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Widowhood

Broken Heart Syndrome: It Is a “Thing”

We have all seen the stories many times.

A couple who were married for decades die within days, hours or even minutes of one another. Siblings who enjoyed a deep bond throughout their lives pass away in shockingly close proximity to one another. A recent story tells of a gentleman who died less than 24 hours after his beloved 15-year old dog was euthanized due to cancer. I myself recall when a colleague’s husband passed away at a very young age after a battle with brain cancer…and the day after his funeral, his father suddenly passed away as well. 

Our collective reactions to these heartstring-tugging stories are largely similar. We either cluck sympathetically or pragmatically wonder at the marvel and mystery of “coincidence”.

However, a closer examination of many of these types of stories has yielded an emerging truth. Suffering from a “broken heart” after a loss is not necessarily a mere figure of speech meant to reference only emotional trauma. There exists an actual, serious physical affliction called Broken Heart Syndrome; an affliction that can unfortunately result in devastating consequences

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We are all aware of the effects that stress can have on our general health. When my late husband was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease seventeen years ago, I quickly went from being a vital, extremely active, healthy 38-year-old woman, to suffering a dramatic increase in the frequency and severity of once-periodic migraine headaches. My immune system also no longer had the ability to fight now-frequent cold and flu viruses. I was constantly sick. Most telling about the toll that overwhelming stress was taking was experiencing my first bout with shingles at the age of 39; a virus that once “awakened”, can recur throughout one’s life.

Given the obvious and very real impact that stress can have on a person’s body, shouldn’t it logically follow that severe emotional stress might physically impact the heart as well?

It should…but apparently, logic has taken time to catch up.

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Whether examined from medical or layperson standpoints, Broken Heart Syndrome makes a great deal of sense. Just as the rest of the body can be compromised by extraordinary stress, so too can the heart. The heart is just as capable of going into “shock” as the rest of the body – except when a heart goes into shock, it is referred to as “cardiac arrest”.  The unfortunate part is that too many people (especially women) either assume that potential cardiac symptoms are due to something else (indigestion, food poisoning, flu, fatigue, a bad day, etc.) and self-medicate accordingly or they simply ignore the symptoms altogether. In fact, it is only in recent years that the medical community acknowledged and now educates that cardiac symptoms in women can manifest much differently than in men – and that those symptoms can again vary widely from woman to woman.

Further, and in a sad double-down on a situation with a potentially tragic outcome, many who may be suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome may also be surrounded by people with dismissive or less-than-enlightened attitudes…people who say things like, “You just need to get over it” or “It’s all in your head” or any similar phrase that trivializes someone else’s pain. The problem here is two-fold – first, we know that emotional trauma can have serious physical effects. Worse, the person who is being told to “Get over it” or “It’s about time you stopped crying” may then ignore any physical symptoms, convincing herself instead that “It’s obviously ‘all in my head’ because someone told me ‘it’s all in my head’ ”. 

Now, if you do not experience any physical symptoms or issues after a loss or trauma, does it mean that your heart isn’t “broken”? Of course not. Your heart, your spirit, your soul and your psyche are most definitely “broken” in the emotional sense – dramatic physical events, afflictions or infirmities are not prerequisites to experiencing the anguish of raw grief. However, what can no longer be ignored, trivialized or swept under a carpet is this:

Broken Heart Syndrome is real. It is a “thing”…and it is a “thing” that has the potential to kill.

You must remember that a symptom – any symptom – is simply your body trying to tell you something – and it is your obligation to listen to what your body is telling you. Therefore, in addition to any potential cardiac symptoms, you must immediately contact your doctor (or 911 and/or your local emergency room) if you experience any of the following:

*  Dizziness

*  Heart palpitations or arrhythmia

*  Chest pain and/or severe upper or middle-back pain

*  Headaches

*  Nausea/vomiting

*  Fatigue (to the point that you are unable to work or otherwise function normally)

*  Digestive problems or any inability to properly assimilate food

*  Inability to sleep

*  Hair loss

*  Serious loss of or unusual increase in appetite

*  Sudden/rapid weight loss or weight gain

*  Fear/anxiety (that interferes with or prevents adequate nutrition, rest and ability to

function)

*  Feelings of hopelessness or despair

*  Suicidal ideation

ANY other symptom(s) that appear suddenly and you know to be atypical for you.

Please do not ever ignore any symptoms that you experience post-trauma, be they physical, emotional or mental. Do not be embarrassed to acknowledge and/or share your symptoms. Do not try to convince yourself that, “this too will pass; it’s all in my head”.  Do not let anyone around you trivialize or minimize what you are feeling or tell you that yours is simply a “get over it” situation.

Broken Heart Syndrome is real. It is a “thing”.

If you need help or someone you know needs help, please reach out for help.

Right now.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  You do not have to suffer through loss or life-challenge alone.  If you are in need of help in coping with loss of any kind, please do not hesitate to seek help from your doctor, a cleric, a mental health professional or anyone who is in a position to help you (including 911 and/or your local emergency room). 

Carole Brody Fleet is the multi-award-winning author of, “Happily EVEN After…” (Viva Editions) winner of the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award and the national bestseller, “Widows Wear Stilettos…”(New Horizon Press). Ms. Fleet is featured on numerous television shows and regularly appears as a media expert on numerous radio programs nationally and internationally; as well as in national and international print media. Her third book will be released in September, 2015.  To learn more about Carole Brody Fleet and Widows Wear Stilettos, please visit www.widowswearstilettos.com and www.carolefleetspeaker.com.