As we walk alongside our parents or grandparents in their journey of aging, one of the inevitable sources of pain we’ll encounter at some point will be the death of someone very close to them, such as a spouse. If you are caring for a loved one who is going through the stages of grief after such a loss, you know what an emotionally wrenching experience it can be. How can you console your grieving mom or grandmother, for example, whose spouse of 50 or 60 years has recently died? What can you say to your aging dad to help him deal with the feelings of helplessness now that his wife is gone? Are there steps you can take to help them deal with the overwhelming sense of loss? And can someone actually “die of a broken heart”?
Illness after Loss
Because these are profoundly difficult questions, and because so many of our seminar guests and radio listeners are in this situation – or may be there soon – we wanted to share this article from the website NextAvenue that deals with this painful topic in a constructive way. It’s called, “Broken Heart Syndrome: Illness after Loss.” Written by NextAvenue contributor Amy Florian, the article describes some of the research which has clearly shown that a widow’s or widower’s grief can have big effects on physical health – and that while “broken heart syndrome” may be an actual medical phenomenon, it’s not the biggest health risk a grieving senior may face.
“Anecdotes abound,” writes Florian, “about couples married for over 50 years who end up dying within hours, days or weeks of each other — even if one spouse was relatively healthy when the first one died; the same is true for parents. Is it possible that grief is implicated in illness and a higher risk of death?” The succinct answer, according to NextAvenue: “Actually, yes.”
Broken Heart Syndrome, Broken Immune System
There seem to be two chief ways in which intense grief can trigger a health crisis and sometimes cause premature death. The first – and seemingly less likely – is “broken heart syndrome,” which actually has a medical name: takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. This 2017 article from USNews describes it more fully. In these instances, extreme stress causes part of the heart to temporarily enlarge and fail to pump well. Doctors don’t fully understand the underlying triggers, but stress-induced cardiomyopathy appears linked, not to traditional causes of heart attacks, but to the release of hormones, especially adrenaline. “Elderly married couples have been known to die within hours or days of each other,” the USNews article observes. “Doctors sometimes treat patients with heart attack-like symptoms who have come directly from a funeral. In other words, a figurative broken heart can actually lead to a literal broken heart.”
The second way in which grief causes a health crisis is less visible but more common: grieving can severely impact the body’s ability to fight off disease. “Grief suppresses the immune system,” says Amy Florian in NextAvenue, “making it more likely for grieving people to get sick – ranging from a mild illness like a cold to something potentially life-threatening, such as a serious infection.” Researchers have observed this phenomenon for decades, even coining a mouthful of a medical term – psychoneuroimmunology – to describe it. Doctors have also labeled this the “widowhood effect.” According to NextAvenue, “A 2012 study of widowed people born between 1910 and 1930 found that widowed men have a 30 percent increase in mortality over their expected rates after a wife dies.” But, said one researcher, rather than dying of a broken heart, “they are dying of a broken immune system. They usually get infections.” This explains why even health people so often become seriously ill on the death of a spouse – and if the surviving spouse is frail to begin with, the danger is even greater.
Seven Coping Tips
If you’re struggling to find ways to help someone you love cope with grief, the NextAvenue article lists these seven suggestions. See if these might be helpful:
- Remind them gently that it’s not a good idea to suppress emotion. Suppressing grief can actually trigger clinical depression, and tears are a normal and healthy sign of loss.
- Help them find a support group or a counselor. They need to know that their grief is normal and that there are healthy ways to process it without feeling overwhelmed.
- Give them a good book about grief. Instead of avoiding the topic, this kind of gesture will provide valid insight into what they are experiencing.
- Remind them of all they still have to live for. “A good phrase to use,” says Amy Florian: “The greatest memorial they can build to their spouse is to live life now as fully as possible, enriched by their memories.” Try to encourage friends, grandkids and others to engage with the grieving person, even though it might be difficult.
- Encourage them to tell the stories of, and remember, their spouse. “Forgetting is not the point of healing,” Florian writes. “You heal by remembering, processing the emotions and going forward into the future with the memories and lessons intact. Don’t be afraid to say the name of the deceased spouse and help keep their memories alive.”
- Encourage healthy eating, adequate water consumption and good sleep. It’s essential that your loved one take care of his or her immune system. Bring in a doctor – ideally a geriatrician – and a nutritionist if needed, even if your loved one resists.
- Talk about the things that have brought comfort and enjoyment in the past. Encourage them to do the things they’ve enjoyed – bird-watching, a stroll on the beach, listening to music – so they can experience those moments of renewal and refreshment.
What About Your Future?
By taking these steps you’re helping your loved one build a new future, one that is well worth living, says NextAvenue. But meanwhile, what about your future? Are you making plans now so that, whatever life throws your way, you’ll be able to protect your assets when you retire, avoid becoming a burden to those you love, and escape being forced into institutional care against your will? You owe it to yourself to discover the power of truly comprehensive retirement planning, in the form of a LifePlan from AgingOptions. You’ll experience peace of mind like never before when you finally have your financial, housing, legal, medical and family matters all well I hand. There’s no other retirement plan like it!
To learn more, without cost or obligation, please accept our invitation to join Rajiv Nagaich at an upcoming AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar. If you’ll click here for our Live Events page, you’ll see a listing of all the seminars currently scheduled – then register for the one that works for you, or call us for assistance. Join the thousands of folks just like you who have experienced a LifePlanning Seminar with Rajiv Nagaich, and open your eyes to a brighter, more secure retirement future. Age on!
(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)
Photo Credit: flickr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/)