My mother died soon after my father’s death. She stuck around and went through the motions with burying him, and sending out the thank you cards to family and friend, but her spirit died. She told all of us when we tried to cheer her up that her wish was to be gone before the end of the year. She died ten minutes before midnight of the New Year. She couldn’t face being here without my dad. Study after study has proven you can die from a broken heart, proving further that true love as well as intense grief is felt at a cellular level in the body.
According to NBC’s Nancy Snyderman M.D., broken heart syndrome isn’t like a heart attack. A lot of people suffer the syndrome after extreme fear, stress or sorrow. It is most often experienced by women, but men can suffer from it as well. Dr. Ilan Wittstein M.D. is a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center and an expert in Broken Heart Syndrome. He explains that there is a wide variety of emotions that can cause this cardiomyopathy syndrome other than intense grief. Emotions such as fear, anxiety and even surprise trigger the onset of Broken Heart Syndrome. Stress felt from an event triggers the brain to send a signal to the adrenal gland, the gland responsible for regulating stress in the body. The adrenal gland sends a surge of hormones that rush to the heart and cause the muscle to stop working and shut down. Dr. Wittstein distinguishes this from a heart attack by explaining there is not an arterial blockage with Broken Heart Syndrome, but instead the heart becomes dysfunctional and won’t squeeze or work normally. The muscle is broken. Dr. Wittstein says unlike a heart attack, the muscle is stunned and although a patient can end up in heart failure, usually the patient will recover with no permanent damage.
The most vulnerable time to suffer Broken Heart is the first week after the stressor, although it can happen at any time. Lack of sleep, lack of engaging with friends, not eating, not taking your medications or taking them at odd times of the day, feeling increased stress, and high cortisol levels as well as other circumstances all heighten the risk of suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome. If you are close to a family member or friend who you know suffered a loss, a stressful surprise, anxiety or fear, there are things you can do to help your loved one.
The first important point to remember is when people are grieving or in stress, many times they don’t care about themselves. If you notice your loved one not looking well, encourage them to go to the doctor, or make the appointment yourself and take them. They may resist health care, but taking them could save their life.
Taking nutritious meals to your loved one will help symbolize caring. What will help even more is taking the time to eat with them. People who are grieving the loss of someone need someone who cares enough to be with them during meals and other common shared times.
Trying to cheer your loved one up is not helpful and many times makes them feel worse. Suffering a loss, anxiety, and stress from an incident or fear causes people to withdraw, and they may feel they lost their sense of purpose. Listening to them helps so much more than talking to them.
It may help to encourage your loved ones by reminding them of other times they have been strong or resilient. During times when they are in the midst of severe sadness, hearing how they were strong in the past may help give them hope that they can be strong again.
Check on them frequently. No matter how difficult life becomes, if we know we have at least one person who cares about us, we can endure intense grief, pain and lost.
Sometimes there is nothing a loved one can do to save their friend or family from Broken Heart Syndrome. My mother had nine children, 22 grandchildren and numerous other loved ones who wanted her to stay alive. She no longer felt value in her life without my dad. Her sadness became unbearable, and her heart quit. In the end, no matter how advanced medicine becomes, we must respect how feelings affect our body’s ability to function. You cannot see love, as it isn’t concrete, but no one can deny the effects on the body of someone who suffers its loss.