Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

An ABC World News tweet chat on the physical effects of grief

Posted Sep 14, 2015

Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News Chief Health/Medical Editor, Used with Permission from ABC World News
Source: Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News Chief Health/Medical Editor, Used with Permission from ABC World News

Nearly everyone has experienced the death of someone that they know and love. And for many, the loss is so overwhelming that they feel the physical effects of grief. For some, it may come in the form of an upset stomach, loss of appetite, sleepless nights or a prolonged headache. And yet for others, they feel a tightening in the chest, difficulty breathing and believe they are experiencing a heart attack. They may actually go to the emergency room. Their grief manifests itself in what some call "broken heart syndrome."  The Mayo Clinic defines it as this: "Broken heart syndrome may be caused by the heart's reaction to a surge of stress hormones. The condition may also be called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, apical ballooning syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy by doctors".

For myself, I didn't end up in the emergency room complaining of chest pain, but within days of my husband's funeral, I did find myself at a medical clinic. I was diagnosed with bronchitis, a double ear infection, and a sinus infection. In other words, I needed a medical intervention in the form of antibiotics. Although, I was only 33 at the time, and a distance runner, I still suffered from the physical effects of grief.

Over three years ago, I began to do research for my book, "A Widow's Guide to Healing."  I wanted to know and understand how other widows coped with grief, so I interviewed dozens of widows. Their age and financial, educational, and religious backgrounds varied. One widow named Julie, 34, said, "For about six months I had heart palpitations. Sometimes it felt like I was having a heart attack and other times my heart would beat out of my chest."

Another widow, Penny, 47, said, "At first after M (my husband) died, I was nervous and anxious all the time. I would be sitting and reading and find that my legs were shaking or that I had a queasy feeling in my stomach."

However, you don't have to be a widow to experience physical discomfort related to loss. In other words, no one is immune to this. After someone dies, close friends and family may also report experiences of physical effects of grief.  On September 15, 2015 at 1 PM Eastern, I will be joining Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News' Chief Health and Medical Editor, for a live tweet chat. We will be discussing the physical effects of grief, broken heart syndrome, and how to get help.

This video link explains how one can participate via Twitter.

Parts of this piece contain excerpts from Kristin Meekhof's  book "A Widow's Guide to Healing Gentle Suppport and Advice For The First 5 Years."  Real names were not used

 Used with Permission
Source: Sourcebook: Used with Permission

Kristin Meekhof is a licensed master's level clinical social worker. She is the co-author of the book, "A Widow's Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice For The First 5 Years." 

You can follow Dr. Richard Besser via Twitter here