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.

~Becky

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

 

Articles quoted and additional reading:

http://www.tmz.com/2016/12/28/debbie-reynolds-tmz-000/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/29/debbie-reynolds-said-outliving-daughter-carrie-fisher-greatest/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2016/12/30/debbie-reynolds-and-parent-grief-a-narrative-of-love/?utm_term=.cb25d66214e6

http://www.king5.com/news/health/yes-you-can-die-of-a-broken-heart/380451938

http://psychcentral.com/lib/your-health-and-grief/

http://griefwords.com/index.cgi?action=page&page=articles%2Fhealing_body.html&site_id=2

 

 

Two Weeks to Grieve

Below is a link to the most extensive and well-written article I have read concerning the proposed “bereavement exclusion” changes to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5. At the bottom of the article Dr. Caccitore gives excellent reasons why this should matter, along with a call to action. I strongly recommend reading it, along with the comments.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore: “DSM V and Ethical Relativism

My physical heart is okay

From my journal dated January 20, 2003:

Yesterday was an awful day. I woke up at about 5 a.m., and my heart was doing this weird, intense quivering thing. It lasted about a minute or so, and then I fell back to sleep. I woke up again at 5:30 a.m., and the entire left side of my head was numb – my lip, top and back of my head. Sort of that just-coming-out-of-Novacaine feeling. So weird!

It freaked me out! I’ve been so concerned about my heart. I’ve had pain of some kind in my chest practically since the accident. I know grief puts so much stress on the body. I’ve been worried my heart can’t handle all pain and stress.

I waited a little while to see if it went away, all the while assessing every ache and pain I was feeling to see if it was tied in somehow to the numbness. I didn’t know if I’d had a stroke or was on the verge of a heart attack or what it could be! Finally, I got up and took a long, hot shower. Thought it would relax me enough to figure out what was going on or to take away the numbness…plus, I would be ready to go to the emergency room, if needed.

Anyway, about 6:30 a.m., since the numbness wasn’t going away, we decided not to take any chances and headed to the emergency room at Evergreen. They put me in a room and hooked me up to a heart monitor. The ER doctor was really great – very thorough and asked lots of questions.

When she asked questions about breathing and commented about my body being “air starved,” I told her that sometimes I have to really concentrate on my breathing; otherwise, I breathe so shallowly. It’s like I breathe shallowly because it hurts too much to breathe deeply. It doesn’t really hurt my body; it hurts my broken heart. It’s hard to explain. I know I don’t breathe deeply enough and haven’t since the accident. I have to actually concentrate on getting enough air in my lungs. How strange that I have to actually make a conscious effort to breathe!

I told her that it’s hard to separate some of the symptoms, especially when it comes to my heart and pain in my chest. It’s hard to tell which ones might actually reflect something going on in my physical body and which ones are from my broken heart. She agreed. I told her that I think grief is really hard on the body, and she agreed again.

They monitored my heart for a while and then ran an EKG. My blood pressure was actually lower than it’s been in a while, and (other than an irregular heartbeat) everything else checked out okay. The diagnosis was heart palpitations and hyperventilation syndrome. At least I know my physical heart is okay. Can’t say the same about my broken heart.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

I Can’t Make Anything Change

From my journal dated December 14, 2002:

My kids have brought me so much joy – and I wouldn’t have traded that for anything! I love them so much! I want good for them! The flip side of that is now I’m in so much pain. This huge pain of losing Jason; the pain of seeing my precious girl suffering the loss of her brother and everything else that has broadsided her this year; the agony of watching Eric struggle so. We’re all struggling so much! I feel powerless to change anything. I can’t MAKE anything change!!

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

Can you die from a broken heart?

From my journal dated December 7, 2002:

Saturday again. Bright and sunny day outside.

Have to meet with my accounting group for school, but I have had such a hard time concentrating lately. Don’t know if it’s because of the whole trial thing, because of the holidays, or just because.

I have had this cough from something to do with my sinuses. Can’t seem to get rid of it. And then I’m so tired. Sometimes all I want to do is lie down and sleep. I start to watch a movie or TV, and just fall asleep. Sound asleep. People can move around or whatever, and it doesn’t even wake me up. It concerns me some, but it’s frustrating more than anything.

I am more certain than ever than grief is really hard on your body. I’m concerned that the grief I feel physically is particularly hard on my heart. I really and truly think you can die from a broken heart.

I just need to make sure I take care of myself. I need to be here for Jenna, for my family.

Deep grief takes a toll on your health

From my journal dated November 24, 2002:

I’ve been falling asleep at the drop of a hat. I’m so exhausted all the time. Sometimes it feels like I absolutely have to lie down; if I don’t lie down, I’ll fall down. I fall asleep watching TV or a movie or just sitting resting on the couch. People come and go around me, and I don’t even wake up. Jenna’s the same. She is so exhausted all the time.

I was getting really concerned about the pain in my chest. It was in the area of my heart and went down my arm. It sometimes feels like I have a huge wound from my left collarbone down to my abdomen. I find that I breathe really shallowly. It just hurts too much to breathe deeply.

I think I’ve come to the realization that my body compensates for the stress of grief and everything else we’ve had to deal with by making me feel like I need to sleep. It seems like, after I sleep, the pain in my chest lessens – at least for a while. I need to keep walking regularly. Maybe someday the pain in my chest will go away for good. I don’t know that the pain in my heart will ever really go away completely, though.

A new friend

From my journal dated September 26, 2002:

Mary Sutton called to ask about walking together sometimes. I was so glad to hear from her! I think I’ll take her up on it!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Notes:

Mary was a lifesaver for me! She asked me several times if I wanted to start walking with her on a regular basis before I took her up on it. It helped me so much in so many ways – it gave me something to look forward to; it gave us an activity to do together (since we really didn’t know each other very well at the time); it gave me some exercise, which I badly needed to relieve stress. Walking together built a basis over time for a friendship, one which I will always cherish. Relationships don’t happen automatically; they take time, but can be well worth the effort.

Mary, dear friend, you are always in my heart!!