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Sometimes Love is the Missing Piece Needed to Heal

June 2, 2020

By: Deborah Ballard, MD, MPH, Duke Integrative Medicine

I have been a physician for over 30 years. I have known thousands of people as patients. Most patients who seek out an integrative medicine physician want advice on how to live a long, healthy life.
Of course, I always talk about the basics of sleep, nutrition, physical activity, avoiding toxins, and stress reduction. I also ask about love.

Sometimes love is the missing piece needed to heal.

Love has many meanings. People love chocolate ice cream, French opera, or hiking up mountains. People fall in love, love being in love, and can be addicted to love. In the context of this article, I am referring to this definition of love found in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary: “A strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.”

An elegant lady, well into her nineties, stands out in my memory as an example of this kind of love and its benefits. She had the usual conditions associated with advanced age-hypertension, osteoarthritis, and hearing loss, but she radiated tranquility and happiness. She lived in her own home with two of her adult grandchildren.

She married, worked hard for little money, and raised 6 children. In her younger years, she spent sleepless nights walking the floor with a sick baby in her arms, waiting up for her teenager to come home, jumping to her feet to cheer when that teen later graduated from high school. Her husband had died years before but when she spoke of him her smile flashed, her cheeks blushed, and her eyes glimmered.

She clearly felt a strong affection for him. The children they made, and their grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now reciprocated the love she gave them. Their ties were strong and reliable. She always had help getting her groceries and medications, cooking meals, doing laundry, making doctor’s appointments.

She was the most honored guest at their birthday parties, graduations, and weddings. She was safe, supported, respected, and knew with certainty her purpose in life. She was the family matriarch, the reliable dispenser of hugs, kisses, wisdom, compassionate criticism, and always unconditional love. She enjoyed a long, happy, and healthy life by loving and being loved.

She built her fortune of love in the context of marriage and motherhood, but I observed others who created equally deep reserves of love by teaching students, doctoring patients, chatting up their clients at the hair salon, and providing warm, welcoming meals to the patrons of their restaurants. They created genuine strong affection between themselves and others, arising from their belief that love is worth the bravery, humility, patience, generosity, and idealism it takes to earn and sustain it.

I can quote multiple meta-analyses linking optimal diet, sleep, exercise, stress, and toxin avoidance to good health. I can also quote numerous articles linking love to a long and happy life, but the association is so obvious, it seems silly to do so.

People find themselves bereft of love for many reasons. When they develop medically recognized illnesses, they present to healers alone. Healers sometimes wonder why patients do not respond to well thought out evidence-based medicine.

Sometimes love is the missing piece needed to heal. Healers can help patients find that piece, by allowing them to acknowledge its absence, without judgment. Counselors and support groups can help people find love wherever they are. Especially in these difficult times, love is needed to heal individuals and the society we live in. Let it begin with each one of us today.

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