Is 'broken heart syndrome' real or just a romantic idea?
"Minding Our Elders" columnist Carol Bradley Bursack says the loss of a spouse or partner is sometimes enough to exacerbate the survivor's own health issues so a disease that may have become manageable for a time becomes the official cause of death.
Dear Carol: I read an article online where you wrote that you’d lost both of your parents within a few months. I’ve been there. My dad died from heart issues that he’d lived with for a long time, but when he died, he went quickly in his sleep so we couldn’t say goodbye. As you can imagine, his passing was hard on all of us but particularly hard on Mom since they’d been together for over 60 years.
After Dad’s death, Mom discovered that she had cancer and she passed exactly two months after Dad. Thankfully, we were with her during her decline and could hold her hand as she died, but losing Mom so soon after losing Dad has been awful. I just wondered how quickly your mother passed away after your father, and if you believed that she didn't want to go on without her husband. I suppose I'm asking so I don't feel that my family is alone with this pain. — ME.
Dear ME: I'm deeply sorry about both of your losses. As you mentioned, my family experienced the deaths of both of our parents close together, as well. We had five months separating them, so we had a little more time to adjust than you did, but it was still difficult. Mom had been in poor health prior to Dad’s passing, but we’re sure that his passing hastened her own. She never smiled or enjoyed herself, even in small ways, during the intervening months.
I believe that both of our mothers’ deaths would qualify as “broken heart syndrome.” Yes, they had other diseases, but it’s likely that, in my mom’s case, anyway, she held on for Dad. Your mom may not have known about her cancer, but she hadn’t felt well for quite some time, yet she ignored her symptoms because your dad needed her care.
Once your dad died, your mom’s cancer symptoms became more noticeable for what they were because she could finally focus on herself. It wouldn’t surprise me, either, if her grief exacerbated the process of her cancer. Either way, it seems that our mothers' broken hearts encouraged their journey onward to follow their mates. I’ll add that age was no doubt a factor in both cases, as well.
We are most definitely not alone in our experience with this. While losing a parent is hard on us, most of us do understand that the depth of loss that our remaining parent had suffered is deeper. This loss is often enough to exacerbate their own health issues so a disease that may have become manageable for a time becomes the official cause of death.
You and I were blessed in that our parents had lived long lives and had close marriages. I’ve always felt that my mother escaped what had become a painful life by allowing her spirit to join Dad. It sounds as if you feel the same about your own mom. Allow yourself as much time to grieve as you need.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.