Can someone die of a broken heart? This is a question I have thought about many times since 1986 when my paternal grandmother died. I first heard it from my father, who tried to explain how his mother, who had suffered a stroke three years earlier, died at 69 in spite of having had stable health since her stroke. His explanation started with “She just died of a broken heart.”
What? You can die of that? People just drop dead when their hearts are broken? If that were the case, it would seem like a cause of death of thousands, if not millions of people who lose their spouses or children every year. The explanation, at the time, seemed fairly preposterous. But my father explained it to me, and when he finished, it seemed plausible.
My grandmother divorced my grandfather and remarried when my father was around ten years old. She had another son with her second husband, my only uncle. My grandmother was head over heels in love with her new husband. A handsome and decorated World War II veteran, my step-grandfather doted on her for a long time. They worked as partners and really loved each other. This marriage, it appeared, was a drastic change from her previous one, which she entered into as a teenager.
As years went on, they were driven apart by a series of events that my grandmother could not control. That in and of itself was heart-breaking for my grandmother. They separated, then she agreed to get back together; her heart belonged to him. After a short time, they separated again, but didn’t divorce. In the early 80’s she suffered a stroke at 66. She lost her eyesight in one eye and some of her short-term memory but her long-term memory was still sharp. She hadn’t seen her husband in a few years but in 1983 my uncle got married and she knew she would come face to face with him. She was cordial to him, he was cordial to her. I knew she was uncomfortable that day, even a little wistful, but when I asked her if she was ok seeing him she said yes and she wasn’t going to let it ruin her night- she wasn’t going to cry over him or make a scene. I took it at face value that she had moved on.
I was wrong. In 1986 my step-grandfather died. It was agreed that my grandmother, still not quite at 100% from the stroke, should not find out so as not to shock her or upset her. Three or four months had passed and everything with her health was status quo. She was living in her house with a nurse to care for her. One day, an old friend of hers, a “pettrozine” or meddler, as we say in Italian, decided to stop in and see her out of the blue. She hadn’t come to see my grandmother in a very long time. She told my grandmother that her husband had died. My grandmother replied “Oh? that’s a shame.” She asked my uncle later if it were true and he told her it was. She didn’t get upset; she seemed to accept it.
A few weeks later my grandmother had another stroke and died. While the stroke was the cause of death, my father refused to believe news of her husband’s death hadn’t hastened her departure. “She wanted to be with him but didn’t want us to know.”
This topic came up a few days ago, when news of another sudden death hit me from left field. Vince and Nancy, who were my in-laws, had been together since high school- married 57 years last year. They were each other’s first and only loves. They were inseparable since teenagers and had 5 children. She was the peanut butter to his jelly. The water to his ocean. The cheese to his macaroni. They were each other’s everything. They finished each other’s sentences and probably didn’t even have to communicate thoughts to one another because they were so in sync that it wasn’t necessary.
In November, Nancy died rather suddenly after a very recent (three months) diagnosis of treatable cancer. The family was stunned and devastated- in addition to being the peanut butter, the water and the cheese, she was also the glue that held the family together. Her death was utterly shocking- everyone had thought she would recover. No one was more shocked and devastated, however, than her beloved Vince. Simply put, he was lost without her. She ran the house, cared for everyone- her husband, her children, her children’s children and even their children. He had just retired when she died. The void in Vince’s life was undeniable. The family kept him busy with visits and activities to attempt to keep him from feeling the loneliness and despair of not having the woman who was by his side since he was a teenager. However, it didn’t stop him from talking to her, about her, gazing at her photo or visiting her grave every day since she died.
So on Thursday morning, February 25, two months after she left this earth, Nancy called to her one and only in his sleep and he quietly and peacefully went to join her, to spend the rest of eternity with her, leaving his family both devastated yet again, but also relieved that their parents had been reunited.
As soon as I heard the news all I could think of was that he died of a broken heart. I am not the only one who feels this way–his family agrees. It’s not something made up for romance novels. It’s an actual medical syndrome- “Takosubo Cardiomyopathy,” also known as “Broken Heart Syndrome.” This is what they call it when a widow or widower dies suddenly and shortly after the spouse. It’s most common with a sudden death like a stroke or heart attack, as opposed to Alzeihmer’s, Parkinson’s or a long battle with cancer where the spouse experiences what is called “anticipatory grief.” It causes chest pain and sudden heart failure and is thought to come on as a result of fight or flight hormones, which cause the left side of the heart to increase in size. The left side struggles to pump blood and the right side pumps even harder, causing strong contractions. It appears to be a heart attack but there is no blockage or clogged arteries and almost always follows an emotional loss.
NBCNews.com reported that the late Dr. Lee Lipsenthal, an internist who did extensive research on this topic, found that Takosubo Cardiomyopathy occurs in 18% of widowers and 16% of widows- research gathered from over 300,000 elderly couples. But the heart doesn’t have to just stop in order for the person to die of a broken heart, technically. Although NBCNews.com reports that the number one cause of death of a bereaved spouse is heart disease and sudden death, researchers at the University of Glasgow found that among 4,000 couples, 30% are more likely to die- of any cause- soon after their spouses die. The risk period is 18 months after the spouse dies.
Last November, Doug Flutie’s father died of a heart attack and his mother’s heart stopped one hour later. They were married for 56 years. In his Facebook post that day, Doug Flutie acknowledged that he believed heartbreak caused his mother’s death. Johnny Cash died four months after his beloved June, who died suddenly after complications from heart valve surgery. Articles about couples who were married and then died close to each other make the case for dying of a broken heart. Take for example D-Day war hero Bernard Jordan and his wife, or Alexander and Jeanette Tocsko, who were together since they were 8 years old, and married for 75 years, dying 24 hours apart.
It is both sad yet romantic to think that two hearts that once beat as one can’t bear to beat alone. But one thing is certain, it happens, devastating loved ones not once, but twice.
Do you know of someone who died of a broken heart?