Nearly everyone has experienced the loss of a close friend or family member. Some may literally feel like their heart is breaking wide open. This raises the question: Can you really die of a broken heart?
The answer is yes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Grief, for some, can manifest itself in something known as “broken heart syndrome. "
The Mayo Clinic explains, “Broken heart syndrome may be caused by the heart's reaction to a surge of stress hormones. The condition may also be called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, apical ballooning syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy by doctors."
In 2007, I personally experienced the physical effects of grief. Fortunately, I didn't end up in the emergency room complaining of chest pain, but within days of my husband's funeral, I did find myself at a medical clinic. I was diagnosed with bronchitis, a double ear infection, and a sinus infection.
In other words, I needed a medical intervention in the form of antibiotics. Although I was only 33 at the time, and a distance runner, I still became ill as a result of my experience with grief.
I also found that in doing research for my book, "A Widow's Guide to Healing,” that I wasn’t alone in feeling the physical impact of grief. I wanted to know and understand how other widows coped with grief, so I interviewed dozens of widows. Their age, financial, educational, religious backgrounds varied.
One widow named Julie, age 34, recalled that the grief took a physical toll on her body. She said, "For about six months I had heart palpitations. Sometimes it felt like I was having a heart attack and other times my heart would beat out of my chest."
Another widow named Penny, age 47, said, "At first after M (my husband) died, I was nervous and anxious all the time. I would be sitting and reading and find that my legs were shaking or that I had a queasy feeling in my stomach."
The Wall Street Journal published the story of a woman, Mrs. Lee, who appears to have experienced broken heart syndrome within minutes of witnessing her husband’s death.
At first it appeared that she had a heart attack. However it was found that “Mrs. Lee had suffered from broken-heart syndrome, a name given by doctors who observed that it seemed to especially affect patients who had recently lost a spouse or other family member. The mysterious malady mimics heart attacks, but appears to have little connection with coronary artery disease.”
However, you don't have to be a widow to experience physical effects related to grief and loss. In other words, no one has built up an immunity to this. After someone dies, close friends and family may also report experiences of physical effects of grief. They may talk about feeling a headache or knot in their stomach.
This Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, EmpowHER and I will be hosting a tweet chat (7 PM / EST) to talk about the physical effects of grief, how to properly cope, and where to get help.
The quotes are from the book, "A Widow's Guide to Healing,” by Kristin Meekhof, copyright Sourcebooks.
Kristin Meekhof is a licensed master’s level social worker.
Hearts Actually Can Break.Wall Street Journal.
Broken heart syndrome. Mayo Clinic.
Reviewed November 2, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith