Grief is a powerful force. When two people have remained married for many years, their lives have become more like one congruent life than two separate paths. When that bond is severed by death, the surviving spouse is bereaved, feeling as if he or she has been abandoned in this life, with the person’s greatest human connection to this world gone.
According to research, many left behind spouses will also pass away within six months, and many will pass away sooner than that. The reality of this phenomenon points to just how strong love is, persisting unto death. Caregivers have a significant role in preparing their patients for this eventuality and helping them through it when it occurs.
The Broken Heart Syndrome
When looking at what actually causes left behind spouses to pass away so soon after their spouses die, researchers find there is often a diagnosable medical reason behind it. Yet could there be a deeper, more profound reason behind that one? According to the American Heart Association, there is. The Broken Heart Syndrome is a very real condition; it is also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy and can occur in even the healthiest of individuals. The heart temporarily enlarges and can have arrhythmias. It just doesn’t pump well, and this can lead to heart failure even without the usual arterial blockages associated with heart attacks. Since elderly people commonly have other health complications, those reasons are usually ascribed as the cause of death, but the rate at which the bereaved follow their spouses into eternity is undeniably significant.
…for many older people adjusting to a new routine isn’t easy.
Bereavement at its Worst
The six month mark is important when charting grief. When looking at grief as a whole in all scenarios, and particularly when spouses have lost their partners to terminal illness at any age, the first six months are the hardest to get through. Pain is triggered by seeing the loved one’s belongings still hanging in the closet. Catching a scent of the loved one on the pillowcase can set off sorrow and longing. As the bereaved person begins to move forward in time, beyond the funeral and handling of affairs, things finally begin to settle into a new routine. Yet for many older people adjusting to a new routine isn’t easy. This time frame between the initial bereavement and six months forces the surviving spouse to process everything that just happened. It is a truly difficult time from which some never recover.
According to researchers writing in the journal Palliative Medicine, observational grief symptoms were the worst at six months, the lowest at the one year mark, significantly higher at eighteen months, and then the lowest at the two year mark. When looking further into the matter at what the contributing factors to the severity of grief were, they noticed that caregivers played an important role in decreasing overall bereavement symptoms.
The Role of the Caregiver
Within the same study, researchers suggested that by facilitating preparedness for the approaching inevitability of death, survivors were better prepared to handle the grief, and thereby depressive symptoms were alleviated over the course of the entire two years. When support was given before the loved one passed away, subjects reported fewer depressive symptoms.
Caregivers can encourage the learning of new tasks…
Caregivers who step into this role should have some training when it comes to what to say and what not to say as well as the ability to identify signs of prolonged grief. A caregiver can help with the loss of independence that often comes with losing a lifelong partner too. Caregivers can encourage the learning of new tasks to fuel the notion of still having a purpose and a role in this life. They can also provide companionship to help with loneliness.
Grief is a very personal journey. When the biggest source of support is no longer there, it is common to become stuck in loss. It is a time in our lives when we truly need support from others. Without it, the Broken Heart Syndrome may prevail.
Yet as difficult as it is to watch loved ones pass away within months of one another, there is something sweet and endearing about it too. Survivors can take comfort from the fact that the bereaved spouse literally died for love.
Tsai Wei-I, Prigerson, Holly G., Li, Chung-Yi, Chou, Wen-Chi, Kuo, Su-Ching, Tang, Siew Tzuh. (August 26, 2015). Longitudinal Changes and Predictors of Prolonged Grief for Bereaved Family Caregivers Over the First 2 Years after the Terminally Ill Cancer Patient’s Death. Palliative Medicine. European Association of Palliative Care. Available at http://pmj.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/08/21/0269216315603261.abstract. Last Visited February 27, 2016.
American Heart Association. (2015). Is Broken Heart Syndrome Real? Available at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/Cardiomyopathy/Is-Broken-Heart-Syndrome-Real_UCM_448547_Article.jsp#.VtHPpPkrJhE. Last Visited February 27, 2016.