Can You Die From A Broken Heart…

By Toni Lepeska

The tragic news of performer Debbie Reynold’s death the day after Carrie Fisher’s, her famous daughter, illustrates the tremendous stress grief puts on loved ones left behind.
People can indeed die of a broken heart.
According to a USA Today article, Reynold’s son said the stress of his sister’s death “was too much” for 84-year-old Reynolds. She reportedly suffered a stroke amid preparations for the funeral of the daughter who the world knows best as Princess Leia in Star Wars.
I don’t know what it is like to lose a child, but I’ve lost two parents and I know the bond that continues into adulthood. I remember falling to my knees when I found out my father died July 9, 2006. My emotional state impacted my physical state. My legs would not hold me up.
In the months that followed, I despaired of life at times. At night, after work, I put on music, like Josh Groban’s song Lullaby, and cried. My heart literally ached.
What is often the first reaction to grief – shock – protects us from the sucker punch of loss. We don’t believe our loved one is really gone. But then reality sets in, and with it the feeling that what was vital to our existence is gone forever. That’s extremely stressful.
While most people survive the initial news that a parent, a child, a brother or a friend has died, we all have heard stories of the ones who do not. The Huffington Post published an article this fall about a Texas couple, Leonard and Hazel Cherry, who were married 75 years and died the same day about nine hours apart. They’d been high school sweethearts. I recall reading a similar article in a local newspaper many months ago about a separate couple. A Google search also reveals several other incidents, one in Tennessee before Christmas, and others elsewhere.
According to the American Heart Association’s website,, “a real-life broken heart can actually lead to cardiac consequences.”
There’s even a name for the cardiac event – broken heart syndrome, or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The symptoms, according to the American Heart Association, are chest pain and shortness of breath. Though the symptoms are similar, it’s not the same as the typical heart attack. In a broken heart syndrome, there’s no evidence of blocked heart arteries.
No mention of a cardiac episode for Reynolds, who my mother enjoyed watching in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a video tape of which I found among my parents’ things. However, stress is a factor that plays a part in stroke as well as cardiac events like broken heart syndrome.
“Broken heart syndrome is a temporary heart condition that can be brought on by stressful situations like the death of a loved one,” said Dr. Arie Szatkowski, a cardiologist with Stern Cardiovascular and the cardiovascular medical director for Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto. “The best way to prevent any heart condition is to know your metrics to prevent a heart attack or stroke. Keeping your blood pressure at or below 120/80 and seeing your primary care provider or a cardiologist if your metrics are reading higher is the best prevention.”
Grief’s range of physical effects is familiar to the mourning. It’s well established that the death of someone close makes you more likely to get sick and suffer from an illness yourself. According to Dr. Szatkowski, stress hormones can cause other heart conditions. “In the death of a loved one,” he said, “get medical care if you have any signs of a heart condition such as chest pain, shortness of breath or irregular heartbeat.”
We may not be able to precisely predict who is susceptible to dying of grief but we can recognize the strain that loss puts people under. We can come alongside our friends and hold their hands and listen. We can recognize grief for the tremendously stressful event it is, and call, write and befriend the hurting. That may not be enough for everyone, but it will certainly ease some people’s pain.
If you’re the one who is hurting, I urge you to reach out to your doctor, counselor and best friends. Reach out to God. Don’t carry this pain alone.
Who will you reach out to this week? Will you be the one who eases someone’s pain?

Toni Lepeska is a Marshall County, Miss., resident and whose 27-year career in journalism includes more than a decade as an Olive Branch newspaper reporter. An aspiring author, she currently blogs about grief and the loss of parents at