the heart rages and fights back, but it is never cruel or indifferent. As we experience our emotions, we discover that the heart is capable of moving from absolute ecstasy to deep sorrow. A wise person treats the heart with compassion and allows the heart to express itself fully.
Gold in the seams
But what if we are heartbroken? We must learn ways to mend our heart by calling on love when it breaks.
There is an ancient Japanese art form called Kintsugi. When a piece of pottery breaks, rather than hiding or disguising the cracks, the pottery is pieced back together with gold-dusted lacquer making the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original.
So it is with our hearts. When we gather up the pieces of our broken hearts and piece them back together with the glue of love, forgiveness, compassion, wisdom, and community, we can find healing. Even though the heart is not the same heart it was before it broke, the glue used to repair it adds to its strength, beauty and wholeness. Love is what mends a broken heart. Our hearts are strong and resilient and we can remain open hearted, even when our hearts hurt.
Envision loving yourself—your body, your hair texture, your facial features, your skin color, the width of your hips, the length of your limbs, your height, your weight, your warmth, your cool, your voice, your gestures, your slang, your bones, your muscles—all of you. Most of all love your heart, your great unbounded heart that, breaking wide open each time it is wounded, becomes more and more expansive, embracing you in your own self-love. This is not selfish love. This is a love that nurtures, comforts, heals, and knows no bounds.
Love really is the heart of the matter.