The sudden death of the beloved Carrie Fisher certainly touched us all. And when it was announced that Carrie's mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, died just one day after her daughter, many assumed that it was in some part due to the physical effects of a sudden loss. In other words, that it was not a coincidence that Ms. Reynolds needed medical attention within 24 hours of her daughter's death.
Nearly everyone has experienced the death of someone they 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 some may feel a tightening in the chest, have 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 like 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." It also notes: "In rare cases, broken heart syndrome is fatal. However, most who experience broken heart syndrome quickly recover and don't have long-lasting effects."
For myself, when my husband died, I didn't end up in the emergency room complaining of chest pain, but within days of his 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 four 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. A 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. After someone dies, close friends and family may also report experiences of physical effects of grief. In an ABC News piece, Dr. Richard Besser says, "If you think you are having a heart attack after emotional stress, call 911, and keep broken heart syndrome in mind as a possibility. Your doctor will be able to do the evaluation to tell the difference."
In an ABC health and wellbeing piece, Dr. Angela Kucia is quoted as saying that other stressful situations can cause this syndrome to occur. "Some 'triggers'—such as damage to the home or an argument with a neighbor—may seem trivial, but in a susceptible person can cause the syndrome."
Parts of this piece contain excerpts from Kristin Meekhof's book, A Widow's Guide to Healing. Real names were not used.