Understanding Broken Heart Syndrome and the Physical Toll of Grief

An older woman looks at a black and white photo of a loved one as she manages the physical toll of grief.
The physical toll of grief is a lot for a person, especially a fragile senior, to bear.

In his documentary about grief, George Shelley uses an analogy of glitter. Toss a handful of glitter into the air, and it is going to settle into all the crevices and cracks of the room, impossible to fully sweep up and remove. Anyone who has lost a loved one can relate. Yet in certain instances, there can be a physical toll of grief so overwhelming that it could lead to a serious and aptly-named condition: broken heart syndrome.

Broken heart syndrome is a very real physical condition due to the intense stress experienced in certain kinds of grief (such as one spouse losing the other after decades of marriage). The medical term is takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a temporary enlargement of the heart that prevents it from pumping blood effectively.

And, it is more prevalent than you may know. A number of high-visibility examples include George H.W. Bush, who became ill following the loss of his wife of 73 years, and Johnny Cash, who passed away just four months after the loss of his wife.

Researchers have been analyzing the impact of grief on an individual’s physical health for years. In 1995, for example, the term “widowhood effect” was coined to describe the thirty percent increase in mortality rate faced by people who lost a longtime partner. Other scientists determined a connection between the immune system and grief. Some surviving spouses simply lose the will to live.

Help prevent this condition and ease the pain and physical toll of grief for someone you love with these suggestions.

  • Help the senior stay engaged in comforting, enjoyable activities as much as possible.
  • Suggest the person speak with a counselor to effectively work through overwhelming emotions.
  • Emphasize to the person everything they have to live for, and that doing so is the best way to honor the lost loved one’s legacy.
  • Provide a listening ear and encourage the senior to express their grief in a healthy way.
  • Make sure the senior is staying hydrated, eating healthy foods, and getting plenty of sleep.
  • Look for a grief support group for the person to attend, either in person or virtually.
  • Talk about the lost loved one, allowing the opportunity for shared memories and stories.

A trained caregiving companion from Heaven at Home Senior Care can also be a great way to help a senior who is grieving. We provide socialization and an abundance of opportunities for conversations and reminiscing, along with engaging activities, transportation wherever an older adult would like to go, and more. Contact us online or call us at 940-380-0500 in Denton or 972-245-1515 in Dallas for a free in-home consultation to find out more. Our team offers home care services in Argyle, University Park, Denton, and throughout North Central Texas.