We are living through a time when illness is causing unexpected loss, but we all know that grief is no respecter of pandemics: it can affect just about anyone, anytime. One of the inevitable sources of pain we’ll encounter at some point will be the death of someone very close to us. But as hard as it can be to endure grief, it’s especially difficult for seniors. If you are caring for an older loved one who has recently lost a spouse, you know what an emotionally wrenching experience grief can be. Are there steps you can take to help them deal with the overwhelming sense of loss? What other side effects are there? Can someone actually “die of a broken heart”?
A “Broken Heart” Can Trigger Physical Illness after Loss
Because these are such important questions, and because so many are in this situation – or may be there soon – we wanted to share this article published a few years ago on the NextAvenue website. Written by NextAvenue contributor Amy Florian, the article, titled “Broken Heart Syndrome: Illness After Loss,” describes how a widow’s or widower’s grief can have big effects on physical health. The article also shows 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 is a Real and Dangerous Condition
There seem to be two chief ways in which intense grief can trigger a health crisis and sometimes cause premature death, the article explains. The first – and seemingly less likely – is “broken heart syndrome,” which actually has a medical name: takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. (This USNews article describes it more fully.) In these instances, extreme stress causes part of the heart to temporarily enlarge and function poorly. Doctors believe the culprit is the excessive 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.”
A Broken Heart Can Lead to a Broken Immune System
The second, more common way in which grief causes a health crisis is less visible but deadlier: 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 healthy 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 Tips to Help a Loved One Cope with a Broken Heart
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.
Announcing Seminars with a Choice: In-Person Events Return, Webinars Also Available
For several months our popular LifePlanning Seminars with Rajiv Nagaich have been offered online only. But now as COVID-19 restrictions are starting to be eased, we AgingOptions are excited to announce a new series of in-person seminars coming soon. For now Rajiv will only be offering in-person events in communities where gatherings are permitted under the governor’s phased reopening plan. Of course, these events will be conducted in a way that’s consistent with all health guidelines.
Our chief desire is to help you prepare for the kind of retirement you’ve always dreamed of having. LifePlanning is a powerful process that combines financial planning with a housing strategy, a medical plan, a legal foundation plus a plan to involve your loved ones in all aspects of the choices you make as you age. With finances, housing, medical, legal and family all working together, you have a fully integrated LifePlan.
Because of health safeguards, enrollment at our upcoming in-person seminars will be strictly limited. We urge you to visit our Events Page and register now for the LifePlanning Seminar that works for you. Also, as we said above, Rajiv continues to offer his free LifePlanning Seminars in the form of webinars that you can watch conveniently at home. You’ll find a calendar and other important links here on our AgingOptions website.
Reliable information has never been more important – online or in person! That’s our promise to you at AgingOptions. Age on!
(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)