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: