WE’VE all heard of songs and stories about broken hearts and the suffering that comes with it. We often think of it in romantic terms because we’ve read books, seen movies and heard stories about relatives or friends.
The examples are usually about devoted spouses or star-crossed ill-fated lovers, where one dies and the other follows soon after, within hours, days or weeks.
Remember the saying that “fact is stranger than fiction”? A broken heart, also known as heartbreak or heartache, has always been thought to be a metaphor for intense emotional (and sometimes physical) pain; so intense that it can physically damage the heart and cause death.
Broken heart syndrome isn’t just about the thought of missing someone because he or she died. It’s not just in the mind. It’s physical and it’s real. People have been known to die because of it.
There are many studies and evidence that show it’s possible to die of a broken heart, and this doesn’t just happen between couples. It has been known to happen between parents and child, and vice versa.
The story about the death of Hollywood actress Debbie Reynolds after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, of Star Wars fame passed away comes to mind. This mother and daughter were so close to each other that when one died, the other pined for her until she too died soon after. While there’s been no evidence as to the cause of death, it’s typical of death by broken heart for two people who love each other to die in a short proximity of time.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has written about the “broken heart syndrome”, also known as “stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy” that can strike even if you’re healthy.
You can experience all the symptoms of a heart attack like chest pain and shortness of breath even if you don’t have any history of heart disease.
According to the association, “Broken heart syndrome may be misdiagnosed as a heart attack because the symptoms and test results are similar. In fact, tests show dramatic changes in rhythm and blood substances that are typical of a heart attack. But unlike a heart attack, there’s no evidence of blocked heart arteries in broken heart syndrome.”
The good news is that it’s treatable. Most people can make a full recovery within days or weeks unlike a heart attack that can take months to recover.
Healing from a broken heart, however, is sometimes not so straightforward for some people. Depending on the circumstances, a person’s health — physically and mentally — can deteriorate depending on the situation. They may need help and counselling. Inconsolable sadness, depression and dementia can trigger the broken heart syndrome.
Here’s a story about a widow, Madam A, who has three children who had emigrated to different parts of the world.
For years, this arrangement was never a problem as she was strong and independent. She had her job and her circle of friends. She was happy to travel to visit her children and enjoyed it when they came home for the holidays and festivities.
It was only when her health started to deteriorate that the problems surfaced. She became dependent on other people to care for her. She couldn’t live on her own anymore. Her children initially employed a maid to care for her.
As time went by, it became challenging for just one person to take care of her. So they hired a private nurse to help. By then, dementia had set in and caring for Madam A became tough. She couldn’t get along with anyone and kept dismissing and chasing away her nurses. Soon, the children couldn’t find anyone to stay at home to care for their mum.
They couldn’t bring their mother to live with them, so they found a nursing home that would take her in.
In her more lucid moments, Madam A understood what was happening and fell into depression. Her health deteriorated. She became inconsolable and within weeks of being at the nursing home, died. Only one of the three children could make it back on time when informed of their mother’s failing health.
In another case, Madam B, who also suffered from dementia, believed that her children sent her to a nursing home when actually her room was being renovated and redecorated.
While everything else in the house remained the same, the lack of familiar things in her room caused her to believe otherwise.
Lack of trust and paranoia are some of the features of dementia and Alzheimer’s. In this case, she believed that her children had abandoned her and fell into deep, inconsolable depression that finally ended her life. She was heartbroken.
As caregivers, we have to be alert to some of these telltale warning signs. We often think in terms of what’s best for them, but sometimes that’s just not what they want.