Yes, you can die of a broken heart

When Carrie Fisher died this week, followed shortly by her mother, Debbie Reynolds, many people wrote about Debbie Reynolds dying of a broken heart. One headline I read proclaimed, “Debbie Reynolds Last Words…’I Want to be with Carrie’.” She was at her son’s house, planning her daughter’s funeral when she supposedly spoke these words and then died fifteen minutes later. Another article quoted Debbie Reynolds’ book, Unsinkable: “It’s not natural to outlive your child…This has always been my greatest fear. Too many mothers have lost their children, for thousands of different reasons. I don’t know if I could survive that.”

I could almost see a collective nodding in agreement from every person who has had a child die – understanding what it’s like to want to join your child following his or her death, and knowing that it’s not natural to outlive your child. In her column in the Washington Post, On Parenting, about Debbie Reynolds dying of a broken heart, Lexi Berndt writes, “Within the community of bereaved parents, there was a profound sense of understanding.” I understood.

One of the things that’s not talked much about following the death of a child is how difficult it is to go on living. Some experience physical difficulties. Some experience psychological difficulties. Some have a crisis of faith. Some parents have suicidal thoughts and want to die, even though they have never had a suicidal thought in their lives before. I don’t think many follow through, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cross their minds.

For me, early on, a thought would cross my mind once in a while, especially when I drove by the crash site (which all of us had to do nearly every day), how much I wished I could just drive in front of a big semi truck and die so I wouldn’t have to feel the overwhelming, crushing pain and grief of Jason’s death. It shocked me that I would even think such a thing! I had never had anything close to such a thought before in my life. Also, my doctor had prescribed sleeping pills for me and I very intentionally made sure i took one at night and put the bottle away so I wouldn’t take too many. I can’t lie – it was tempting at times to take the whole bottle so I wouldn’t feel such crushing pain any more. But, I intentionally chose to live.

Another article headline declared, “Broken heart syndrome is a real condition.” The article states: ” ‘It is a real disease,’ said Dr. David Winter, with Baylor Scott & White Health. ‘And we see this in tragic cases such as the Debbie Reynolds’ case…With a huge emotional outburst, stress hormones can go out in massive quantities to the blood…And in some people, more common in women, that can affect the heart…A sudden major stress to the body can cause a heart to stop, slow down, not pump effectively or even stop completely with a fatal irregular rhythm.’ ”

I believe it. I truly believe someone can die of a broken heart. My neighbor had a stroke following the death of her son. She didn’t die, but she’s never fully recovered from the stroke.

I know for sure that health can be impacted by deep grief following the death of a child. Research supports this fact. In his article, “Healing Your Body: Physical Practices for Mourners,” Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. writes:

When you are in mourning, you usually feel under-rested and overwhelmed. Your body is probably letting you know it feels distress. You may feel you have no strength left for your own basic needs, let alone the needs of others. Actually, one literal definition of the word “grievous” is “causing physical suffering.” Yes, right now your body is telling you it has, just like your heart, been “torn apart” and has some special needs!

Your body is so very wise. It will try to slow you down and invite you to authentically mourn the losses that touch your life. The emotions of grief are often experienced as bodily-felt energies. We mourn life losses from the inside out. In our experience as a physician and grief counselor, it is only when we care for ourselves physically that we can integrate our losses emotionally and spiritually. Allow us to introduce you to how your body attempts to slow you down and prepare you to mourn your life losses.

Among the most common physical responses to loss are trouble sleeping and low energy. It is so common we even have a fancy term for it-the “lethargy of grief.” You are probably finding that your normal sleep patterns have been thrown off. Perhaps you are having difficulty getting to sleep, but even more commonly, you may wake up early in the morning and have trouble getting back to sleep. During your grief journey your body needs more rest than usual. You may also find yourself getting tired more quickly-sometimes even at the start of the day.

Sleeping normally after a loss would be unusual. If you think about it, sleep is the primary way in which we release control. When you experience a life loss, you feel a great loss of control. At a subconscious level, you may notwant to lose any more control by sleeping. So sleep problems are very natural in the face of life losses.

Muscle aches and pains, shortness of breath, feelings of emptiness in your stomach, tightness in your throat or chest, digestive problems, sensitivity to noise, heart palpitations, queasiness, nausea, headaches, increased allergy symptoms, changes in appetite, weight loss or gain, agitation, and generalized tension-these are all ways your body may react to losses that you encounter in life.

The stress of grief can suppress your immune system and make you more vulnerable to physical problems. If you have a chronic existing health challenge, it may become worse. Right now you may not feel in control of how your body is responding. Your body is communicating with you about the special needsit has right now. Befriending and mindfully giving attention to your physical symptoms will allow you to discover your body’s native intelligence.

After Jason died, I felt like I had either a huge weight on my chest or a tight band around my chest, and this made it difficult for me to breathe. I started taking small, shallow breaths. It wasn’t until many months later that I realized that I was breathing shallowly and that my grief was affecting how I breathed, and I took steps to breathe more deeply so I could get adequate oxygen.

One thing I will say about the article that quotes Dr. Winter. At the end of the article, it quotes him as saying, “”To sit there and grieve and get very emotionally upset can be deleterious to you and can even cause sudden death.” When I read this, I pictured a person just sitting there and allowing (encouraging) herself to get overwrought and overworked with grief, beyond what she should have. I’m sure this happens, but it also, in my opinion, makes it sound like we have full control over grief and that we should not grieve or we should control our grief or not become “very emotionally upset.” This quote hit me as very condescending. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t feel like I had a lot of control over my grief for a long time, and I find this intimation that grief is controllable offensive. We need to make sure we allow people to grieve in a healthy manner and not encourage them to stuff it down.

Grief not only affects us emotionally. It affects us physically. To say that the death of a child breaks our hearts is more than just a trite saying. Jason’s death nearly killed me. Sometimes, as in the case of Debbie Reynolds, we can actually die of a broken heart.


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney


Articles quoted and additional reading:



This entry was posted in broken heart, Death of a child, Grief/Grieving, Health and tagged , , , by Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective. Bookmark the permalink.

About Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective

My name is Becky Carney. My husband, Joe, and I have been married for 44 years. We have two living children, Eric (41) and Jenna (36). We lost a baby in utero at 19 weeks in 1987. In 2002, our middle son, Jason (19), and his best friend, Alina (20), were broadsided by a drunk driver who was going at least twice the speed limit. They both died instantly. This blog is written from my perspective as a bereaved parent. I don't claim to know what it's like to walk in anyone else's shoes. Each situation is different; each person is different. Everyone handles grief differently. But if I can create any degree of understanding of what it's like to be a parent who has lost a child, then I have succeeded in my reason for writing this blog.

10 thoughts on “Yes, you can die of a broken heart

  1. Becky, thank-you for writing this.

    After Chris died, the pain was so great that I purposely stopped eating. To hurt myself made it better to cope. Now I understand why people cut themselves.

    There were so many people around me during the days following his death – no less than 300 – but no one seemed to know I needed medication. 4 months later I started having panic or anxiety attacks. My mind was racing in so many ways. It was scary. I thought I was going to lose my mind completely.

    My doctor gave me tranquilizers which turned everything around in less than 3 days.

    Your post cited so much practical advice and I know it will help many. I especially hope today’s Christians will realize that the grief of losing a child needs more than a prayer or a scripture.

    • Thank you for writing, Kathleen. I don’t think I’ve ever written or spoken of those thoughts before, exactly for the reason that people wouldn’t understand and I knew I would be judged , especially by Christians, for even having such self-harm thoughts crossing my mind.
      A year or so after Jason died, the son of a woman in our homeschool group died when he was struck by a train. About the only thing I heard people who knew her discussing was that she had started drinking too much. There was no discussion on how to actually help or support her – only judgment for drinking. I didn’t know her at all, so I didn’t say anything then (now I wish I had) , but I wrote an article in the homeschool newsletter about how to help the grieving.
      I, too, hope today’s Christians that we, as parents whose child has died, need so much more than a prayer or scripture.

      Hugs to you.

  2. 🙂 – This was a topic of conversation at my place of work last week. Someone scoffed and said, “You can’t die from a broken heart” – and I said, “Well, maybe so, maybe not, but after my son died, I sure wished I could, instead of living through the dealing with it.” – What was amazing to me, personally, was, I was able to hear their comment and make my reply, without an ounce of anger – guess I’ve healed quite a bit more than I thought I had. 🙂 Keep On Keeping On and happy New Year of a step further down the path for each of us. 🙂

  3. Rebecca I just happened upon your powerful blog and it’s amazingly beautiful tribute to your son Jason. Through deep pain you convey such love and respect for the human condition and life as it unfolds. God has given you the strength and ability to give of yourself in this way; such a gift. Thank you.
    The emotions are so palpable. I will carry some of your profoundly written words and thoughts in my heart. My prayers for you and your family moving ahead into this new year. Hugs

  4. I could relate to Debbie Reynolds’ heartache at losing her daughter Carrie. My darling Mum passed away the day after I arrived back in Australia after losing my daughter Danielle in Fiji. It was too much heartache for her to bear to lose her cherished granddaughter. I am sure Mum and Danielle are looking out for me and helping me through these terrible times. Much love to you Becky X Janice

  5. Reblogged this on A Rose in Heaven and commented:
    This post resonated with me, I have had chest pains since Fiona died and it’s hard to know whether to dismiss it as part of grief or see a doctor. Since running is part of my “therapy”, I am going to make an appt to make sure it’s safe for vigorous exercise. I definitely feel a part of me died with Fiona. The part that was normal, a competent parent, a capable employee, a good friend, a person of confident faith; that person was shattered when Fiona died, and has to be rebuilt with God’s help.

  6. It was only by chance that I too today came upon your blog Becky and so agree with all you have written.
    I know the grief you feel for your precious son Jason will be with you always. My son died of cancer just nine months ago and as I type this my raw grief envelopes me and feels as if it will kill me, the pain is so great.
    It is very true that many seem to think if we ‘keep busy’,’ stay strong’ and the one I find the most difficult is ‘Fraser wouldn’t want you to be unhappy’: as if we can just shrug away our grief and carry on as before. For those of us who have lost their beloved children, we know this is impossible. Somehow we have to learn to move along in our own way and in our own time, but forever changed.
    Thank you again for this article Becky.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s