The Reality of Dying from a Broken Heart

The idea of dying because your heart is broken might sound like the premise for an angst-y teen movie or the theme of a Shakespearean tragedy. However, being in the business that I am in and having compiled research on the subject proves that it is not a scenario only fit for the screen or in a volume of poetry. While a broken heart might not be a recognized medical condition, it’s actually something that could be fatal.

Early in 2015, the journal JAMA Internal Medicine published a study that found that, while it was a rare occurrence, the number of people who suffered from a heart attack or a stroke in the first month after a loved one died was double that of a matched control group who were not experiencing grief (this equals about 50 out of 30,447 in the bereaved group, or .16%, compared to 67 out of 83,588 in the non-bereaved group, or .8%). Dr. Sunil Shah, one of the authors of the study and a faculty member of St. George’s at the University of London, stated, “We often use the term a ‘broken heart’ to signify the pain of losing a loved one and our study shows that bereavement can have a direct effect on the health of the heart.”

And while this might not be a medically-recognized condition yet, there is a medical term for “Broken Heart Syndrome.” Called stress cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, the British Heart Foundation says that it is a “temporary condition where your heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened or stunned. The left ventricle, one of the heart’s chambers, changes shape.” Moreover, this is a condition that is brought on by shock—the kind that occurs when an individual experiences a loss, such as the death of a spouse or a child.

Death Following a Death

I hate to be overly morbid, but in this situation it is absolutely necessary to call a spade a spade. When you begin thinking about dying from a broken heart, all you have to do is look to a variety of news stories about couples who were married for decades dying within weeks, sometimes even days or hours, of each other.

Consider Don and Maxine Simpson of Bakersfield, California. The couple, married for 62 years and aged 90 and 87, respectively, died four hours apart from each other while laying on adjoining beds. Mrs. Simpson passed away first and when her body was removed from the room, Mr. Simpson followed her. Or think of Ruth and Harold Knapke—a couple who died 11 hours apart days before their 66th wedding anniversary. One might say that these couples simply could not stand the idea of being apart, and as romantic as that is, the fact is there is science behind why this happens.

The rate in mortality ultimately goes up among spouses who face the mourning of their loved one. In fact, research uncovered at the University of Glasgow discovered that “widows and widowers were at least 30 percent more likely to die of any cause during the first six months following a spouse’s death, compared to those who did not lose a partner.” The study was based on a sample of 4,000 couples. Additionally, a similar study conducted in Jerusalem revealed that the risk of death increased by 50 percent in the first six months after losing a spouse.

Broken Heart Syndrome is caused by Stress

Grief is a stressful situation to face, and one should not confuse Broken Heart Syndrome with a heart attack. A heart attack stops the heart because the overall blood supply is constricted, usually by clogged arteries. Johns Hopkins University states, “Most heart attacks occur due to blockages and blood clots forming in the coronary arteries, the arteries that supply the heart with blood.”

Conversely, those who have suffered from Broken Heart Syndrome typically have fairly normal coronary arteries, and do not have severe blockages or clots. Moreover, it is possible to recover from this condition—when the stress goes away and the heart has the opportunity to return to its normal shape. However, if the individual suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome is elderly or has an existing heart condition, this is what can ultimately trigger a heart attack that proves fatal.

New Realties for the Grieving

When unexpected grief occurs, an extreme mind-body connection seems to become prevalent—and it’s based on the emergence of chronic health problems, grief-induced stress, and a lack of support system.   From a medical perspective, there is no clear cut way to deal with this condition, but there is a way to manage the grieving process and work to protect your health as you face this new reality. Consider these strategies:

  • Share your loss, it can make the burden of grief easier to carry. No matter where the support comes from, accept it and do not grieve alone. Forming connections with others will help the healing process.
  • Turn to friends and family—lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong and sufficient. Tell these people what you need, whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, help with preparing meals, or advice about financial situations or other personal matters.
  • Join a support group or talk to a counselor. Share your sorrow with other people who have experienced similar losses or consider talking to someone who can help you work through intense emotions that compound stress and panic in your life.
  • Look after your physical health. Remember, the mind and body are connected. When you feel good physically, you’ll also feel better emotionally. Combat stress and fatigue by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising. Don’t use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of grief or lift your mood artificially.

When to Seek Professional Help

There are instances where professional help should absolutely be enlisted when dealing with grief. If an individual is experiencing complicated grief related to feeling intense longing and yearning for the deceased; intrusive thoughts or images of a loved one; denial of the death or sense of disbelief; imagining that a loved one is still alive; and avoiding things that spur memories of a loved one—contact a trained health professional. Also, anger and extreme bitterness or feelings of emptiness or worthlessness are signs of complicated grief or clinical depression. If these issues are left untreated, significant emotional damage, life threatening health problems, and suicidal tendencies can arise. It’s absolutely imperative that a grief counselor or professional therapist be contacted in this regard.

For more information or to request grief support assistance, visit www.BLTStrategies.com.

Mary Ellen Wasielewski